I was at a meeting with the Nigerian High Commissioner His Excellency, Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida before he delivered his lecture on the role of UK universities in developing the skills of Nigerian graduates. That’s Professor Ezendu of the University of Bedfordshire, Luton to his right (mind you he did not introduce himself or even name his department. I only managed to get his name by straining my eyes to see the restless ID card hanging down from his neck). An NTA reporter, a woman of average height, sat idly behind us, awaiting her opportunity to interview students on Presidential Scholarships (the 2015 elections campaigns have started).
Personally, I wish Ambassador Dalhatu wouldn’t be addressing such topic: the role of UK universities in helping Nigeria develop her manpower is already obvious. What I think he should rather address critically is the self-defeating system the Nigerian government has evolved and sustained on the issue of training her graduates or undergraduates in the UK and other developed countries. Yes we’re training many young people on scholarships: Presidency Scholarships, the Niger-Delta Scholarships, Education Trust Funds, Petroleum Trust Development Fund including all the shady, unpublicised government scholarships etc. But then, after the training what next? What deliberate provisions are there for those who have been sponsored by the government to be reintegrated back into the Nigerian government projects?
While spending billions on our undergraduate and postgraduate students is commendable, we as a country do not appear to have an overall strategy in place to exploit the opportunity we are pouring our oil money into. Most of the time, the schooling or training in the UK only improve the life and prospects of the recipients without any direct value to Nigeria as a country. I usually chat with scholarships students from the Niger Delta. For example, not a few students from the oil rich Niger Delta are studying environmental science-related courses, which is commendable and relevant considering the long-standing humanitarian crises affecting their region due to environmental pollution caused by the exploitation of crude oil. But when I ask what arrangements are there for them to apply their newly acquired skills back home, the typical reply is “There’s no project they’re bringing us back into. I’m even considering moving to Canada after my programme”. Consequently, apart from self-sponsored individuals who desire to find green pastures in developed countries, the Nigerian government is making a major contribution to the problem of brain drain through her scholarships.
Expectedly, the Ambassador, in his lecture urged Nigerian students to return home to contribute to their country. But the fact is, except for hardened, unrepentant entrepreneurs who may be bent on returning to Nigeria to start their businesses, typical professionals who are more oriented to providing services for which they earn salaries would find it easier to either remain in the UK where job prospects are high or move to another developed country like Canada that is keen on attracting bright professionals. But then, the courses for which most people get sponsorships are tailored towards imparting service-based professional skills, rather than entrepreneurial or business start-up skills. Hence, since the prospects of getting decent jobs in Nigeria are low, what urge is there to want to return?
Apart from the unemployment crisis in Nigeria, the financial gains that accrue to students on the Nigerian government scholarships dulls that sense of returning home. The following scenario will help you have a better idea of the picture I’m trying to illustrate. A typical government-sponsored person earns £1000 (275,000 naira) on the average in maintenance allowance every month; and if we add earnings from part-time jobs, s/he may as well have a monthly income to the tune of £1700 (450,000 naira); and that income continues flowing in for a couple of years or more depending on the duration of the programme. Therefore, when such sponsored student considers the hardship of looking for a job back home, plus the fact that even when they eventually got the job, it may not pay anything close to what they were getting as students; then the easy alternative is to not go back to Nigeria.
Moreover, even when government-sponsored individuals move back to Nigeria, they may not get a job that match their skills; hence the Nigerian system would still gain very little (if not nothing) as returns on both the scholarship awarded and the skills acquired. This problem of eventually taking a job that do not match the skills that have been acquired in the UK or other “abroad” destinations is partly due to the fact that merely having a postgraduate qualification from the UK does not necessarily confer a competitive advantage in Nigeria’s labour market. Dr Dalhatu rightly pointed out that there is no other country in the world like Nigeria; because in Nigeria everyone wants to have a degree! And already, there are a lot of Nigerians with UK, US, European and Australian and other overseas degrees, but still struggling to get a job or get on the right job. Unlike in Nigeria, overseas qualification can greatly improve the prospect of a Ugandan or Zambian getting a high salary job and can in fact make all the difference. This is never the case in the 21st century Nigeria where overseas qualifications are common.
Perhaps I need to reiterate what I’m NOT saying in this essay. I am not blaming individuals sponsored by the government for remaining in green pastures after their academic pursuits or for whatever they choose to do with their lives. I am also not discouraging government scholarships. All I want to point out are why we, as a country, do not see a development that is commensurate with our investment in overseas education; how our government contributes to the aimless dispersal of her human resources; and how we can help ourselves by evolving a cohesive ideology that can help us take advantage of our educational tourism in developed economies.
What is the essence of educating our young, talented workforce in developed countries without organising them around key national projects only for countries like the UK, the US and Canada to retain them? For now, what we are doing as a country is investing in overseas education for the sake of overseas education. Giving people the opportunity of overseas education should not just be for political reasons or compensatory purposes (i.e. so that people could also have a share of the national cake that is baked in their geopolitical backyard). Studying “abroad” is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. But we must define that end. So what should we be doing?
We must define key developmental priorities, stick to them irrespective of which party is in power, and build our workforce around those priorities. Affordable housing, for example, is key a developmental initiative that will not only provide better shelter for the average Nigerian, but also improve the public’s health (e.g. reduction in malaria, cholera, and typhoid). So, we can sponsor people to learn how to produce cost-effective building/construction materials and the use of those materials for building affordable housing. Then we can design and implement a national project of building affordable and decent housing for the masses in cities, slums and rural areas. As a result, those who have been sponsored to acquire the skills from China or wherever will be used to run the affordable housing project and we won’t be needing Chinese companies to dominate that aspect of our economy. And as we stay on that project through the years, its contribution to national development will be obvious.
Again, we need to give a strong preference to sponsoring Nigerian youths to acquire skills that will lead to direct creation of jobs; rather than skills that will lead add more job seekers to the market. Awarding scholarships for people to acquire entrepreneurial skills, in my opinion, is better than sponsoring a doctorate or professional degree in project management. During his lecture, Dr Dalhatu rightly noted that rather spending a lot of money on sponsoring students to study abroad, we can have partnerships with UK universities to train lecturers who can then teach students back in Nigeria. This is exactly what should apply to courses that can be taught effectively in Nigerian Universities and for which there is no need to lavish our money on.
In conclusion, the Nigerian government must devise means of exploiting maximally her huge investment in overseas education. Currently, Nigeria has massive human resources which it is benefiting little from, because they are dispersed all over the world. To achieve meaningful progress, we must learn to hold our own.