• Friday, July 12, 2024
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BusinessDay

Foreign providers and university education in Nigeria

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Nigeria has a huge un-met demand for higher education. Only 15 per cent of students who sat for the recent Joint Matriculation Examination were offered university admissions. Another quarter of a million secondary school graduates will join the nearly 800,000 who failed to gain admissions this year.

Nigeria’s young population and rapidly expanding school enrollment means that demand for university spaces is destined to grow further. While the proportion of the population classified as poor has risen higher than three decades ago, there has also been an explosion in the number of prosperous Nigerians who can now afford to pay for higher education. They have been the target of spirited recruitment efforts by all manner of foreign universities, from Britain and North America, as well as from former East Bloc and South and South-East Asian countries.

The global keen interest about highly motivated Nigerian students has not elicited much interest in Nigeria opening itself to foreign providers to soak up the staggering unfulfilled demand for university education here in Nigeria. The time has come for partnerships public and/or private Nigerian universities and foreign providers. They could also be encouraged to establish branch campuses here in Nigeria.

India provides a good case study with several lessons for Nigeria of the advantages and challenges of foreign provision of higher education. So far, much of its foreign provision is through partnerships. A 2008 study identified 641 programs enrolling about 40,000 students through partnerships between 143 Indian and 161 foreign providers with two-thirds of the Indian partners being private players many of them unattached to any Indian university.

India has also benefited from the globalization of high-end research enterprise in that several universities from the advanced nations have long and enduring research partnerships with the Indian universities. Some foreign universities have Indian outposts to provide Indian experience to their home students. In addition, India is the second largest source of international students and its gap with China that sends the highest numbers is closing.

Thus, unlike Nigeria, Indian higher education has been globally well-connected since the 1990s when the first foreign providers set up shop. Without an internationalization policy, India was confronted with concerns of gross commercialization and fraud by foreign providers, prompting a need to regulate their operations. Unllike Nigeria’s, Indian higher education authorities soon realized that foreign providers could add much needed capacity and rejuvenate the domestic provision through enhanced choices, increased competition and internationally benchmarked quality.

A law on foreign providers of higher education is finally about to be passed in Parliament. In the interim, domestic private provision grew rapidly and, yet again, raising concerns of their falling standards and unscrupulous operations. The current law seeks to effectively prevent entry of fly-by-night foreign operators, facilitate entry of the world’s best universities and keep the emerging realities of the country’s domestic sector in mind.

The new law is inevitably controversial, but it addresses many concerns raised by interested foreign universities. It exempts them from fee regulations and quotas in admissions, but subjects them to domestic regulators on matters of minimum standards, accreditation, and the government retaining its right to reject proposals on grounds of national security and sovereignty. Once registered, it will not be easy for the government to revoke it and the focus is clearly on transparency. This law provides a clear and consistent regulatory regime for entry and operation of foreign providers in India.

Nigeria should explore the changes taking place in India. A few partners are already on the ground; others are gearing up to explore the huge market for Nigerian students. A good example is the Mountcrest University College, Larteh near Accra, Ghana. One of Ghana’s newest universities affiliated to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, it seeks to bring to Nigeria its innovative academic programmes and instructional delivery. Essentially, its view is that the university should go where the students are and not the other way around.

As other universities follow in Mountcrest University’s footsteps, we need laws and measures to safeguard the interest of students and employees if the institution winds up its operations on its own or asked to exit for violating Nigerian laws. We must also work out acceptable policies on the foreign universities sending back their earnings home. Finally, we must act now to forestall any ambiguities that could surround degrees/diplomas offered through a variety of partnerships in place of full-fledged branch campuses. The Indian experience shows that existing foreign provision has been mainly through partnerships; this is likely to be the most popular way for entry and operation of foreign universities in Nigeria in the future.

While, few foreign universities may set up their full-fledged branch campuses in Nigeria in the long-run, the few that come have the potential to shake the system and enhance choice, increase competition and bring in internationally benchmarked quality to the Indian shores.