Global Student Mobility: The Stimulant for Economic Growth in Nigeria

Abiola Sulaiman

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation with approximately 180 million people and an annual population growth rate of 3.5 per cent, finds itself in a pivotal position with an upcoming national election (recently postponed to March). The Nigerian electorate is standing in the eyes of the world, symbolized by the United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Lagos. Kerry emphasized Nigeria as having “a critical role to play in the security and prosperity of [Africa] and beyond.” As evidence by how tightly-contested this electoral race has been, Nigerians are concerned about the future of the nation’s security and economy and are hopeful that this time, Nigeria might just “get it right.”

The Nigerian general election is set to take place on March 28th between President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressive Congress coalition (APC) led by candidate Muhammadu Buhari. As it approaches, there are many economic, political, and social issues of concern: from easing religious and regional violence, to the longstanding issue of corruption in its oil and gas industry, and mistrust of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Nigeria’s electoral watchdog.

Paramount among these issues is the fact that the Nigerian economy lacks versatility, signifying a potential for problems in the future as it relates to long-term economic sustainability. The nation’s economy is dependent on trade in three key areas: the service, agricultural, and oil sectors. As the United States — its top oil trading partner — gradually becomes more self-sufficient due largely to the growth in U.S. shale oil production, Nigeria will need to become proactive and innovate beyond those three sectors in order to foster sustainable development.

One of the many roles higher education plays is that of equipping graduates with skills and integrating them into the economy to guide an upward trajectory in economic growth. However, a major issue in Nigeria — where 62.5 per cent of its population is under the age of 24 — is how to deal with the gradually increasing demand to pursue higher education when there is a steeply decreasing admission rate (47,496 enrolments out of 1,054,078 applicants in 2007), as well as funding and infrastructural deficiencies. This demand comes from a notably high correlation between knowledge acquisition and quality of life in Nigeria.

In order to emerge as a true economic power outside of Africa’s borders, and to harness economic growth to the benefit of all, the new Nigerian government must make a concerted effort to prioritize the youth population in the policy-making process by establishing conditions that will promote innovation in the knowledge-economy. The current state of enrolment in the Nigerian higher education system is one indicator that demonstrates why its national and capital development efforts are below par in comparison to the newly industrialized nations of the 21st century, such as China, Brazil, or India.

Given the glaring deficiencies in Nigeria’s “overloaded education system,” the newly elected government must invest in international educational mobility — the international flow and mobility of academics in and out of Nigeria — beginning with those who were recent losers of the Nigerian higher education sweepstakes. In addition to local economic benefits, an international higher education mobility strategy could help to improve foreign relations and to build new economic partnerships. It is possible that the Nigerian government has been reluctant to invest in such a strategy so far due to a fear of “brain drain” (that it would see a deficit of high-quality experts coming back to Nigeria); however, this is a risk that it must be willing to take in seeking the benefits of a globalized education sector.

China and India offer two models that Nigerian policy-makers could study and emulate when it comes to how these countries have managed an upsurge of demand in higher education, while at the same time being burdened with an underdeveloped higher education system. The Chinese government, for example, has made it a point to devise specific policies “promulgat[ing] the guidelines for students and scholars studying abroad.” Based on forecasts of population growth that have Nigeria reaching higher levels than the likes of India and China this century, the African nation will also likely experience the highest growth rate of applicants to higher education. There has never been a more pressing need to address this gap in the government’s policy agenda.

Nigeria’s solution to becoming a multi-faceted economy and improving the quality of life of its citizens – and at present, particularly those of its youth – lies in the ability of its students to explore educational opportunities outside of the nation’s borders. It is important for Nigerians to bring new information and technology back home to innovate the local economy and to turn it into a knowledge-based economy, a common characteristic among modern economies. In order for this to occur, the effort must be spearheaded by governmental support no matter who is elected next month.

Abiola Sulaiman is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. Prior to being admitted into the MPP program, he earned a Bachelor of Health Studies at York University, where he specialized in health policy analysis and the social determinants of health. Abiola continues to focus on issues surrounding health care policy in Canada, but also has interests in areas of international relations, immigration, and urban policy.