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Could Nigeria be exempt from IELTS?

Since the beginning of this year, pressure has been building on the IELTS examination in Nigeria. A petition to abolish requirements for the test has reached nearly 75,000 signatures and prompted an official response from the UK Home Office.

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As the official language of the country, it should come as no surprise that Nigeria has very strong English proficiency

The dissatisfaction of potential Nigerian students is understandable. As the country with the third highest English proficiency in Africa, and a country that uses English as the Lingua Franca, there is strong ground for protesters to stand on.

Exempting Nigeria from IELTS would however have a plethora of implications, ranging from equity issues across other countries required to take the tests, to the financials of the organisations responsible for administering IELTS.

The petition was started at the end of last year by Policy Shapers, a Nigerian youth-led policy advocacy group. The founder, Ebenezar Wikina, started the petition after an online university in the US requested proof of his English proficiency. The experience led him to challenge the existing requirements for Nigerians to sit IELTS exams, an endeavour that has attracted support from across Nigeria.

The petition has reached the ears of the UK Home Office, which has stated in response that it does not have the required evidence to prove the majority of people in Nigeria speak English (more than 51%) as their first language. Given the Home Office response, there seems little chance of Policy Shapers winning their challenge, but it does offer a chance to consider the purpose of language proficiency testing for university enrolment.

Nigeria’s strong English proficiency

At the core of the matter is language ability and fair treatment. As the official language of the country, it should come as no surprise that Nigeria has very strong English proficiency, regardless of whether all Nigerians speak it as a first language.

In the most recent EF English Proficiency country ranking, Nigeria was not only third in Africa after only South Africa and Kenya, but notably 29th globally. That placed it above European countries including France and Spain. It was not however one of the 13 countries within the ‘very high proficiency’ band, falling instead into the ‘high proficiency’ category.

IELTS data from 2019 shows that Nigeria is indeed one of the strongest countries participating in the test. Ranked according to the proportion of candidates scoring above 6.5, the requirement of most UK universities, Nigeria ranks eighth of 41 countries. While it drops slightly at the highest marks (8 and above), it never falls below 13th place.

Yet the UK rules are not only concerned about the standard of spoken English, but rather how many speak English as their first language. Data from Statista suggests that English is only the third most widely spoken first language after Hausa and Yoruba, and that those who do represent 12% of the population – well shy of the 51% requirement set by the Home Office.

How about other high proficiency countries?

Some countries are indeed exempt from the rules. Exemptions are based on the UKVI list of countries recognised as majority English speaker countries. To be included on this list, high proficiency and even co-official language status is not enough.

The EF rankings show clearly that countries with English as an official language are not necessarily home to the most proficient speakers. None of the top three countries – the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark – use English as an official language. On the EF scale where 700 is the highest possible score, these three countries have nearly 100 more points than Nigeria. Prospective students from these countries are expected to take proficiency assessments, just like Nigerian applicants. Nigeria is thus in the same boat as other countries with excellent English such as the Philippines and South Africa.

Not just a visa matter

One could of course argue that the IELTS test is not just assessing the ability of study visa applicants to converse in English. It plays a key role in proving potential international students in the UK can use English critically.  It is one thing to speak a language well and another to effectively use it in an academic setting.

We should however not forget that when it comes to student recruitment, the English Proficiency tests are first and foremost a requirement for university admission. In many cases a student would indirectly require IELTS or an equivalent for their study visa, because most UK universities require proof of English proficiency, and admission to a university is a prerequisite for the visa.

It is of course harder for Nigerians to target their frustrations at the UK HE sector as a whole compared to the Home Office. Each university is an independent entity and sets their own entry requirements. While the government can rely on FCDO for up-to-date data on every country, not every university has the resources to fully understand the markets of each country sending students to them.

“Why charge citizens of the poorest region in the world up to $300 to test their proficiency in a language they speak every day?”

That said, one would hope that the international offices of UK universities were aware of key information for the UK’s third largest market.

Money problems

Policy Shapers’ Wikina posed a damning question in a blog post explaining the motives of the petition: “The simple question is, why charge citizens of the poorest region in the world up to $300 to test their proficiency in a language they speak every day?” Nigerians increasingly suspect IELTS as a cash cow, one that adds a deal breaking financial barrier to students while filling the pockets of the UK.

How much then is IELTS revenue worth to the organisations running it and what would happen if they were to lose Nigerian IELTS revenue?

The 2020/21 annual report and accounts of the British Council highlight just how important the examinations business is to their finances. Before the pandemic forced the IELTS business to shrink, teaching and exams were worth £724 million to the British Council, over half of its total income.

This would perhaps appear to support the views of critics in Nigeria. The pandemic however proved that British Council is reliant on that income to stay afloat. As exams revenue fell by nearly 40% it was forced to request financial aid and severely restricted financial activity. Repayments on the survival loan FCDO provided to British Council will now mean the organisation must raise even more in the coming years to service the debt, in turn increasing the importance of exam revenue.

Considering the financials, losing the third largest source of students to the UK is hardly appealing. This comes as the inevitable slowdown in enrolment from China, the largest market for the UK, begins to show its head.

An exemption for Nigeria would inevitably lead to other countries with excellent English to call for an end to IELTS requirements. That would likely include India, the second largest source of students to the UK.

Assessing the assessments

Even if the petition is unlikely to bring any change to language test requirements, it raises difficult questions for international student recruitment. At a time when the HE sector strives to be more equitable, the very systems that facilitate mobility may be inequitable barriers. Yet addressing these imbalances would require a major restructuring of how English proficiency is assessed, a process that the assessors are in no position to carry out.

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