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Exclusive interview: why Nigeria will be next for bilateral education agreement with UK

The PIE exclusively interviewed Sir Steve Smith, UK government International Education Champion; His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, UK high commissioner for Nigeria; and Rupert Daniels, director of Creative, Lifestyle and Learning at the Department for International Trade at the UK House Business Hub Education Summit as part of the Commonwealth Games 2022.

The PIE: Lord Bilimoria CBE has talked many times about setting a new target of hosting one million international students annually in the UK by 2030. How do you feel about that? 

Sir Steve Smith: I worked for 18 years as a vice chancellor [at the University of Exeter] and as a vice chancellor you were focused on student numbers. [The UK] could go on a very aggressive student recruitment strategy and that might pay dividends in terms of numbers, but in the long run, the international education strategy is a carefully thought out document which is about the future pattern of UK educational links. Getting more [in-bound] students in the short term is one thing but that’s not what the international education strategy is about, nor is it what the country or the world needs.

[It is useful to point out that] I didn’t write the international education strategy, these talented people [at the Department for International Trade] did. We’ve got tiers of countries that we’re working through and I think in the long run the UK will be linked to Nigeria in a very deep way. It’s not about coverage, it’s about building partnerships.

When we sit and talk to [His Excellency] the high commissioner and chief adviser to the president of Nigeria, it’s all about understanding Nigeria’s long-term goals. Our job is to work out how the strategy can link with those long-term goals through partnership, because it’s only partnerships that will last the 50-year time frame [we are focusing on]. That is the steer I’ve been given in my role, we want to build deeper relationships.

“When I look at the transnational education numbers, that’s an unwritten story”

The international strategy may result in more [in-bound] student numbers, but as Rupert [Daniels] commented [on stage] maybe with Australia, New Zealand, Canada in competition – the markets that The PIE covers – there’s a potential that our numbers may not hit where we want them to be.

But when I look at the transnational education numbers, that’s an unwritten story. TNE in Britain went from 440,000 to 510,000 because students wanted a British education in a way that they could afford, delivered in their home country. That’s why we’re talking to the Nigerian government about TNE. That’s a partnership for them and for us [that is mutually beneficial].

Rupert Daniels: We are often too focused [as a sector] on the HE number. It’s about delivering all levels of education and with the digital divide coming down somewhat in the pandemic, we’re now able to deliver a good education, whether that comes from academics in the UK or academics in Nigeria, we’ve now got the ability to reach much more of the population in a more accessible way.

A good example in the sectors I look after is the creative industries. Our recent visit to Nigeria was really interesting because we had almost two separate experiences. In the first part, we were talking with the minister of education and the president’s office and the chief of staff in Abuja. In the second part we went to Lagos, which was much more about practical application in the field and in schools, and the partnerships which we saw between UK institutions and Nigerian institutions was fantastic.

During that time I met people from the Nollywood film industry including film producers, music producers and artists and they have the same [issues] as the UK. We’ve had record levels of investment from the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Apple building studios in the UK but the problem is [finding skilled] people. We’ve had to invest in the future [of creative industries] and Nigeria will have to do that in the same way. They’ve got a vibrant, burgeoning industry in the creative industries and they’re going to need a pipeline of students and not just from university. You need people with the right technical and vocational skills.

“We’ve had to invest in the future [of creative industries] and Nigeria will have to do that in the same way”

We’re in the same boat, there’s not a lot of difference [in the demand for skills]. In the spirit of partnership, we can help each other out by having that relationship built on a sound foundation of government and industry working together.

The PIE: Your Excellency, demand from Nigerians seeking to study in the UK is increasing rapidly so do you worry about brain-drain [talented students leaving Nigeria] or would you like to see the UK make more policy concessions regarding English language testing, qualification recognition and financial support to help Nigerians access a British education? 

HE Sarafa Tunji Isola: To an average Nigerian, in terms of education across the world, Britain is the first country of choice. It’s there from colonial times and a lot of our institutions at primary, secondary and tertiary level are still based on the British curriculum. I think what you’ve mentioned is a credible issue regarding [the recognition of] the language levels, and I was alarmed to hear that Nigerian students were going to Germany last year in higher numbers than those coming to Britain [because English is not the native language in Germany]. I’m happy to see that trend has been reversed now.

The challenge that we need to focus on is about working people to people. We must institutionalise our relationship because a lot of MoUs signed by politicians on the British side or on the Nigerian side are not usually sustainable. For example, you have an education secretary now and then a cabinet reshuffle and they are removed. We are working on taking [our relationship] to the next level with something like 10 universities [working in partnership], and a peer review mechanism. Then, whether one government is there or a new government comes, these are strategies that will be sustainable.

What Nigeria needs now is more technical education. A gap analysis would show us having enough manpower in one sector and a shortage in another. What’s usually of concern [to students looking overseas] is the cost of coming to Britain, aside from the tuition, maintenance is an issue. But with UK collaboration with institutions on the ground [in Nigeria] to provide technical education, I think it would amaze you the market potential that is locked up [in the skills sector].

I have no doubt in my mind that British education is valuable. You know, I am a product of the system. You have some countries that have been focusing [only] on academia [but] British trade is about academia and professional skills and that’s quite unique. I also need to say one thing that I mentioned to Her Majesty the Queen in the course of my presentation of the letter of credence – Britain should not focus strategy on the Commonwealth because the Commonwealth is a multilateral institution. These kind of things [we are discussing] are bilateral issues. What works for India, may not work for Nigeria or what works for Nigeria, may not work for the Caribbean.

[Nigeria] has one [a bilateral agreement] with the US, we have other ones with Algeria and South Africa. Britain might not have been doing [this type of agreement] but we are living in a changing world. There are some countries that must be targeted for bilateral relationship and binational commission allows you to evaluate. We should not run into a situation that if we want to achieve a global Britain, for the emphasis to be on the Commonwealth as a multilateral institution, because that will fail as the needs of each country vary. We should rather identify the needs of each country through partnership and cascade down from one country to another. Nigeria and India, given the population, we can start from there and next year add two other countries of importance.

Multilateral means we often talk-and-talk, but we can achieve talk-and-do if we do things bilaterally. That’s my honest opinion.

The PIE: We’ve seen examples of compounded delays affecting Nigerian students including longer wait times for institutional offers, CBN delays and visa processing delays that might be resolved by a deeper relationship between the UK and Nigeria at government and institutional levels.

Sir Steve Smith: That’s why it takes very deep bilateral agreements to to deal with those issues across all the stakeholders. I agree with every word His Excellency said. The point is, the way the international education strategy is developed is based upon bilaterals. We have the five target countries to start with, then others. It’s about the team here working government to government to set out a framework within which institutions can then operate. Partnership at a bilateral level is actually the way we’re working because each country, as has been said, is different.

Rupert Daniels: A formal commission is one way to approach this but the example we can give you that’s actually happening right now is as a result of the meetings we had with the president’s chief of staff and with the minister of education. The first thing the president’s chief of staff said, and we were in agreement with this, was to set up a working group. With this we’re able to look at policy, a little bit under the radar, to really figure out and understand where the key barriers are that we need to focus our attention on to enable that kind of fluidity between the UK and the Nigerian education systems. That’s already taking place, a high level working group and that’s one of the reasons Sir Steve’s heading back out to Nigeria to follow up directly on that mandate from the chief of staff of the president.

The PIE: We are celebrating the Commonwealth nations but I wanted to ask you about how you view the recent government rhetoric on China being a national threat? There are many universities already concerned about diversity and this will only increase now. Do you feel that diversity is possible?

Sir Steve Smith: I think as a general starting point, any university that is totally dependent or very largely dependent on one market needs to have a risk assessment of that. That’s not a comment about China as such, but that’s a general point. We’ve always said [it’s best to] have a balanced portfolio, be aware of risks around the world and we don’t talk about a particular country in that sense.

“Any university that is totally dependent or very largely dependent on one market needs to have a risk assessment of that”

What is very noticeable though, is the demand. India and Nigeria are just surging ahead in their applications to the UK. I don’t think numbers from China will fall particularly unless something changes but my concern is to make sure that universities are aware of the way in which we, through the international education strategy, are trying to remove barriers. Take the mutual recognition of qualifications with India. [It took] 12 years of negotiations, extraordinary hard work by a lot of people. If you’re the vice chancellor of a university and you’re interested in a partnership in India, you will say let’s look at the business plan but the qualifications will be recognised, won’t they? Sorting the [Indian] MRQs was massively significant. We’re trying to diversify the markets in which the UK can prosper and develop partnerships within a suspicion that international student numbers over the next decade will rise. Jo Johnson said recently that UK institutions shouldn’t become too dependent on India, so it’s really about no single country.

A second important point which is obvious, is that China is now the producer of the most research in the world. You wouldn’t want to cut yourself off from science even if you have other concerns. So it’s a balancing act, and our job is to try to make sure that there are a variety of markets, for all countries, for all parts of the UK, and for all parts of the education sector, and I think our growth may well come largely in some of the technical areas.

Rupert Daniels: It’s not my place to make any comment on what the policy is going to be from the new leaders of the Conservative Party and the new prime minister but Steve’s analogy is correct. If you remember when the Suez Canal blocked, from a supply chain perspective, suddenly we were short of basic commodities in this country, and we live in a globalised world. That really reinforced to a number of companies that we need to make sure that we’ve got a number of different options to spread risk so that we’re not wholly reliant on any country, whether it’s China or India or anywhere else. Whether it’s policy or security, I think things are rapidly changing everywhere you look.

I’d say having an international education strategy with real targets and knowing that that’s what we need to get to [a target of £35 billion] is quite interesting. The UK education and food and drink [export industries] are neck and neck [in size] and just as you want a diversity of food products in your supermarkets, you want diversity of education [exports]. We have regular strategic education advisory group meetings, with industry representatives like UUKi, PISA, The British Council, DIT, the Foreign Office, FCO, the Home Office. If there’s an issue that comes up, the table has a pretty robust discussion that goes on and that will be effective. That group enables us to focus on say, issues around visas, how can we support the Home Office? This strategy, because it’s coauthored, binds us together in a way that I don’t think happened previously. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve already hit that target of 600,000, because actually we are working in a concerted way across government.

The PIE: It has been noticeable across the UK sector that people continually reference the strategy and particularly the target, as a benchmark for current progress. Is that intentional and a fair reflection on the work so far?

Rupert Daniels: Quite often when you read about these strategies, it is framed as the Department for Education have got this strategy, but it’s not the DFE, we work with the DFE but it’s the Department for International Trade. We are the main interlocutors internationally. We go out internationally, with colleagues from the DFE who we work with very closely. In Sir Steve, you’ve got this figurehead [of an education champion] but underneath you’ve also got the engine room of a strong team.

We’ve got an export strategy, which is to achieve £1 trillion of exports in all sectors of the economy by 2030. So my job looking after seven or eight different sectors of the economy, education being one, is understanding what contributions [will meet that target]. In education we’ve already got a strategy that says it’s going to generate £35bn by 2030.

We’re tasked in government with exports and also driving inward investment so it makes complete sense to have us [the DIT] driving a lot of the international export activity in education, which is supported by the specialisms that you get within the DFE. We have all got an education story and we’re passionate about its impact. It’s in all of our interests, not just to talk about KPI’s, but that we genuinely care about the future of this country.

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