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Nigeria next for bilateral UK ed agreement

The UK is forging ahead with new partnerships as part of its international education strategy. Following the UK-India Enhanced Trade Partnership, it is now clear that Nigeria will be next in line for a deeper bilateral partnership led by the Department for International Trade.

Photo: iStock

UCAS recently reported applications from Nigerians to British universities had increased by 58%

His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, high commissioner for Nigeria was in attendance for the UK House Business Hub as part of the Commonwealth Games 2022 and together with Sir Steve Smith, UK international education champion and Rupert Daniels the director of creative, lifestyle and learning at the DIT spoke exclusively to The PIE on developments.

They emphasised that the international education strategy has a long-term focus on education exports at all levels including industry-specific skills and vocational training, rather than focusing only on in-bound international student numbers for British universities.

Nigeria, like India, represents one of the most populous Commonwealth countries where wider trade alliances can be brokered post Brexit.

“We’ve got tiers of countries that we’re working through [as part of the strategy] and I think in the long run the UK will be linked to Nigeria in a very deep way,” explained Sir Steve Smith. “It’s not about coverage, it’s about building partnerships… it’s all about understanding Nigeria’s long-term goals,” he continued.

“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.”

“We are often too focused [as a sector] on the HE number”

UCAS recently reported applications from Nigerians to British universities had increased by 58% according to its latest undergraduate application data from June 2022. However the need to focus on the long-term potential of the skills sector rather than higher education targets for international student numbers is apparent.

“I think we are often too focused [as a sector] on the HE number,” explained Rupert Daniels, “It’s about delivering all levels of education and with the digital divide coming down somewhat in the pandemic, what we’re able to do now is 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.”

Sir Steve Smith echoed the sentiment, adding that while the strategy may result in more international students opting for the UK, competition from Australia, New Zealand and Canada could potentially mean the UK misses its target.

“But when I look at the transnational education numbers, that’s an unwritten story,” he noted. “That’s why we’re talking to the Nigerian government about TNE.”

The Nigerian ambassador explained that the time had come for ‘talk-and-do’ rather than ‘talk-and-talk’ and that an education working group had been established in response to a mandate from the president’s chief of staff and minister of education to assess a mutually beneficial relationship with the UK.

“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. So the focus should just be on bilateral agreements [not multilateral],” explained His Excellency, Sarafa Tunji Isola.

“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; 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].”

In 2022, the UK and India agreed to officially recognise each other’s higher education qualifications – a move that has been hailed as a landmark, historic agreement. There has been plenty of support for India’s national education policy and exploring new opportunities for two-way mobility for students and staff. There will be similar hopes for the UK-Nigeria relationship moving forward.

“That’s already taking place, a high level working group,” explained Daniels, “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 challenge that we need to focus on is about working people to people” added Isola. “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.”

“We’ve always said [it’s best to] have a balanced portfolio”

When asked about the UK’s current security concerns over China, the response was clearly about encouraging diversity rather than over-reliance on any one source country across all industry supply chains.

Smith explained the view that “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.”

“What we’re trying to do is 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.”

See the full interview here.

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