Over the last decade, the defining story of international education has arguably been the explosive growth in the number of Indian students abroad. Could Nigeria be the sleeping giant of the coming decade?
Nigeria is already a top 10 market for Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. And Nigeria projects to become the world’s third-largest country by population by 2050.1 But, Nigerian students have encountered obstacles to each destination country, which has hurt each country’s ability to sustain rapid growth from Nigeria. Given the already high interest Nigerian students show for international study programs, as well as the country’s expected population growth in the coming years, destination markets that solve barriers to entry will establish a competitive advantage for attracting talented students in the decades to come.
Key Insights at a Glance
- Over 50% of Nigerian students 19 and under were approved for a Canadian study permit from January to September 2021.
- In the US, the growth rate of Nigerian students has outpaced the average for all other countries in seven of the last eight years.
- The number of Nigerian students in the UK nearly doubled from 2018/19 to 2020/21.
- Business and management is the leading field of study for Nigerian students in Canada (26%) and the UK (29%). But STEM dominates in the US, with 63% of Nigerian students studying or working in the field.
- From January 2016 through April 2022, 61% of ApplyBoard’s Nigerian students who applied for a student visa to Canada were approved.
Surveys show that students now prioritize a positive and successful study abroad experience over an institution’s location or ranking.2 Community ties and career opportunities in a destination market are more important than ever before for attracting international students.
When we published our 2021 Trends Report back in November, we highlighted Nigeria as a top projected emerging market. Investments made now that support international students can create sustainable and scalable market growth: more students arriving in the present establishes communal connections, which helps lead to even larger numbers of students arriving in the future. That’s why today, we’re publishing an update on Nigerian students studying in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. We’re covering how student flows to and from these countries have shifted, what barriers exist for Nigerian students, what enrolled students are studying, and much more.
Where Are Nigerian Students Studying?
Comparing the number of Nigerian students enrolled in higher education in Canada, the US, and the UK over the past seven years, we see nearly identical growth in Canada and the US while the UK experienced a U-shaped recovery.
Brexit clearly hurt the UK’s ability to welcome Nigerian students. Nigerian enrollment in higher education plummeted, no doubt in part to the government actively reducing immigration targets in 2015 as well as the anti-immigration rhetoric surrounding Brexit. In 2017/18, 69% fewer Nigerians studied in the UK compared to 2014/15.3
Canada and the US took advantage of the UK’s drop. Nigerian enrollment in Canadian postsecondary schools increased by 39% from 2014/15 to 2017/18.4 The US grew its Nigerian student population by 19% over the same period—and that’s excluding students in Optional Practical Training (OPT).5
Yet, both countries may look back and wish they had more proactively recruited students from Nigeria while Brexit put the UK at a competitive disadvantage. The number of postsecondary Nigerian students in both Canada and the US has been relatively stagnant since 2016/17. The UK, however, has shifted its policy decisions and come roaring back as a destination for international students. In 2020/21, the number of students from Nigeria in the UK was nearly double that in 2018/19.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each destination.
Students from Nigeria Studying in Canada: Increased Student Visa Interest Offset by Age Barrier
While the number of Nigerian students in Canada has stagnated since 2016/17, early indicators suggest an uptick in 2021. The chart below shows that Nigerian interest in studying in Canada has never been higher.
Last year, more than 21,000 study permit applications were submitted to Canada from Nigerian students. This represented growth of 80% compared to the previous year, and was more than double the total from 2016. Interestingly, a similar spike occurred in 2019, but study permit approvals did not rise alongside the renewed interest due to lower approval rates.
Still, a substantial gap exists between the number of study permit applications from Nigerian students and the number of approvals. One possible reason for this low approval rate could be age favouritism. We’ve previously noted a strong negative correlation between student age and approval rates to study in Canada.6 With the chart below, you can filter to see the approval rate for Canadian postsecondary permits approved by age for both Nigerian students and the rest of the world:
While the age barrier exists for students from every country, Nigeria is impacted at a worse rate than the global average. Nigerian students the age of 19 and under have historically been nearly twice as likely to be accepted for a Canadian postsecondary study permit than those between the ages of 20 and 25. And the difference gets only more stark from there.
Many Nigerian students often finish secondary studies when they are 20. Also, postgraduate applicants are usually close to the age of 30 because Nigerian colleges and universities often extend beyond a four-year window, and postsecondary graduates are required to serve one year in the National Youth Service Corps. Thus, the age barrier creates a particularly unfair hurdle for many Nigerian students looking to study in Canada.
There is some good news in this data. Nigerian students 19 and under have a much higher chance of being accepted for a Canadian postsecondary study permit than the overall approval rate indicates. And, as the chart below shows, Nigerian students in the K-12 range are accepted into Canada at high rates, nearly 70% in 2021.
The Government of Canada offers many scholarships for international students.
Students from Nigeria Studying in the US: A Decade of Growth
While the number of students enrolled in the US in 2020/21 was not much higher than 2016/17 (a little over 1%), a wider timeline shows significant growth over the last decade.
There were 68% more Nigerian students enrolled in US higher education last year than in 2011/12. This growth has been a steady trend, as the number of students from Nigeria increased in seven of the last 10 academic years. And, what’s more, the chart below shows that Nigeria’s enrollment growth has outpaced the average growth from the rest of the world:
In seven of the last eight years, Nigeria’s enrollment growth exceeded the average from the rest of the world. This is particularly impressive as enrollment growth began slowing in the US in 2015/16: the ups-and-downs of a single country would be expected to see more volatility than a global average, such as the sharp V-shaped progression between 2016/17 and 2018/19.
Unfortunately, US embassies in Nigeria experienced some of the most severe student visa interview wait times in the world during the pandemic. This means that the Nigerian market will likely be slower to recover than others moving forward. Below you can see how student visa wait times grew in Nigeria and the rest of Africa in 2021 and early 2022.
Students from Nigeria Studying in the UK: Return to Prominence After Anti-Immigration Barriers Lessened
As we saw above, Canada and the US experienced a significant pandemic-related decline in Nigerian student inflows. But the UK has actually increased its Nigerian student population since the pandemic. The chart below shows the number of students from Nigeria enrolled in higher education in the UK, and you can filter by region:
In 2020/21, more than 21,300 international students in the UK were from Nigeria, making the country a top 3 source market behind only China and India. This was the first time Nigeria entered the top 3 since 2014/15. In between these two academic years, Nigeria fell out of the top 5 and nearly out of the top 10.
In our discussion with ApplyBoard Advisory Board Member Nick Hillman, Nick stated that the UK hurt itself for several years as governments in 2011 and 2015 sought to reduce immigration, and failed to offer students post-graduate work opportunities. But aided by the introduction of the Graduate Route (GR), the UK was able to hit its 2030 target for immigration nine years ahead of schedule.
Interestingly, Northern Ireland may be the biggest regional winner of the UK’s more welcoming policy changes. Nigerian enrollment in Northern Ireland grew nearly 700% in just two years, from 2018/19 to 2020/21.
ApplyBoard covered some top scholarships for international students studying in the UK earlier this year. There are also many government scholarships for international students.
What Are Nigerian Students Studying?
One of the more exciting data points we found relates to Nigerian study preferences, or lack thereof. Nigerian students flock to all fields of study, and all study levels. Nigeria may thus be a key source market for reducing overreliance on certain study levels or fields. Let’s dive deeper.
Students From Nigeria Diversifying University and College Programs in Canada
In Canada, Nigerian students are fairly diversified in the study level and fields they pursue, as the chart below shows:
University studies represented more than half of the number of study permits approved for Nigerian students in 2021. But 46% of those permits were for undergraduate students, and another 41% were for master’s students. These two study levels accounted for 26% and 23% of all study permits approved for Nigerian students. With college representing 28%, no individual study level dominates over others.
Additionally, with 13% market share in the K-12 sector, it’s clear that many Nigerian students come to Canada with their kids, or are comfortable sending their secondary school-aged children to study in Canada. The “other studies” sector includes private language schools, language programs offered by colleges and universities, and certain vocational programs offered only in the province of Quebec.
As with study levels, Nigerian students are interested in all fields of study:
Over the past six years, no field of study accounted for less than 10% or more than 30% of study permits for Nigerian students—in fact, 2021 was the first year that a field of study was over 25%. Study permits for every field of study grew to new highs in 2021. Some fields are growing at a faster rate than others, with business & management leading the way at 89% year-over-year growth in 2021, closely followed by computing & IT at 75%.
The Government of Canada has set high diversification goals for 2024, and Nigeria may be a key market for achieving those goals since Nigerian students are attracted to a wide range of study levels and fields.
Students from Nigeria Attracted to STEM in the US
STEM programs are the dominant field of study for international students in the US, including for students from Nigeria. The US features a large volume of top-tier research and technical institutions, and STEM graduates are eligible for an extra two years of work experience under OPT.
In total, 63% of Nigerian students in the US studied or worked in STEM.7 This was an increase of six percentage points compared to the 2015/16 academic year. However, of the top 25 countries sending international students to the US, Nigeria’s 63% of students in STEM ranked only sixth highest.8 All five countries ahead of Nigeria had over 70% of their students involved with STEM. This means that Nigerian students should expect fierce competition for scholarships and postgraduate work opportunities in this field.
Interestingly, just 12% of Nigerian students studied or worked in business & management in the US. This is less than half the market share of Nigerian students approved for the same field of study in Canada.
Students from Nigeria Cover Many Fields of Study in the UK
Like Canada, Nigerian students enroll in diverse fields of study in the UK. Business & management led the way with 29% of Nigerian enrollments, followed by engineering at 17%. The chart below breaks down the diversity in full:
Comparing the 2019/20 academic year to 2016/17, we see some small shifts in what Nigerian students chose to study in the UK. Business & management, and arts, humanities, & social sciences both increased their market share by three percentage points. Math & computer science grew by two percentage points.
Engineering shifted the most, dropping five percentage points. Other studies fell by three percentage points, as Nigerian students enrolled in law dropped three percentage points.
We delved into the record-high number of job vacancies in the UK earlier this year.
Reducing Barriers to Accessing Education Key to Unlocking Nigeria’s Massive Potential
With Nigeria poised to become the world’s third-largest population by 2050, and Nigerian students interested in all forms of education, the destination countries that reduce barriers to education the fastest stand to gain decades-long benefits for attracting talent.
With its recent policy shift toward immigration, the UK returned to prominence as a leading destination for Nigerian students. In speaking with our recruitment partners in Nigeria, we heard that many students from Nigeria find the application and enrollment process easier for the UK than for Canada and the US, with fewer requirements and more pathway and foundation options for those with low GPAs.
For Canada and the US, one of the most significant barriers to address is the age discrepancy in the approval rate process. This obstacle ultimately hurts a destination market’s long-term ability to attract talent, as students are more likely to choose study locations with communal ties.9 With many Nigerian students looking to enter higher education during their twenties, the destination countries that eliminate this age discrepancy in their approval rate process will create a long-term competitive advantage for attracting Nigerian talent.
Another issue with attracting Nigerian talent is the fluctuation of global economies. While COVID-19 impacted international education across the board, the decline of Nigerian enrollment in Canada and the US during 2020/21 is a bit more complicated than students simply not wanting to risk studying abroad. The Nigerian naira was devalued twice in 2021, weakening the value of the naira against the US dollar. This makes tuition fees more expensive for Nigerian students, and has led many parents to withdraw their children from international study in favour of local, private institutions.10 Issues with paying fees are already a top concern for Nigerian students, and the decline of the naira only adds to that complexity.
Canada’s Need For Substantive Change
The CBC recently reported that IRCC commissioned an external firm to investigate if implicit racism is influencing study permit approval rates. The external firm’s findings were shocking and disappointing, and are an important first step towards transparency. We’re hearing from our recruitment partners helping students that they are looking for more transparency in rejection reasons, as well.
We believe the Nigeria to Canada pipeline would be strengthened by adding Nigeria to the Student Direct Stream. The data also shows that Nigerian students are more adversely affected by age favouritism than the average for the rest of the world. Re-examining the age discrepancy for applicant approval rates could open the door for Canada to attract much more talent from around the world, including from Nigeria.
At ApplyBoard, we’re excited to work with governments and institutions to solve these barriers. From January 2016 through April 2022, 61% of ApplyBoard students from Nigeria who applied for a student visa to Canada were approved. This is nearly triple the approval rate for non-ApplyBoard students over this time. With our many dedicated and highly trained recruitment partners, we’re looking forward to continuing to help Nigerian students access high-quality education around the world.
About the ApplyInsights Team
1. World Population Review, 2022 World Population Review.
2. ICEF Monitor, Surveys show that career outcomes outweigh rankings for many prospective international students. October 2021.
3. UK data courtesy of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
4. Canadian data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
5. US data courtesy of the Institute of International Education (IIE).
6. Note that the age barrier is not unique to Canada. Older students also have a more difficult time obtaining a F-1 Student Visa in the US.
9. For instance, when we examined how international students gravitate toward large metropolitan areas in the US, we found that Dallas attracts a surprisingly large number of Nepali students. The city became a top area for Nepali and Nepal-born Bhutanese refugees to settle following the Bhutanese refugee crisis in the early 1990s. Thus, establishing these communal ties positively impacted the city of Dallas for multiple decades.
10. Business Day, Nigerians enrolment in US universities hits 3yr low. Nov 2021. Note that this article includes OPT totals.