Africa’s Education Evolution: Nigeria, the Awakening Giant

New reforms and a growing youth population expand Nigeria's place in international education.
Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Stephen Olatunde/Unsplash

In the landscape of international education, Nigeria is the awakening giant of the African continent. A dominant source of international students studying abroad and a force within the higher education sector throughout Africa, Nigeria’s role will only expand in coming years, as its population is expected to eclipse that of the United States by 2050.

Located in western Africa, Nigeria is a resource-rich country with a strong and growing middle class that recently overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy (as measured by gross domestic product). It also boasts enormous diversity; between its more urban, Christian south and the more rural, Muslim north, Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups.

Yet, it is challenged by widespread poverty, a dependence on the petroleum industry that led to a recession in 2016 after prices declined, currency problems, corruption, and conflict, including the Boko Haram Islamist militant group.

Many experts across Africa and beyond anticipate whether new educational reforms can help Nigeria’s higher education sector better cope with the youth bulge that is challenging its capacity and quality, two issues that drive many Nigerians abroad for their higher education.

The State of Higher Education in Nigeria

With a large total population—it is the seventh most populous country in the world, with 190 million citizens in 2017—Nigeria’s youth population is proportionally even larger. The median age was 17.9 in 2015, and its domestic higher education system is having trouble keeping up.  

According to the executive secretary of Nigeria’s National Universities Commission (NUC), Rasheed Abubakar, between 2012 and 2017, only 19 percent of applicants to Nigerian universities gained admission— excluding 6.3 million qualified applicants.

Nigeria’s higher education landscape includes 167 institutions, according to the NUC: 41 federal universities, 47 state universities, and 79 private institutions. Because many of the private universities are faith-based and have limited enrollments, they are a relatively small part of the higher education equation.

Some of the oldest higher education institutions, including the University of Ibadan, the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife), and the University of Lagos, were founded under the guidance of a British High Commission and enjoyed extraordinary early success. That era was followed by a period of dictatorship and educational neglect, in part due to prioritizing development of primary and secondary education in a country where the literacy rate is only 60 percent.

In recent years, an extraordinary youth bulge has led the country to expand its higher education sector by increasing class sizes and launching new institutions, which has led to what many call a decline in educational experience. Strikes by academic staff have frequently shut down campuses, sometimes for periods that cumulatively added up to months.

The public institutions, which are tuition-free, are vastly more accessible to the relatively small middle class than to the massive impoverished lower classes in the country, in part because the former typically speak better English, test into the public system, and can afford incidental fees.

“The poor are going to polytechnics and colleges of education with all kinds of hidden charges, when it is they who should be supported and subsidized in the universities,” says Francis Egbokhare, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ibadan.

Steps Toward Improvement

Despite many past failed attempts to reform Nigeria’s higher education system, recent efforts give cause for cautious optimism.

In October 2018, the Nigerian federal and state governments declared a state of emergency in the country’s educational system, a move that hoped to assure the deployment of more resources to a sector long deprived of adequate funding. Earlier in 2018, NUC released a plan for improving higher education, titled Blueprint on the Rapid Revitalisation of University Education in Nigeria 2018–2023.

“The educational sector is on a refreshingly rebounding note,” says Peter Okebukola, distinguished professor of science and computer education at Lagos State University and former head of the NUC.

The Blueprint outlines key metrics used to measure improvement. It targets areas such as university access, curriculum quality ratings, quality of facilities, adequacy of the numbers of teachers, and improved funding models.

Okebukola says some progress has been made through this initiative. For example, the Blueprint calls for a 20 percent increase in access to university education by 2023 over 2018 figures. By the close of admission for the 2018–19 academic year, the factor of increase will be about 6 percent, Okebukola says.

The Blueprint also calls for the curriculum of Nigerian universities to be rated among the best three in Africa in terms of its record of producing nationally and regionally relevant graduates. Toward that end, a revised curriculum will be launched by June 2019, Okebukola says.

Another effort to improve the higher education sector came in April 2018, at the annual conference of the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency. There, Abubakar, the NUC executive secretary, announced that more than 290 new universities were planned for the country.

Nigeria is also aiming to recruit an extra 10,000 university lecturers in the next 5 years, which would take the total number to about 72,000—an improvement, but still short of the roughly 88,000 academics needed to close the current shortfall.

Distance Alternatives

Because of the scope, scale, and accessibility of mass open online courses (MOOCs) and other online education options, some say distance and hybrid education forms may be better able to provide the higher education opportunities needed.

“The numbers go way beyond the capacity of the system,” says William Bertrand, a professor of public health at Tulane University who assisted in setting up schools of public health in six African countries, as well as learning systems at American University of Nigeria, where he is vice chair of the board. “The challenge is to train the educators to train the students. The only viable option now is to make virtual education available to everyone, and there is some movement in that direction.”

The National Open University of Nigeria, a federal open and distance learning institution, currently enrolls about 500,000 students, but plans to increase enrollment to about 1 million in the next 3 years, Okebukola says. Five leading Nigerian universities also offer open and distance learning options.

Egbokhare served as director of the University of Ibadan’s Distance Learning Center from 2004 to 2010. During his tenure, the number of students participating in the center grew from 800 to more than 15,000.

“Online learning can make a big difference, but we need a regulatory agency and regulations to move in the direction of what works best,” Egbokhare says.

Smartphones, ubiquitous in the country, are a possible learning technology game changer for students who cannot afford computers to gain access to the internet.

“A lot of my students use mobile phones,” Egbokhare says. “I have structured the learning curriculum in my class so that it [incentivizes] them to use phones for learning, not just chatting.”

Reinventing the System

The current higher education system is stymied by foreign models that are poor fits to the region’s needs, as well as a failure to creatively leverage existing resources to address immediate demand. 

“In the west, when you step out of a university, it is horizontal [to an equally developed outside environment],” Egbokhare says. “In Nigeria, universities are artificial communities removed from their environments, which is too much for any university to deal with.”

“We need to look for a less resource-intensive model, a more collaborative approach that involves the stringing together of many institutions and pooling activities,” he says. “We need layers of institutions that specialize in different things. Currently, innovation is not rewarded, and funding does not support creativity and excellence.”

One potential solution to help solve the current excess of students at top-tier public institutions is to affiliate new universities with these lead universities, says Egbokhare, and then direct student overflow to them—something he says is currently limited by the existing regulatory framework.

With respect to partnerships, Nigeria has made progress, landing the region’s largest number of World Bank Higher Education Centers of Excellence, which promote regional specialization among participating universities in areas that address regional challenges and strengthen the capacities of these universities to deliver quality training and applied research.

Nigeria can also tap into its vast network of professors and scholars abroad, the silver lining of Nigerian academics seeking competitive jobs overseas.

“The best minds are produced for other economies,” Egbokhare says. “We produce quality products, but the best migrate. There are ways to retain them that would not cost a lot. One way would be to enter into partnerships with foreign universities to encourage branch campuses from overseas [to be established] here. Some will get it right, though I don’t think anyone has done it yet.”

Meanwhile, students and recent graduates call for a greater focus on practical skills in higher education.

“I’d like the curricula to become less theoretical and more practical and tailored toward the specific needs of the society and labor employers so that graduates are more employable,” says Fisayo Soyombo, who is managing editor at the online news agency Sahara Reporters. A 2009 graduate from University of Ibadan, he says, “It is really hard [for university graduates to find a job in Nigeria]. I was fortunate that the University of Ibadan had a robust campus journalism structure that I could get involved in, despite studying animal science there.”

The Top Source of African International Students

Not surprisingly, given the challenges of Nigeria’s educational sector and the sizable middle class, many young Nigerians look abroad for their higher education.

Nigeria has long been the largest exporter of international students from the African continent. Nigerian international students in the United States numbered 12,693 in the 2017–18 academic year, up 8.4 percent from the previous year, and represented 1.2 percent of all international students, according to Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education. The numbers have steadily grown over the past 5 years, increasing by more than 40 percent from the 2012–13 numbers.

Nigeria sends 31 percent of all Africans in the United States and ranks 12th in the world as a sending country, according to EducationUSA’s Global Guide, outpacing Africa’s second-largest exporter, Kenya, threefold.

Nigeria’s outbound population is relatively affluent compared with the rest of the continent. A recent World Education Services report using 2015 data found that the majority of Nigerian students who wish to pursue their higher education in the United States are self-funded, with 78 percent receiving financial support from family or friends and 50 percent using personal savings.

However, U.S. institutions face tough competition from Nigeria’s former colonial ruler, the United Kingdom—especially as Brexit drives the United Kingdom to recruit more actively in Nigeria, according to the Global Guide.

Many recruiters say Nigeria should be one of the primary, if not the first, ports of call for Western institutions recruiting students from sub-Saharan Africa, given the country’s size and proximity to other key markets. Additionally, EducationUSA has a more robust presence there than in most other African countries, which can provide logistical support.

Successful recruiting in Nigeria begins with understanding what the student-aged population needs. At the graduate level, Nigerians are looking for universities with strong reputations that carry weight internationally, because they will likely be returning home to a highly competitive job market, says Nancy Keteku, former regional director for Africa for EducationUSA. At the undergraduate level, Nigerians are looking for good value for money, lower costs, and scholarships, according to the Global Guide.

As Nigeria continues to send large numbers of students abroad to study, it strengthens its position as a key player in the landscape of international education. A growing middle class, strong economy, and burgeoning youth population means more students are eager to pursue higher education at home and abroad. To fully explore the potential its young people have to offer, Nigeria’s education leaders will need to build on the progress already made to improve the country’s higher education system.


A Touch of the United States in Nigeria
Margee Ensign and students
Margee Ensign with students from the environmental club at American University of Nigeria, where Ensign was president for 7 years. Photo: Courtesy Dickinson College

U.S.-style education is a relatively recent import to Nigeria, but there are some examples, most notably the private American University of Nigeria (AUN).

AUN was the first U.S.-style institution in Nigeria and was led until 2017 by Margee Ensign, who served as the institution’s president for 7 years. She is now back in the United States as president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“It was a particular milestone to have a U.S.-style university established in one of the poorest regions of the country, the northeast,” says Ensign. “There is a real demand for this type of education, one that is focused on research, critical and innovative thinking, and development.”

The school had about 1,200 students when Ensign started her tenure and, under her watch, acquired a primary and secondary school; added graduate programs in law, engineering, and doctoral studies; and doubled the institution’s size to more than 3,000 students. AUN also drafted a strategic plan, raised $160 million, and built a state-of-the-art e-library.

AUN, as with many Nigerian higher education institutions, has not been immune from the country’s larger challenges. During the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, AUN helped feed 300,000 refugees fleeing from Boko Haram militias. The institution also accepted nearly 50 displaced youths as students, and Ensign cofounded and led the Adamawa Peace Initiative. This initiative successfully promoted peace in the area through education, empowerment, and community development.

Addressing the needs of the local community, and Nigeria as a whole, is a key part of the curriculum at AUN, Ensign says.

“Every student at AUN must take an entrepreneurship class,” Ensign says. “Given the shortage of jobs for youths, we feel students need to take their educations, apply them, and create jobs for others.”

The connections between U.S. and Nigerian faculty and institutions continue to benefit both nations. In 2018, Ensign accepted four Nigerian students who had been released from captivity by the Boko Haram group on scholarships from the Nigerian-based The Murtala Muhammed Foundation and the Nigerian government.


About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.