The decision to exclude students studying abroad from accessing foreign exchange at the official window is dangerous and counterproductive

First, it started as a rumour that the federal government was excluding overseas school fees from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) forex approvals. Now, it is official. In a recent interview granted Al Jazeera, President Muhammadu Buhari said those who want to educate their children abroad should go to the black market to source forex. For a country that is in desperate need of critical quality manpower in strategic fields, this is unfortunate indeed.

“Nigeria cannot continue to subsidise the forex needs of everyone. Those who can afford foreign education for their children can go ahead, but Nigeria cannot afford to allocate foreign exchange for those who decided to train their children outside the country. We can’t just afford it. That is just the true situation,” the president said rather candidly.

To be sure, the hint about this policy was first given in January by the CBN Director of Banking Supervision, Ms Tokunbo Martins, who said banks had resolved that most of the foreign exchange demands would be deployed to developing the real sector. “You know it is something that affects all of us and I think that the watchword is belt-tightening. It is the pain we may need to go through today, so that there will be long term development in the country. If you think about it, the pressure on forex now – from school fees abroad – is significant. At what point should we begin to look inwards?” she asked.

That of course is a valid question, except that the way and manner both the administration has handled the issue of foreign exchange does not inspire much confidence in Nigerians and the investing community. Nothing can hardly be predicted and that exactly is what has made it difficult for most of the parents whose children school abroad. Now, they are also being made to look as if it was wrong to seek the best education for their wards. This is despite the fact that the president himself confirmed that his children are schooling abroad though, as he also admitted, he can afford to pay to keep them there. As it would happen, not all Nigerians can do that at the current rate.

For sure, we are not unmindful of the dwindling foreign exchange earnings of the country as a result of the slump in oil prices. But what we worry about is the seeming disdain for student mobility in tertiary education which is a global phenomenon even if ours is peculiar because of the neglect of our education sector. According to UNESCO, China and India send the most students overseas. China leads the way by a considerable distance with about 700,000 students studying abroad. Germany and Saudi Arabia round off the top five while the United States of America (USA) comes seventh overall.

Meanwhile, the apparent downgrading of overseas school fees on the scale of our foreign exchange priorities smacks of an embarrassing want of strategic common sense especially when this is coming at time when the quality of tertiary education in the country is abysmally low. By most rankings, there is no Nigerian university among the top 500 in the world. Even on the African continent, our universities rank rather poorly behind institutions in countries like South Africa, Ghana, Egypt and Kenya. And yet we are at a stage in the global scramble for strategic development when nations with the highest number and quality of tertiary educated manpower also hold the lead in the areas of development that truly makes nations great: cutting edge research in science, medicine, technology and engineering.

What should not be lost on the authorities is that the Nigerian parents who make the sacrifice of sending their children abroad to acquire the best possible qualifications in these areas at personal expense are invariably contributing to placing our country at a competitive pedestal with other important nations. Therefore, for them to be penalised by a deliberate government policy that is treating overseas higher education as a luxury for foreign exchange allocation is a sad irony of the ‘change’ slogan of the current administration.

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We are at a stage in the global scramble for strategic development when nations with the highest number and quality of tertiary educated manpower also hold the lead in the areas of development that truly makes nations great: cutting edge research in science, medicine, technology and engineering