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How UK study policies stifle japa dreams, opportunities for youths

As hundreds of youths struggle to migrate for better education and economic opportunities to escape the challenges at home, many studying in the United Kingdom are faced with an uphill battle to sustain their dreams, writes MUHAMMED LAWAL

As he stepped into the arrival hall of Heathrow Airport, Lanre Mumeen, a Nigerian postgraduate student, felt the gust of wind in the glinting atmosphere caress his hair as he savoured how his dream of migration had finally come true.

The 27-year-old had repeatedly tried to apply for a graduate degree in no fewer than five other countries. Upon the completion of his postgraduate study, he reflected on the ordeals he had to endure during and after the programme.

Speaking with Sunday PUNCH during a phone interview, Mumeen recounted the humongous money required to be paid to get a post-study work permit, adding that it was more difficult for migrants whose families consisted of three dependants.

He explained, “It is not feasible for a lot of us. Imagine someone who has a wife and two children and they have to pay £4,000 to £5,000 to get the post-study work permit. If they are unable to do any of this, they are at risk of being deported.

“Also, jobs that would guarantee you a work visa are not certain even within those two years, and as a result, the pressure is always too much. What most people do is that they try to get a job that can sponsor them immediately after graduation.

“Most of the jobs available are in the health sector which is why a lot of foreigners take them up even without prior knowledge or interest in the field. They do it because it is the most viable option for them. After all, most times, these jobs allow applicants and their families not to pay for Immigration Health Surcharge.”

Mumeen further told Sunday PUNCH that getting jobs in the UK was often challenging for many citizens, hence the necessity of getting a work permit.

“People try to get a work permit visa because it is cost efficient and you don’t get to pay for IHS. Using a work permit visa for five years also allows you to get your Indefinite Leave to Remain during the sixth year. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult for people to get jobs in their profession in the UK.

“For example, a banker in Nigeria might find it difficult to get a banking job that would grant them a working visa. It happens but the rate is low which is why a lot of foreigners resort to healthcare jobs,” he said.

“From my experience, we know what the laws are. As a single, after completing a degree, one either gets a postgraduate study permit which is a two-year visa that allows one to be on a post-study permit. Within those two years, one must get a job that can sponsor one’s stay in the UK.

“Getting a job guarantees you staying there for five years using a work permit visa. After five years, you can get a residency visa.

“The struggle is real as it begins from here. Sometimes, some people might not want to wait for two years so they skip postgraduate studies and go straight to get a work permit. They consider the two years a waste of time and finances. During the two years, one spends extra money on health insurance which amounts to £1,000 which is N1,152,237.56,” Mumeen added.

‘Nigerian students abroad face difficulties’

Between 2015 to the close of 2022, data obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency of the United Kingdom revealed that a total of 128,770 Nigerian students enrolled in universities in the country.

A graduate from one of the universities in the United Kingdom, Ayoade Bello, in an interview with our correspondent, decried the fate of many Nigerians and other international students who could not return home after their studies within a few years, adding that things were difficult for them in the United Kingdom.

“I have some friends who are done with school and they could not get sponsorship and neither have they paid the required fee for PSW visa.

“These persons are in between returning home and if they do not do that upon the expiration of their visa, they risk deportation. As a student here, I have been covered with this fear of post-study struggle,” he noted.

A recent graduate, Fola Wusi, lamented that going to the United Kingdom and surviving daily is laced with struggles.

“To be honest, it is not easy at all because right from the time you are coming to the country, it is difficult due to one or two barriers and some other issues foreigners face. When I came into the country (the UK) after COVID-19, things were hard for people.

“We cannot use that time to define now, because it is harder now. When I came in after the lockdown at least I stayed fine and started working. I was coping. It was not easy.

“At that time, it was still hard because I had to go to work, I had bills to pay and the school fees were not like all the pressure would be placed on me to pay my school fees,” he said.

Wusi also pointed out another challenging issue being faced by students – the hike in school fees and the need to meet deadlines.

He said, “Now, if you do not pay 80 per cent, it will be very difficult to even get access to the school portal or get access to other things or use school facilities. That is (how it is) now but it was not like that before.

“Before, when you get to the country within one week, you will get a job. Now, things are really difficult. You can wait up to three, four, or six months before you can even get a job and accommodation. It is hard for everybody right now.”

Wusi further told our correspondent that studying in the UK had become so difficult for Nigerians that homeowners were not even ready to rent accommodation to students again. Schools are increasing school fees.

“Almost everything one wants to get is hard and now, the Certificate of Sponsorship problem is another struggle on its own. Imagine if people have sold their houses, cars, and everything because of COS, and the thing is they get here (to the UK) and there is no job.

“It is like that because the people here have already taken up all the jobs. So, this makes it hard for people coming to get jobs.

 “I was lucky that when I got here I got a job and I was schooling, so I could pay my rent, school fees, and other bills and also take care of myself. Immediately after school, I got COS, but now, if you want to pay for COS, you will use ‘sweat and blood’ to pay it and the new rules they are bringing in are making it difficult. Some people said it is because of the general election that is coming up; I do not think it is so because things are not the same as before.

“As I said, the influx of people coming in does not make the rules strict, it is harder for the people here already than the people coming. It is difficult for everybody and the new rules they are formulating are affecting us.”

Corroborating Wusi’s experience, a student in the UK, Bridget Umujakporue, explained that students who could not get a sponsorship visa had no option other than to leave the country.

“Those who can’t get a sponsorship visa will have to leave the country. In some cases, some marry a citizen or have a baby with a citizen hoping to remain in the country legally.

“Yes, it’s difficult to get a sponsorship. After school, students who couldn’t switch to a working visa can apply for a post-study visa as long as they completed their studies.

“Those who are lucky to get a sponsorship, either for free or they’ve paid for it, would have to work their fingers to the bone to meet up with the amount the government expects of them every year; it is not at all easy,” Umujakporue explained.

Sunday PUNCH gathered that students with post-study visas who cannot get a Certificate of Sponsorship have come under pressure and often struggle to remain in the UK and are at risk of deportation.

Speaking with our correspondent on this, a graduate in the UK, Tunde Yusuf,  said, “As you can see on social media if you follow the trend well, you will see that people have been abusing that particular route (COS). These people come from different countries and they end up being stranded in the United Kingdom because the people who brought them to the United Kingdom could not provide jobs for them after selling Certificate of Sponsorship for £12,000.

“For instance, I have a sister who was a victim; she paid £12,000 and was stranded when there was no job for her. She could not get a place to rent and this is a reason why the United Kingdom government decided to take a step further on that particular visa route.”

The ‘japa’ syndrome

Amid the forlorn hope of Nigerian youths and their clamour for a better nation, many are taking the option of migrating in search of a better life outside Nigeria.

Nigeria has witnessed a tsunami of young citizens migrating to other countries. These migrants are often promising youths who cannot continue to wait for the change that has continued to elude them and cope with current economic maladies in their home country.

This increase in migration has taken its toll on different sectors of the economy as the ‘japa’-conscious youths who seek opportunities in the West leave with years of experience that could have been useful to their country.

Checks by our correspondent showed that some factors, including poor working conditions and salary, high cost of living, bad governance, unending insecurity, bad economy, and a plethora of others, have made the ‘japa’ movement a major option.

Notably, the hindrances faced by undergraduates in Nigeria’s university system in academic activities are another critical reason.

Statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated that in the 2015/2016 academic year, 16,100 Nigerians were enrolled in UK universities. During the 2016/2017 session, there was a sharp decline as only 12,655 Nigerians were enrolled.

In 2017/2018, the number of enrolled Nigerians reduced to 10,685 while it rose marginally to 10,810 during the 2018/2019 academic session.

A total of 13,020 students were enrolled during the 2019/2020 academic session while 21,305 were enrolled during the 2020/2021 session representing a 64 per cent increase.

The latest data available from HESA revealed that 44,195 students were enrolled for the 2021/2022 session, the highest so far since Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

A breakdown of the statistics showed that in the top 10 international students list, Nigeria ranked third behind China and India.

Findings by Sunday PUNCH also indicated that foreign tertiary institutions and their respective countries have continued to benefit from the migration of Nigerian students to overseas institutions.

For instance, in 2021, Nigerian students and their dependants in the United Kingdom contributed an estimated £1.9bn to the economy of the UK, according to a report by SBM Intelligence.

Greener pastures not assured–London Mayor

However, while the ‘japa’ syndrome continues to gain acceptance, the Mayor of the London Borough of Southwark, Michael Situ, advised Nigerian students to prepare for unforeseen challenges.

“Given the current trajectory of evolving immigration regulations, Nigerian students may face challenges in extending their stay in the UK post-education. The recent announcement indicating a potential cancellation of the Post-Study Work programme suggests that the traditional two-year visa option after completing studies may no longer be available. “Consequently, students may find themselves compelled to seek employment opportunities that provide sponsorship for a work visa as an alternative avenue which we all know isn’t easy to come by,” he said.

According to Situ, the current formulation of policies presents challenges for international students, impacting not only Nigerians but also individuals from various parts of the world who choose to study in the UK.

“This situation prompts some to contemplate returning to their home countries, while others may explore opportunities for sponsored employment,” he said.

The mayor further explained that securing employment opportunities should be a major focus of Nigerians studying in the UK to ensure their continued stay post-education. This, he said, was in addition to prioritising their academic commitments, as their connection to the UK was anchored in their educational pursuits.

“It is crucial to safeguard the integrity of their studies. For prospective students considering a move to the UK, it is prudent to develop a contingency plan (Plan B) and be prepared for unforeseen challenges. If already in the UK or planning to arrive, a universal piece of advice is to refrain from staying in the country illegally, as it constitutes the least favourable course of action,” Situ added.

British Council mum

When Sunday PUNCH contacted the British Council via mail, the Digital Communications Manager of the council, Alison Cummins, said it could not comment on government matters.

She said, “These are matters for the UK Government, please contact https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/home-office/about/media-enquiries. British Council cannot comment on government matters.”

In a mail conversation with our correspondent, the Senior Media Manager of the United Kingdom Home Office, James Walker, referred to the links of the policies formulated by the UK government as their position on the matter.

He said, “I think these items we’ve published fully explain the government’s position on the changes we have made to the student visa route and will hopefully be helpful for you.

“Announcement on changes to student visa route: Changes to student visa route will reduce net migration – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

“Announcement on plan to reduce net migration: Home Secretary unveils plan to cut net migration – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

“Factsheet on net migration: Reducing Net Migration Factsheet – December 2023 – Home Office in the media (blog.gov.uk).

 One of the links partly read, “The UK has experienced unprecedented levels of immigration since the pandemic. The latest official estimates show that net migration in the year to June 2023 was 672,000 – up significantly on pre-pandemic volumes but lower than the 745,000 who came in the year to December 2022.

“The government has already taken action to address the rise in legal migration and in May 2023, the government announced new measures to tackle the substantial rise in the number of students bringing dependants to the UK. These measures will come into force in January 2024 and will have a tangible impact on net migration.”

It read, “The new reforms will come into effect for students starting in January next year (2024). The government will however work with the higher education sector to explore alternative options to ensure the brightest and best students can continue to bring dependants when they study at the UK’s world-leading universities.

“To prevent misuse of the visa system, overseas students will be stopped from switching from the student visa route to work routes until their studies have been completed.”

When our correspondent contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comments, its spokesperson, Francisca Omayuli, said the ministry would revert but had yet to do so at the time of filing the report.

A Whatsapp message sent by Omayuli read, “Your above inquiry is duly noted, we will revert in due course. Thank you.”

UK policy shows Nigeria must be made viable –  Ex-envoy

However, a former Nigerian Ambassador to the Philippines, Yemi Farounbi, said that while the policy might have aborted the dreams of many Nigerians seeking a better life abroad, efforts should be channelled towards making Nigeria the envy of other nations.

Farounbi said, “So when the UK minister made the law that you can come and study but you cannot come with your family that was demotivating for Nigerians who see it as an opportunity to leave their home country.

“I tell Nigerians that if the British did not build the UK, there would be nowhere for us to go. We must build Nigeria to a viability level that we will not want to leave and will want others to come.

Speaking on the different levels of motivation for many youths who choose or chose to migrate, Farounbi, added, “Ordinarily, there are two motivations for any Nigerian wanting to leave Nigeria now. The first is to go and study abroad and acquire a higher level of education. It is not because the education in Nigeria is inferior; it is because they think there is no available space for students.

“Some Nigerians want to get admission outside because of the difficulty in gaining admission here. At the postgraduate level, a lot of people want to do their postgraduate studies over there because they think it will be easier to get a job at the international level with multinational companies.

“Also, they believe that when they study in these countries, it will be easy for them to get citizenship or resident permits. A lot of Nigerians want to leave Nigeria to find a reasonable way of living which is why they leave Nigeria to travel abroad, particularly the UK which allows a student to come with dependants.

“Some are genuinely going to the UK to advance their knowledge because they have more facilities and an enabling environment and some want to go abroad just to leave Nigeria with their families. They are looking for greener pastures.”

Worsening economy unemployment included – Educationist

But an associate professor in the Department of English, Lagos State University, Henry Hunjo, blamed Nigeria’s economy and unemployment for the exodus of the youth.

“The economic policies of the nation provide no respite for trust in the government. So, apart from seeking higher education abroad, the youth also find the UK as safe for employment, not necessarily for prosperity’s sake, but to enjoy the social security provisions of this country.

“Many youths in Nigeria have been victims of crimes, police brutality, and lack of sociocultural orientation that could define their identities as Nigerians. A gloom that has descended on the nation in the last two decades with no hope of ever disappearing is terrorism in its differing shades: ethnic cleansing, internal displacement of indigenous persons from their ancestral homes, kidnapping, and inter-tribal wars.

“These factors and others have deprived the youth of the internal conviction that they belong to a safe country,” he said.

 Hunjo told Sunday PUNCH that the deprivation had been a major push factor that has made young Nigerians seek another land for life and survival.

“Unfortunately, the UK has not been a haven for many of them. If the home is not safe and the destination space does not provide the desired and the anticipated lease of life, it becomes imperative to search for a way out as life does not lend itself to defeat in the face of extermination of existence.”

He, however, noted the seeming loss of hope in the Nigerian system had been responsible for the waning patriotism among many youths.

The academic added, “The choice of the UK for education has become the vogue now. One wonders if it is because Nigerian institutions cannot offer quality education. Not all! Nigerian higher institutions of learning are well equipped to meet the 21st Century demands for higher education that will produce graduates that meet industry demands in all spheres of intellectual product needs.

“However, the insincerity of government officials in implementing policies that translate to genuine educational service delivery has necessitated the emergence of brain drain in the university.

Coincidentally, Nigerian youths, knowing that Nigerian institutions have suffered tactical and policy implementation neglect arising from the brain drain, succumb to the pull factors in UK institutions.”

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