/ 21 May 2022

OPINION | New UK work visa to exclude graduates from Africa

Graphic Edu Visas Mobile 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

Graduates from African universities will not be eligible for the United Kingdom’s High Potential Individual (HPI) visa aimed at attracting highly skilled graduates from non-UK universities to work in various fields, including science, technology and entrepreneurship in the country.

Barring a change in plan, the UK will start receiving applications for the HPI on 30 May. Prior to the expiry date of the two to three years’ work allowed by the HPI visa, holders can obtain permits to guarantee their continued stay and employment in the UK.

But not all bachelor, masters and PhD degree holders will qualify for the work opportunity.

According to the UK Home Office, prospective applicants are expected to have bagged their degrees, during the past five years prior to applying, from the list of top 50 universities featured in at least two of the following three ranking systems: Times Higher Education, Quacquarelli Symonds and the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

About 40 institutions from the United States, France, China, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, Canada and Japan feature on the list.

Notably, no African university meets this requirement. This has sparked questions about the exclusionary slant to the visa policy on the one hand and, on the other hand, the quality of education offered by universities in Africa.

“I believe Britain is unfair to African graduates, using the ranking of universities as a criterion for engagements,” said Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the Association of African Universities (AAU), maintaining that every university is unique in its mission and purpose.

“The UK is wrong to assume that graduates from high-ranking universities are more skilled than graduates from Africa.”

Oyewole noted that world ranking indices — such as academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty to student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio and international student ratio — favour long-established universities and that these disadvantaged African universities “because of their relatively young age”.

“I do not want to make excuses for African universities because their mission may not be the same as those of Europe and America that had been in existence for many hundreds of years. [But] a ranking system that considers the number of Nobel laureates as a measure of academic reputation may not favour African universities,” said Oyewole, the former vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria.

The poor rating of African universities does not make their products necessarily inferior to graduates in other climes, Oyewole said. “It is only a reflection of the funding and support given to the institutions on the African continent.”

He said many graduates from Africa, having survived in their immediate environment, perform whenever they have opportunities to further their studies outside the continent.

Oyewole said that with the right facilities, funding and conducive environments, African graduates have been found to be resilient, resourceful and highly innovative in the world of work.

“Many foreign-based students and academics cannot survive or operate in the difficult academic terrain of many institutions in Africa, where funding is scarce. Yet the African academics find means of surviving and contributing to development with little resources,” he said.

“While the UK might have put up its own criteria, it is encouraging that other countries, like Canada and the United States, have found that graduates of African universities are resourceful and innovative and they have risen to challenges.”

Professor Mahfouz Adedimeji, the vice-chancellor of Ahman Pategi University in Kwara State, Nigeria, said the new UK visa regime appears to be skewed against Africa.

With more than 25 000 universities globally, the top 50 ranking represents a paltry 0.2%, the Fulbright scholar observed, saying the US and UK universities would make up the bulk of the percentage, while most African, Asian and South American universities would not feature in the list.

“[Universities] operate under peculiar circumstances. It would have been better for the new policy to attract the best 10 universities in each continent, for example.

This would have been more inclusive,” Adedimeji said.

At the time of publication, the UK Home Office had not yet replied to an inquiry about its educational criteria for the visa.

The varying contexts of operation notwithstanding, most African universities, especially government-owned institutions, are plagued with poor funding, resulting in low-quality research outputs and a dearth of infrastructure.

“That is why we are on strike,” said Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, the president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Nigeria, attributing the three-month ongoing industrial action in Nigeria’s federal universities to the government’s failure to implement a 2009 agreement seeking revitalisation of the institutions and better working conditions.

“In the [19]60s and [19]70s, the University of Ibadan [in south-west Nigeria] was one of the best in the world. Today, it is 1 172nd in the world,” said Osodeke.

“Let us develop our universities. We have the brains, human resources and other resources, but the problem is misplaced priorities,” he added, drawing on the lavish spending of political elites in the country.

“Politicians are paying NGN100‑million ($241 600) to buy presidential forms. NGN100‑million would fully furnish a biochemistry lab in a Nigerian university.

“Most of them get the money from the government. Every country has a right to put a limit to who should come to their country or not. We should develop our own country.”

In Nigeria, for instance, the budgetary allocation to education is embarrassingly low, pegged at 5.68% of the national budget in 2021 and reduced to 4.30% in 2022.

Adedimeji said: “Similar patterns of underfunding education persist in many African countries, hampering development.” He added that a lack of commitment to adequate funding constitutes “a bane” to university education in Africa.

“This is where African governments and stakeholders have to show commitment to higher education funding. African universities are still largely in the Global South characterised by the digital divide. Technology is expensive and it requires a lot of funding and investment,” he said.

Admitting the setbacks Adedimeji identified, the AAU secretary general also blamed the plight of African universities on poor remuneration and low research funding by governments.

“Criteria used for ranking favour the high-funded, research facilities-endowed institutions which can engage and retain quality research and engage high-calibre academics, including many Africans in the diaspora. This does not mean that African researchers are inferior to researchers from other continents,” he said.

“Many African universities find it difficult to attract foreign academics and researchers because they cannot afford to pay their salaries. This makes them uncompetitive with respect to the international faculty ratio, which is one of the criteria in the world ranking systems. Indeed, the low level of remuneration paid to African academics makes them non-competitive with foreign universities.”

That African universities are excluded from the new UK visa policy is a wake-up call that we need to do more as Africans to be more globally competitive, Adedimeji pointed out, urging that teaching has to be reinvented, research deepened, service strengthened and infrastructure rejigged.

“The low ranking of universities in Africa should be a clarion call on African governments and institutions to invest more in their higher education institutions,” Oyewole agreed.

In his paper, titled Higher Education in Africa: Facing the Challenges in the 21st Century, Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, the former secretary general of the AAU and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, recommended institutional, national and regional approaches to tackling the issues.

He advised African governments, universities and all stakeholders to plan, innovate, collaborate, develop policies and show commitment to implementation, concluding that “there is no reason why African countries cannot transform these challenges into opportunities to make their higher education sector a vibrant and productive one”.

This article was first published in University World News.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.