LAGOS: When 28-year-old Deborah Okunawo left Nigeria for the UK on a study visa last year, going with her husband made settling down easier.
Nigeria’s erratic academic calendar, characterized by frequent and protracted university strikes, economic woes and rising insecurity forced Okunawo and thousands of others to “japa” — a word in the Yoruba language that means “to flee.”
“Migrating to a new country can bring up different challenges like cultural shocks and loneliness,” said Okunawo, a postgraduate student at the University of Lincoln in eastern England.
“Having my best person around me gives me a shoulder to lean on.”
Her husband Tosin is also able to work and earn a living to support the family.
But Nigerians who hope to emulate them have suddenly seen their plans clouded.
With the UK government keen to crackdown on net migration which has risen to record levels, restrictions have been introduced from next year, including on family members accompanying foreign students for non-research postgraduate courses.
“We have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of student dependents being brought into the country with visas,” British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said last month.
The government in London made no specific mention of Nigerian students but numbers traveling to the UK for postgraduate studies along with family members have skyrocketed in recent years.
Nigerian nationals studying in the UK grew from 6,798 in 2017 to 59,053 as of December 2022, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics or ONS.
As those number grew, so did the number of dependents: in 2019 there were 1,586 but last year there were 60,923.
“By nationality, Nigeria saw a large increase in the proportion of sponsored study-related visas granted to dependants, from 19 percent in 2019 to 51 percent in 2022,” said the ONS in February.
In Nigeria, and among students already in the UK, there are suspicions that the new measures are targeted at them.
Braverman — an immigration hard-liner — has said foreign postgraduate students used the study route as a “backdoor to work,” and their family members put “untenable” pressure on public services.
Her get-tough approach chimes with the Conservative government’s vows to “take back control” of the country’s borders following the country’s exit from the EU.
The policy has coincided with a surge in net immigration but also labor shortages Brexit has created in areas such as agriculture, the hospitality sector, health care, science and technology and IT.
There is also the contribution that foreign students make to the British economy including through hefty tuition fees.
In 2022, they brought in nearly $42 billion ($52 billion) compared to a cost to the government of £4.4 billion, according to London Economics, a politics and economics consultancy.
Busayo Olayiwola, a 33-year-old quantity surveyor in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria, before she left for the UK with her husband, said the majority of the students and their dependents “pay tax, national insurance (contributions to the health system) without access to any public funds.”
“The country is generating a lot of money from foreign students as well,” said Olayiwola.
The British government did not comment about whether it was primarily targeting Nigerians.
But a spokesperson said immigration policies “continue to be kept under constant review to ensure they support the UK’s excellent academic reputation.”
High poverty rates, a struggling economy and 33.3 percent unemployment in Nigeria has made Britain an expensive destination for students, even for those in the middle class.
Experts, however, said the new restrictions may have an upside for the country’s economy in the coming months.
Without dependents, Nigeria may experience an “uptick in remittances” from its students in the UK.
“They may feel a greater need to financially support the families they had to leave behind,” said Subomi Plumptre, the CEO of Lagos-based investment firm Volition Capital.
But the restrictions are also leading some Nigerians to look elsewhere: several prospective postgraduate students in the commercial hub Lagos and capital Abuja said they are investigating postgraduate alternatives in places such as Canada.
More than 15,000 Nigerians were granted permanent residence in Canada in 2021, up from 4,400 five years earlier.
Wale Oni, a Nigerian who teaches at the University of Salford near Manchester, northwest England, hopes that Nigerian authorities will take a cue from the restrictions and focus on stopping the “brain drain.”
“You see UK varsities in the big cities advertising their programs and luring Nigerians in with attractive offers such as post-study work visas and opportunities to bring their dependents,” he said.
“But what plans are in place by the Nigerian government to reverse the trend?“