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Company formed by 38 Australian universities rakes in millions from IELTS as Nigerians groan

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ADENIYI Adebayo, 31, moved from Nigeria to Europe to obtain an international master’s degree in Dance and Choreography after winning an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship in 2016. 

The scholarship programme allowed him to get a joint master’s degree from four universities in four different countries within two years. 

The 31-year-old graduate of Theatre Arts from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) wrote the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in 2017 to prove that he could speak English as a part of the eligibility criteria for admission into his preferred schools.


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At the time, the IELTS exams cost him 236 euros. Adeniyi got an overall band score of 7.5 in writing, listening, speaking and reading which was valid for two years.

The IELTS is an English language proficiency test for non-native English speakers.  The IELTS is jointly managed by the British Council, IDP Education Limited, and Cambridge Assessment English.

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By September 15, 2018, Adeniyi had earned his master’s degree from the University of Roehampton in London, the University of Szeged in Hungary, Université Clermont Auvergne in France and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Norway.

He had also written several peer-reviewed research articles published in globally recognised journals when submitting his dissertations for his master’s degree.

While completing a second master’s degree in Dance Anthropology from NTNU in 2021, Adeniyi followed up with a joint application for a PhD at Coventry University, London, in the UK, and Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. 

His application was rejected in both schools because the IELTS test he took in 2017 was considered ‘too old’ and both graduate schools required him to take another IELTS test.

In an email, Coventry University said his graduation from Roehampton University, London, was more than two years old, which meant he had to take a new IELTS test or get his PhD application withdrawn.

Adeniyi asked for a waiver from the tests since he had a master’s degree from a UK university, proving he was taught in English. He attached letters of support from his professors at NTNU and the University of Roehampton, London, to help convince the admissions board.

Professors Stefan Greuter and Luke Heemsbergen at Deakin University wrote to Adeniyi saying they didn’t make the rules on application procedures to exempt him “no matter his background or experience” if he could not take a new IELTS examination.

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In February, Coventry and Deakin universities dismissed his PhD application when he could not provide a new IELTS test.

Deakin University is a joint shareholder with majority stake, alongside 37 Australian universities in IDP Education Limited, which offers IELTS tests to applicants across the world.

The UK Home office in October 2021 had mandated UK schools and organisations to evaluate international students without IELTS if they could provide evidence of higher qualification in English from an education in a UK school or had met the requirement at the required level in a previous successful application.

On its website, Coventry University says it accepts alternative requirements like WAEC certificates for undergraduate and postgraduate students from Africa without IELTS. However, they still asked Adeniyi for an English language test. 

Deakin University offers a five-week course called Deakin University English Language Institute (DUELI) for international students who are not proficient in English but did not offer Adeniyi the chance to take the course.

Despite Adeniyi’s proof of the English requirement of higher education from a UK university, both universities denied him admission.

“There is nothing personal about an IELTS score sheet. It is not a passport or resident card; everything on it has supposedly expired except my name, which anyone can find on Facebook,” Adeniyi told The ICIR.

The ICIR reached out to the Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University John Latham in an email to verify why the university withdrew Adeniyi’s PhD application but he failed to respond to the email at the time of filing this report.

Adeniyi’s plight paints a complicated portrait of discriminatory practices by foreign universities who use the IELTS to disqualify Nigerians who meet the university academic requirements from pursuing their educational dreams.

A money-spinning venture

Established in 1989, the IELTS has risen in popularity, endorsed by over 10,000 organisations in more than 140 countries.

Its joint owners include: the British Council, IELTS Australia, IDP Education LLC and Cambridge Assessment English.

The IDP Education Limited,  co-owner of IELTS, is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX). A major beneficial owner of IDP is a collective holding company called Education Australia, formed by 38 Australian universities in 1996 with a 40 per cent ownership stake in IDP.

Their core activities include international student recruitment, English language teaching, and conducting IELTS tests globally. 

The six top Australian universities listed in the top 100 Times Higher Education World University Ranking of 2021 are some of the beneficial owners of IDP, namely, the University of Sydney, Australian National University, University of Queensland, UNSW Sydney, Monash University and the University of Melbourne.

According to Statista, there are 43 universities in Australia. Education Australia, formed in 1996, is wholly owned by 38 Australian universities with majority shareholding rights, which means 88 per cent of Australian universities profit from IELTS tests globally off the backs of prospective students and visa applicants who take the tests.

The majority shareholders of IDP Education Limited are Education Australia Limited with (40 per cent) stake, HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Limited (21.52 per cent) and JP Morgan Nominees Australia Pty Limited (12.18 per cent).

In the 2020 financial year, IDP Education Limited recorded a revenue of $587 million and an after-tax profit of $67.8 million, which is a drop from its 2019 revenue of $598 million. This was attributed to the coronavirus pandemic and China’s directive to education agents not to recommend Australia as a study destination.

Australian universities were projected to face revenue losses of between $10 billion and $19 billion in the next three years. 

In March 2021, Education Australia agreed to sell its shares by December 11, 2022, a deal that will see the sale of its 40 per cent IDP shares, but the universities in Education Australia will be given first rights on buying the shares. 

This means their shareholding of 40 per cent will be sold off to cover capital gains taxes from the restructuring, with leftover tax credits distributed back to the universities.. This will see each university getting A$83 million, based on the current share price of $26.26 as of February 28.

Also, the restructuring deal ensures that a 15 per cent shareholding stake will cover capital gains taxes from the deal and each university will be free to sell 100 per cent of its direct shareholding.

The IDP is valued at $6.36 billion, with the sale of 15 per cent of its shares expected to rake in $954 million. Each university will get an estimated $25 million and $1.6 billion on the shares being retained.

In 2020, Chief Executive Officer, CEO of IDP, Andrew Barkla was named Australia’s best-paid CEO, after earning a reported A$37.8 million when he sold 3.7 million of his shares which IDP had floated on the stock market in 2015.

Nigeria is ranked as one of IELTS’s biggest revenue contributors, based on earnings from its application fees, the IDP 2021 financial report revealed. 

“The entry into Nigeria three years ago with the IELTS business has been very successful with very strong growth being recorded in 2021 financial year,” a section of the auditor’s statement read. 

The Australian Department of Home Affairs exempts the citizens of five countries from participating in proficiency tests. However, no English speaking country in Africa makes the list.

The countries exempted are Canada, New Zealand, United States of America, USA, United Kingdom, UK, and the Republic of Ireland.

Nigerian students received the third-highest number of study visa grants after China and India from the UK government, with 36,783 student visa grants in 2021, indicating an 83 per cent increase in the number of study visas from 2019.

While UK universities appear to attract more Nigerians, their Australian counterpart is direct beneficiaries of the high cost of IELTS borne by Nigerians as only 351 student visa grants were given to Nigerians last year as of September 2021.

The average cost of writing IELTS is $283 as of 2021. This figure was arrived at by dividing the average of all English language testing revenue by the total number of IELTS tests conducted in 2021.

In Australia, the cost of writing IELTS is $375.

Chidukwani Alladean, a Zimbabwean cyber security trainer, was employed by the Australian Institute of Commerce and Technology in 2008 as a technical trainer to train its staff and corporate clients on network architecture.

He worked at the firm for three years. Chidukwani applied for a permanent residency visa after living and working in Australia for eight years and was asked to take the IELTS to prove his proficiency in English.

It’s daylight robbery. I lectured courses that required international students to have an IELTS score of seven but when it was time for me to apply for my permanent resident visa, I was asked to write the IELTS exam.

“Suddenly my English wasn’t good enough for the residency visa and yet I had been delivering instruction in English at level 7+ for the previous three years in the very same country,” he said in a LinkedIn post.

Clamour for Reforms

Policy Shapers, an open-source policy platform founded by Ebenezar Wikina, a policy expert and frontline campaigner for IELTS reforms, wants the UK Home office to include Nigeria in its Majority English Speaking Country (MESC) list after saying English is not widely spoken in Nigeria.

“We rely on publicly available evidence such as official censuses to make this determination along with other academic sources,” the UK Home office had said.

Foreign universities demand the IELTS as a requirement for admitting international students, with IELTS application fees being expensive and more than double the minimum wage in Nigeria at an average of N90,000.

The group posits that Nigeria is ranked 31 of 112 countries rated as ‘Very High’ on the 2021 English Proficiency Index (EPI) and has been in the top 30 global ranking over the past five years.

“There’s a need for specificity as we believe the public evidence required per country should be standardised in line with the same metrics used to validate the 19 countries already on the MESC list,” Policy Shapers stated in a policy briefing.

Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française, DALF, which is the French Proficiency test equivalent for IELTS, costs an average of N15,000 and lasts a lifetime.

The UK Home Office does not officially recognise 27 Anglophone countries in Africa as English speaking countries. Using the hashtag #ReformIELTSPolicy, a petition initiated by the group in January and addressed to Secretary of the UK Home Office Priti Patel has garnered over 72,000 signatures.

In February, Ghana’s Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament Andrew Asiamah mandated the parliament’s Education and Foreign Affairs Committee to review the IELTS policy for Ghana.

Over 7,300 Malawians signed a petition launched by Rogers Siula, a media outfit, asking the UK government to exempt them from taking the test before they could be accepted for studies in the UK because English is Malawi’s official language and a former British colony.

Author profile

Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

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