AFEES Agboola is no stranger to speaking the English language, and that is an understatement. He started teaching the language as far back as 2006 during his teaching practice as a student in the college of education. In 2012, he was admitted to the University of Ilorin where he studied Primary Education and minored in English.
As a sophomore, he conducted tutorials for all levels of students including those in their fourth year. He continued teaching English and Literature at various primary and secondary schools during and after his service year. In short, Agboola has over 11 years of not only tutoring others in English but also preparing people for foreign proficiency tests.
So imagine his surprise the first time he learnt that to qualify for a study programme abroad, he has to pay heavily to write the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination or its equivalents.
“I have been speaking English for ages and I have been a teacher of English for years, so why do I have to write another English proficiency examination to prove that I can use the language fluently?” Agboola expresses his disappointment to The ICIR.
Statistics show that millions of Nigerians currently live in the diaspora and millions more are eager to join them. There are about 350,000 documented Nigerian migrants in the United States as of 2017, 390,000 in Europe, over 88,000 in Italy, and over 42,000 in Canada.
Seventy-four per cent of those back home would move to another country if they had the means, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Centre. Of these, 45 per cent said they plan to move within the next five years — “by far the highest share of any country surveyed”.
But travelling to countries especially in the global North, whether for education, work, or resettlement, requires a lot — oftentimes including writing English proficiency tests such as IELTS or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).
Established in 1989, IELTS has been jointly managed by the British Council, International Development Programme (IDP) Australia, and the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment. It is administered mostly on non-native English speakers and recognised by over 10,000 organisations and governments in more than 140 countries.
How much English is English enough?
The British Council states that IELTS test results provide evidence of English language skills in most countries where it is the main language. But one big grouse many have with the initiative is: English is also the main language in Nigeria.
Having been a colony of Great Britain for nearly eight decades, it is both the country’s lingua franca and language of instruction in schools — even, some observe, to the detriment of native languages.
Nigeria’s history as an anglophone country is reflected in the people’s generally good grasp of the language. The country is ranked third-best in Africa and 29th best in the world by the 2019 EF English Proficiency Index. Also, out of over 140 countries who wrote the General IELTS in 2018, Nigerians had the sixth-best performance on average.
“Most of our systems have been set up in the English language. In fact, we even learn our own indigenous languages in secondary schools as electives,” observes Ebenezar Wikina, a development practitioner and editor of NDLink. “We have pretty much learnt English all our lives; so why then do I need to prove to you that I can speak it if we can communicate via email and you understand what I am saying?”
The Harvard-trained journalist had, in January, applied for a programme at Nexford University, an online institution based in the US, which then told him it needed to verify his English proficiency. He says he has never written the IELTS and just doesn’t bother putting in for opportunities that require it.
Check again after two years
The first time Agboola wrote the IELTS was in January 2017. He needed the certification to apply for a number of scholarship grants, including Commonwealth and Chevening. Eventually, he was offered admission into the universities but did not win any grants. He did not reapply immediately due to a busy schedule but he is ready to try again this year.
His IELTS result from 2017, however, already expired despite having a score of 7 out of 9; so he had to apply again and rewrite the test last December.
Unlike with most examinations, that a person aced the IELTS once does not certify his proficiency for life. The result is, in fact, valid only for two years. The British Council says this is to ensure the results are reliable “since language skills of individuals may develop or deteriorate in a span of two years”. But many Nigerians, including Agboola, are not convinced.
“It was quite easy raising money the first time, but it was difficult in December. I had to reach out to some of my mentors who then bailed me out,” he recalls.
Tunde Liadi, 32, who describes himself as “a regular, young Nigerian trying to migrate to greener pastures” also wants the British Council to relax its rules.
“To say in two years I won’t understand the tenses or I won’t be fluent as I am, it all boils down to financial extortion. The frequency of the exams and the short span of the certificate’s validity means there is something fishy,” he says.
There are, on the other hand, those who consider the expiration policy reasonable. Elizabeth,* an administrative officer at an Abuja-based IELTS registration and coaching centre, tells this reporter that based on personal experience, she “sort of” buys the idea that people’s grasp of English can diminish — “especially when you are surrounded by people who speak their native languages”. She adds that since the test also evaluates writing, it is apparently a skill that wanes with less practice.
While Agboola believes the cost of the test should either be reduced or the expiration policy is cancelled, it is Liadi’s view that the validity period should at least be extended to four or five years.
More difficult than necessary
The British Council’s head of IELTS, James Shipton, once described the test as “a reliable indicator of a person’s ability to communicate in English”. But the IELTS is designed to do much more than to simply ascertain fluency. The IDP admits that test questions are not only checking comprehension skills and are demanding — “even for native English speakers”.
When Jay Merlo wrote the test in 2017, he got a disappointing score of 6.5 even though he is a native speaker from Australia who was top of his English class at high school, studied English Literature at university, has a masters degree with first-class honours in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne, and had taught English for nine years at universities in different countries.
“If the IELTS Academic were the only measurement of my English abilities then I think my confidence would now be destroyed,” he concedes.
Laurie Mitchell, another native speaker from the US who has written the test, describes it as difficult and stressful to take.
“It involves a lot of logical thinking and attention to detail, which can trip anyone up,” she says. “For the listening part, the recorded voices have various accents (Irish, Australian, American, etc.) and it can be challenging to understand everything they say because they may use pronunciations and vocabulary different than the English one is used to.”
Liadi in Nigeria has written the test twice already but is not satisfied with his results, and he does not agree he didn’t do well because of the quality of his English. “I am going to write it for the third time not because I can’t speak English,” he insists. “At least speaking with you, you can tell that I have control over the language.”
He also blames poor performances partly on the tension and anxiety that come with examinations. While he has friends who have written the test three or more times, Elizabeth’s coaching centre has seen worse cases.
“We’ve met someone who has taken the test 16 times before coming here. He shared his testimony and said that was his 17th time,” she tells The ICIR.
A money-making machine
Writing the IELTS costs an average of $225 depending on the test centre and country. In Nigeria, the cost ranges between N75,000 for academic and general tests and N92,800 for tests designed for UK Visas and Immigration.
But there are additional expenses as well. If a candidate is not satisfied with his result, for instance, they may apply for the paper to be remarked, which costs N15,000 — refundable if the score increases.
Coaching centres also charge applicants separately for training sessions, with the price ranging between N20,000 and N40,000 per month.
Emails sent to the British Council multiple times to ask for how many Nigerians apply for the IELTS yearly and what the pass rate is were not acknowledged or replied — except with autoresponders. A call placed to Maryam Thomas, the Nigerian office’s Operations Resource Pool Manager, was also not answered, nor were texts sent on different days replied.
But, in 2017, the organisation had announced that as many as three million people wrote the test within a one-year period. Using this figure, gross profits should have averaged $675 million (N245 billion).
In Nigeria, there are 11 test centres run by the British Council, sometimes “with up to five test dates per month”. An exams invigilator working with the organisation informed The ICIR that an average of 120 people write the test at a centre on each day.
If there is a minimum of four test dates in a month and each applicant pays at least N75,000, then at the end of a year Nigerians would have paid at least N5.15 billion to the Council — and this does not include fees paid for remarking and certificate authentication.
According to the British Council’s 2017-18 financial review, it “achieved almost 9 per cent growth in total income to £1,172.3 million principally due to strong performance from its English teaching and examinations activities together with higher income from contract work”.
The contribution of exams to its income that year was 41 per cent (£486.9 million, N229 billion). The following year, exams together with teaching contributed 58 per cent of its total income (£727 million, N341 billion).
“I don’t see a reason why it should be that expensive,” says Liadi, referring to the IELTS. “They are using the avenue to milk us. When you go to their office, you’ll know these people are definitely in for business.”
Seyi Kolawole, another Nigerian seeking to migrate to Canada, however, considers the pricing fair especially for people whose goal is to relocate or study abroad. “Even though a reduction won’t be bad,” he adds.
[accordions title=”Universities where English-speaking applicants are not mandated to have IELTS results”]
[accordion title=”Universities where English-speaking applicants are not mandated to have IELTS results” load=”hide”]Australia
1. The University of Queensland
2. The University of Adelaide
3. The University of New South Wales
4. Macquarie University
5. Bond University
6. The University of South Australia
6. The University of Southern Queensland
7. Swinburne University of Technology
1. Brock University
2. Carleton University
3. University of Winnipeg
4. University of Regina
5. Memorial University
6. Concordia University
1. University of Bristol
2. The University of Bolton
3. London Southbank University
4. Robert Gordon University
1. University of Colorado
2. State University of New York
3. University of Arkansas
4. University of Dayton
5. California State University
6. University of New Orleans
7. University of Delaware
8. University of Iowa
1. University of Delhi
2. University of Mumbai
3. University of Calcutta
4. Banaras Hindu University
Source: We Make Scholars[/accordion]
Are we stuck with the system?
In 2018, This Is Africa (TIA), a pan-African digital media platform, started a petition to exempt citizens of African commonwealth countries from English proficiency tests.
“English is an official language in all countries colonised by Britain. It is also the medium of teaching in schools from primary to university level. To further subject graduates to a $200 IELTS exams that expires every two years is highly condemnable,” it argued.
The petition has been signed by over 78,000 people but Socrates Mbamalu, a member of the group, says it has not yielded results and was “totally ignored” by the British Council.
Wikina says he understands that the IELTS is a way to generate revenue for the UK but, nevertheless, Nigerians should not be required to pay what is more than twice their minimum wage to write it.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he continues. “I understand international policy can be very complicated, so this is not hitting at international policy. It is just hitting at common sense.”
*A pseudonym is used to protect her identity.