At some point in the early part of this decade, Nigeria surpassed Morocco as the leading source of internationally mobile students in Africa. UNESCO tells us that just under 50,000 Nigerian students studied abroad in 2012, and the forecasts agree on this: Nigeria is on pace to be one of the world’s most populous countries and its tertiary-age student cohort is growing right along with the overall population.

Driven in part by its considerable oil reserves, the Nigerian economy has been expanding at a brisk clip as well and it looks poised for further steady growth in the future. Finally, there is a considerable gap between the demand for postsecondary education in Nigeria and supply. By some estimates there are nearly 1.5 million undergraduate students seeking a place at university each year, but the country’s overloaded education system can accommodate only about half a million students.

In combination, these factors have contributed to a sharp increase in the number of families able to fund study abroad and have led to a 71% increase in the number of Nigerian students at overseas institutions between 2007 and 2010.

One of the more detailed forecasts of future demand that we have seen recently comes in the form of a British Council report from October 2014, Postgraduate student mobility trends to 2024. In our earlier coverage of the report, we said of its focus on postgraduate studies, “The British Council notes a recent trend toward students wanting to go beyond undergraduate degrees, a result of students looking for better jobs and governments wanting to create more highly skilled and educated workforces.

The Council also considers that a prior trend of the ‘massification’ of higher education, in which higher education became accessible to more of the population, is a major contributing factor. This has led to a situation in which greater numbers of students are now able to enter postgraduate programmes via their newly achieved undergraduate qualifications.”

In a league of its own

The British Council report provides an in-depth forecast for global demand for postgraduate studies along with some important underlying trend data for 23 key source markets around the world.

Among those countries, including China, India, and Indonesia, Nigeria is in a category of its own with respect to population growth. The British Council projects that Nigeria will lead the world in tertiary-age population growth through 2024. The country’s population of 18-to-22 year-olds is forecast to grow from 16.1 million in 2013 to 22.5 million by 2024. This represents an annual average growth rate of 3.1%, and far outstrips the forecasted annual growth over the coming decade for Indonesia, projected to be next-fastest-growing country (1.3% average annual growth), as well as those of global giants such as India (0.3%) and China (-2.9%).

Similarly, total tertiary enrolment in Nigeria is projected to more than double from 2.3 million students in 2013 to 4.8 million by 2024. This represents an increase of 110% over the decade, a pace that outpaces all other markets in the British Council study, and with Indonesia again in second place with a projected increase of 86% from 2013 to 2024.

However, Nigeria’s tertiary enrolment rate – the percentage of tertiary-aged students enrolled in postsecondary education – will still continue to lag behind other major markets in the coming decade. The British Council projects that Nigeria’s participation rate will exceed 20% by 2024. But this contrasts with much higher levels of participation in the more populous markets that will drive much of the global demand for the postgraduate market going forward: tertiary enrolment rates in both China and India are forecast to be more than double that of Nigeria’s through 2024.

Postgraduate mobility picking up

It will come as no surprise that markets such as China and Saudi Arabia have been among the world leaders in growth in outbound postgraduate mobility in recent years. The average annual growth in outbound postgraduates for China was 11.4% for the five years from 2007 to 2012 (and 25.3% for Saudi Arabia). In comparison, Nigerian outbound mobility at the postgraduate level grew by an average of 7.4% per year over the same period.

If we look ahead, however, the picture is changing. The cohort of 15,000 postgraduate students from Nigeria that went abroad in 2012 is projected to increase to 40,000 students by 2024 – for an average annual growth rate of 8.3%. With that forecast, Nigeria again leads the world with the highest projected growth for the decade ahead, followed by India (with a projected annual average growth of 7.5%), Indonesia (7.2%), Pakistan (6.4%), and Saudi Arabia (5.2%).

The dream of a UK education

The UK hosted just over a third of the 49,531 Nigerian students that went abroad in 2012. Other popular destinations, based on the most recent UNESCO statistics, include the US (a distant second to the UK as the destination for about 14% of Nigeria’s outbound students), Ghana, Malaysia, South Africa, and Canada.

The British Council anticipates that the UK will remain the preferred destination over the decade ahead, noting, “Nigerian postgraduates have overwhelmingly travelled to the UK for their studies, and this trend will continue.” The outline the following predictions:

  • “In 2024, the UK is forecast to host 28,800 Nigerian postgraduates, followed by the US, which will host 7,600.
  • The highest annual average growth in Nigerian postgraduate flows will be to Australia (+12.7%) and Canada (+11.2%), albeit from small bases.
  • Strong growth will also be seen in Nigerian postgraduate mobility to Germany (+9.7%), the US (+9.5%) and the UK (+7.7%).”

Indeed, the projected volume of Nigerian students to the UK is forecast to be the fifth-largest bilateral movement of postgraduate students in the world by 2024 (after only the flow of Chinese students to the US, Indian students to the US, Chinese students to the UK, and Chinese students to Australia).

Needless to say, the British Council report provides an important view of student mobility for the decade ahead. Its most detailed forecasts pertain to postgraduate studies but it finds, with some noted exceptions, that there is generally a close correlation between demand for postgraduate studies abroad and demand for study at other levels, including undergraduate degrees. That is to say that the forecast demand for postgraduate studies provides a useful directional indicator with respect to overall patterns of international student mobility. And that being the case, it seems likely that Nigeria is poised to be one of the most significant growth markets in international education in the decade ahead.

This article was originally published on ICEF Monitor.