Enike Samuel was getting ready to apply to a master’s program in biological sciences at the University of Alberta in February, when he realized that, because he is from Nigeria, he would have to do something that isn’t required of most applicants: Prove his fluency in English by passing a language proficiency test.
Mr. Samuel, a 27-year-old who lives in the town of Ekpoma, in southern Nigeria, was surprised that the requirement, intended to verify the skills of students who speak English as a second language, also applied to him. English is Nigeria’s official language, a vestige of British colonial rule. Like almost all Nigerians his age, he had been learning in English-language classrooms for the majority of his life.
He checked with several universities in Ontario to see if they also required Nigerian students to take English proficiency tests. All of them did. He decided not to apply to Alberta, or any of the others.
“I just lost the motivation to continue applying, because it didn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
The University of Alberta revised its policy in May, and now exempts Nigerian applicants from the proficiency test requirement. Mr. Samuel is once again considering applying. But most other universities and colleges in Canada, the United States and Britain still require students from African countries where English is widely spoken – such as Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone – to pass the tests.
Students from those African countries have begun challenging the policies, which they say are costly, unnecessary and discriminatory.
To take an English language proficiency test, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), a student pays a fee of between $250 and $300. That’s a steep price for many people from Nigeria, where the monthly minimum wage is around $93.
Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, a post doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia, has been leading a campaign to exempt Nigerian candidates from English-language proficiency testing requirements. He said the policies are unfair.
“I don’t see the reason Nigerians would be required to take these tests just to prove that they could speak English, despite the fact that this is our language of instruction from elementary to tertiary education,” he said. “Apart from the financial constraints, the emotional stress is also there for candidates taking the tests.”
Gideon Christian, an assistant professor of law at the University of Calgary who is originally from Nigeria, said there is no justification for making English-speaking applicants from Africa take language tests, and that the policies may harm some students’ self-esteem.
“The impact is that unconsciously, you are made to feel that no matter how well you think you speak this language, your language is inferior,” he said.
Rashidat Raji, another Nigerian student, said she has taken English proficiency exams five times over the past few years as she has tried to get into medical residency in Canada. On July 29, she wrote to the colleges of physicians and surgeons in all the provinces in the hopes of getting exemptions, but didn’t receive them.
“I feel it’s really unfair and depressing,” she said. “I don’t see the reason we should be subjected to this hardship, because it costs money and time.”
Jennifer MacDonald, the director of English-language studies and university access at Dalhousie University, said there are three factors used by Canadian universities to determine an applicant’s language proficiency: Whether they are a native speaker of English, whether their country is considered English-speaking, and whether their previous schooling was in English.
“These factors are sometimes applied in unclear and inconsistent combinations,” she said. “Shouldn’t it just be about whether someone did a minimum number of years of their previous schooling in English?” Dalhousie offers exemptions from language proficiency testing to students who can prove they went to English-language secondary or post secondary schools.
Ms. MacDonald said post secondary international students coming to study in Canada might have some language-related needs. For instance, they might need to learn how to write in an academic style. But Canadian high school students who go to university also often have to learn how to write academically.
“Presenting an English proficiency score won’t help a candidate develop the language they need for success at university,” she said. “It’s just a gate-keeping hurdle.”
English proficiency tests are a lucrative business. Between 2016 and 2021, the IELTS, which is managed by the British Council, an organization that is partly funded by the British government, generated over US$771.2-million in gross profits from applicants taking the test. A 2021 financial report ranked Nigeria as one of the biggest revenue contributors based on earnings from fees.
Nigeria is also a major source of applications to Canadian universities. According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, last year Nigerian students submitted more than 21,000 study permit applications to Canada.
Mr. Igbalajobi said he has written dozens of emails to universities in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea seeking exemptions from English proficiency requirements for students from Nigeria and other English-speaking African countries.
Some major Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, York University and Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), already offer exemptions to students from those countries. And the University of Alberta is not the only school that has recently changed its policy.
On June 16, Athabasca University exempted applicants from Nigeria and 15 other English-speaking African countries from its English-language proficiency testing requirement, and the University of Prince Edward Island now exempts students from about 40 Nigerian universities. Mr. Igbalajobi said Windsor University has told him it is reviewing its policy.
Mr. Christian, who sits on admissions committees, said all Canadian universities should adopt a new regime: “Accept applications without the language proficiency requirement, and in reviewing the applications, if it becomes obvious that a candidate has difficulty in comprehending the English language or expressing themselves in the language, you could require a test rather than having it as a blanket rule.”
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