In this interview with Amechi Obiakpu of Study Abroad Congress, the Philosophy graduate from the University of Lagos says her organization gets lots of referrals because they have been consistent over the years with their brand promise which is integrity, honesty and trustworthiness. She also noted that since she ventured into the study abroad business, she has not had any cause to look back because that is what gives her pleasure and joy.
Can you please give us a brief of what Avail International Consult is about?
Avail International Consult is a study abroad organisation, we help students to gain admission and obtain visas to study abroad. We assist students to register for international exams like IESTS, TOEFL, GMAT etc and we provide tutorial services. We also assist our students with discounted tickets. It is a full package and a one stop shop.
Our countries of focus are the UK, U.S., Canada, Germany, Ireland, Australia, other European and Asian countries.
What informed what you do, why are you into the study abroad business, when you could have been into any other business?
My passion started with my former job; I worked in a study abroad outfit for seven years. Before this time, I worked in a media outfit, but I did not derive any satisfaction. So, when I got employed in the study abroad organisation, I found out that this is what I wanted to do for the long haul. This is where my passion is, and I derive joy when students get their admissions and their visas to study abroad and come back to give us testimonials on how they are faring. It gives us that positive feeling that we are doing something good.
We are in an era where people are advocating for patronising what we have locally, and here you are taking students to study abroad instead of one of the many universities we have in Nigeria. Why is this so and what is the motivation behind this?
Well, we encourage students to study abroad and come back to impact our economy, and some do study abroad and come back. Though we know that is in the minority. But yes, we encourage students to travel and if possible, to return and like I said, some do return to develop the country – a lot of them do not return. But you still feel their impact in Nigeria one way or the other. They still invest in Nigeria and of course, maybe they have family in Nigeria. They still have a way of impacting Nigerians.
The passion is not for us to send all our children away, whereas, we do not have all the facilities to take all our students that are willing to study here. The public universities are not encouraging students, the constant strike actions, and lack of infrastructures are major issues. Only the private universities are consistent, So, rather than spending so many years in the universities trying to get your degree, we encourage students who have the financial muscle to travel abroad and get their degrees at the stipulated period be it in the case of a B.Sc. or a master’s and you know you are done with that.
If they decide to stay and continue or to return to the country that is fine, we know one way or the other there is going to be an impact on Nigeria. There is no way they will totally write off Nigeria, some of them will return to engage in the country’s economic or investment space.
Presently, ASUU is on strike, and we have had the issue of strike now and then. In your opinion, how would you assess the damage this has done to the country’s educational system?
It is terrible, really. The damage is immeasurable, it is prolonging the time the students are supposed to be in school. I will also say it is damaging the self-esteem of the students. Some of them may not even get a part-time job. It is not easy for the graduates to secure jobs, let alone the undergraduates. It is looking very hopeless for the students, and I sympathise with them. Some will engage in unethical and despicable acts that are unimaginable. Like they say, an idle hand is the devil’s workshop.
Beyond academics, it may also affect the students psychologically. Some students might not even go back to school. I remember when I was in school, and there was one of those strikes, at the end, some girls did not come back to school because they were pregnant and that became the end of their educational career. Though, some of them came back with pregnancy, others could not, and you will see things like this happening. For us, it is not good for our educational system.
Bearing this in mind, vis-à-vis the strike, how do you think our educational system can be rescued?
Government, ASUU, and all of those who are involved should come to a meeting point. Education is very important to Nigeria. The government might not be able to give them all that they (ASUU) are demanding, but it is important that some meeting point should be arrived at by all parties.
Education is important to Nigeria just like every other society. The government should do all they can to meet ASUU demand, maybe not all, but try and meet them in the middle. Like I said, they may not be able to give them all that they are fighting for, again, it is their right, and they see all that obtains in the private universities, what their contemporaries are getting, and they feel something must be done and all of that. At least, for the sake of Nigeria and the Nigerian youths, this strike should end so that schools can resume.
You talked about lecturers from the public universities seeing what obtains in the private universities and probably want some measure of the treatment, is it safe to say that the government should hand off control to private individuals?
That may not be possible because not everybody can afford private universities. They are expensive; the majority do not have the resources to go there. Public universities will still exist, but you see, there must be a meeting point between the stakeholders.
When two elephants fight, the grass suffers. The students are the one suffering now, and you know, the lecturers might have some other options and part time jobs available for them; they might go to other private universities or seek employment elsewhere to still earn a living, but the students don’t have such luxury. Some of their parents may not have the resources to consider private university options. It is not everybody that can afford it, so those that cannot afford it are the ones suffering.
Back to Avail International Consult, what has been your experience since you started in 2011?
Well, we have had issues, we have had some difficulties before we got to where we presently are but overall, it has been good, and we thank God for the business and growth. We have grown from a one room office to this office apartment. We are not there yet, we are not where we want to be yet, which is to expand to every state of the federation and have offices internationally, but for where we are, we thank God, and it is far cry from where we started from in 2011. We have grown and increased our numbers of students.
We have been able to grow like I said by the grace of God and not by our strength, we have been able to overcome some of our challenges, and we have been able to earn trust from clients and Partners home and abroad. We have always been able to prove our sincerity and truth. Our clients know that we are genuine and honest, especially with the level of fraud going on in the industry. So, for us, we have been able to earn the people’s trust as to keeping our promises, the assurance that what we say we will do, so we get lots of referrals.
How cheap or expensive are your services?
Well, for the UK, we do not charge, we believe it is our own way of giving back to society. Some universities in the US or Canada charge an application fee. For that, we charge a token for processing fee, but our consultations are free across board.
What are some of the challenges you have heard or observed from Nigerians studying abroad given our different background, educational, cultural or knowledge level and trying to fit into a different environment?
We have experienced a few universities complaining to us to be more careful concerning the students we recommend and that we should ensure they are good enough in communications because some students get to school and struggle with communications and accent especially. This was years back. Back then, we used to have some of those challenges that some schools had to make our students write IETS, TOEFL exams and the likes, to equip some of them with the communication skill to learn in the class. Because, if you cannot hear and understand what the lecturer is saying, it is a waste of time.
We have had some students having challenges with culture shock, harsh weather, like in Canada which is usually very cold. However, one thing I know about Nigerians is that we are resilient, we are survivors, we will find a way to cope no matter how difficult it is. Yes, we have had issues and challenges, but they were things we were able to handle and deal with. And those challenges have made us stronger.
By your interaction with the people you have processed their admission abroad, why do you think Nigerians are travelling out to study abroad rather than patronise the universities in the country?
I believe it is because of the economic situation of the country. The insecurity in the land and the general apprehension in the country. Even if you are financially buoyant but do not feel safe, what good is your money? People resign from high paying jobs just to relocate themselves and their families abroad.
Does your organisation maintain relationships with some of the students you process their admission to schools abroad, and what is the feedback like from some of them?
We do. The feedback is usually encouraging, they love the courses they are studying, and they love the Universities. In some cases, the challenge confronted is usually at the initial stage. Our experience with them shows that most of the inconvenience comes when they first arrive in the country to study, and we find ways to encourage them and before you know it, they get used to the environment and they thrive.
As one who operates within the school system, what kind of changes would you want to see in Nigeria’s educational system?
First, I want the public universities to have facilities fit for a school. For example, it is theory they do most of the time, so, it is until they graduated from the school that some of them became exposed to the practical and modern aspect of their courses. But of course, some of them were fortunate to be exposed while in school.
The problem is that a lot of the facilities are not available in public universities. Because you find out that a lot of our students prefer to move to another country even in neighbouring countries to study only to discover that even some schools are not recognized. We have seen students bring certificates from Benin Republic that were rejected from schools abroad because they are diploma equivalent or some of them are not even recognized or accredited at all, and this shows how desperate Nigerians are to get education.
A lot of Nigerians want to go to school to acquire this education, but the facilities are just not there. So, the facilities need to be made available in universities. The absence of that is what results in people who studied a course in the university and go to an entirely different profession for work. For some of them, they were not properly exposed to facilities structured for their profession of study.
Sometime ago in the National Assembly, there was a push for a law that will compel every public office holder to have their children and wards to study in our local universities instead of studying abroad. The idea is to help boost our education, what is your take on this?
I support the idea. If our politicians can have their children study in the country, more attention will be given to the country’s educational sector compared to what we presently have. Yes, I think it will be a clever idea if such a move is made.
Do you have any association linking the proprietors of the study abroad business together wherein you all can jointly advise the government on how to improve the Nigerian decaying educational sector?
I am not aware of any association that brings people in this sector together, if there are, I will love to join. But as it stands, I am not aware of any. And that is part of the problem as to why it makes it easier for people to be easily defrauded in this study abroad business space.
One good thing about the universities abroad is that before they will start dealing with any organisation, they will first ask if such organisation is registered. But if there is, of course I will be happy to join and to contribute.
What is it like to manage a business in Nigeria?
It is not easy at all, especially with remarkably high cost. We spend money on things we are not supposed to spend money on in respect of the basic amenities. We talk about water, power generation and the rest that we spend money on. Here, we had to install an alternate power system to facilitate our power generation aside from the generating set. This is quite expensive, and many organisations are continuously finding it hard to survive in Nigeria.
God has kept us standing. He always makes a way!
If there is the opportunity, what kind of help would you subscribe to from the government?
The Nigerian government can request for the best performing students regularly from our secondary schools and provide them with scholarships for higher education study. And this should not be for those who can afford it, but more for those who cannot. They do that, but it is not enough. It should not be about the rich people studying abroad, it should be about the best at least the ‘As’ students. The government should look at things like this. They can approach agencies to get some of these students and sponsor them with a proviso that when they are done with their studies abroad, they should return to Nigeria and come and develop the country. They may be asked to sign a bond or something to ensure that at the end of the day, they will return, that will also help.
There is the aspect of student loans that obtains abroad where students who do not have the financial strength to pay for their academics are sponsored by the government by way of loan and after their study when they start working, they pay back. Can’t we adopt something like that?
I am not even aware we have anything like that in Nigeria. However, I believe it can be adopted in Nigeria because we have the means. At least if not for all students, the bright and brilliant ones who do not have the means to go to school because they are there.
Who is Bola Agunbiade?
Bola Agunbiade is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Lagos, (UNILAG), Lagos State. She is married with kids. After my graduation, I worked briefly in the media for about two years, between 2000 and 2003, then moved to the international education space with an agency for seven years before setting up Avail International Consult in 2011.