This is why we are asking the UK Home Office to #ReformIELTSPolicy for Anglophone Africans

It all began in February 2020 when I received that email from Nexford University requesting for an English proficiency result as part of the admission requirements for their Bachelor’s program. This request came even after I had paid admission fees, submitted my O-Level results, my journalism diploma certificate and my Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education certificate as proof that, perhaps, I could speak English. Well, if you’ve stuck long enough with this movement, I’m sure you know how that turned out. However, for those who don’t know, we got into a heated back-and-forth argument which eventually made the University change its English proficiency policy. Yes, victory, but Nexford is just one school out of thousands out there who still require English language Proficiency tests from Anglophone Africans despite the fact that a vast majority of us have been speaking English since we started saying “Mama” and “Dada” as babies. 

The UK Home Office has a list of countries who do not need to prove their English proficiency while applying for visa or university admission. There are currently 18 countries on this list including, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Malta, St Kitts and Nevis ,Trinidad and Tobago, to mention a few. However, it will interest you to know that out of the 20+ countries in Africa who have English as their official language, NOT EVEN ONE is on this Home Office list. Despite the fact that most of these countries are former British colonies and belong to the Commonwealth!

The criteria for getting on this list will blow your mind even more. So, the Home Office said in an email to the BBC, and I quote, “We must have evidence that at least 51% of the population speaks English as a first language for a country to be included in the Majority English Speaking Country list…We do not have the required evidence that shows the majority of people in Nigeria speak English as their first language, which is why applicants have to sit a Secure English Language Test” Okay fair enough right? So the BBC reporter, Olivia Ndubuisi, who featured me and other campaigners on BBC World TV, emailed the Home Office in July 2021 asking what form of evidence the Home Office requires. Zilch. No response. Fast forward to October 2021, in a bid to revive the conversation, on behalf of 50 #ReformIELTSPolicy campaigners, I wrote again to the Home Office asking for what form of data they need Anglophone countries in Africa to submit in order to prove that 51% of their population speaks English as a first language and… yes, your guess is right. As of November 2, 2021 we have still not heard back from them. 

We emailed the Home Office on October 18, 2021 following up with Olivia’s email sent in July 2021

While we wait for this “response” and continue to engage with the British Council, leveraging on my position as a member of the Council’s Youth Advisory Board, we have framed an argument with three reasons that support why we think the Home Office should formally recognize English-speaking countries in Africa, just like many of their counterparts in the Caribbean who currently make that list. 

  • The Cost

We did some data mining from the British Council website (britishcouncil.org), WageIndicator (wageindicator.org) and Macrotrends.net to ascertain the current cost of IELTS exam across Anglophone Africa (using 10 countries as sample) and how this cost compares with the daily minimum wage and the current poverty rates (looking at people living under US$5.50/day). For the sake of uniformity, all local currency conversions were done using the Google currency converter. All amounts are represented in US dollars for easy understanding.

The cost of the IELTS exam ranged between $202 and $313, with the average cost being $274.4. Ugandans pay the most while Nigerians pay the least to sit for these exams. However, it is important to state that this cost referred to here doesn’t cover the cost of preparatory classes and academic resources, as well as the cost of logistics to write the exam for those who don’t have test centers in their city.

There’s a huge disparity between what the average Anglophone African earns and how much these tests cost

The chart above also shows graphically (in red) what the average person earns in wages daily across these countries and how that earning matches with the cost of the test. Can you see the wide disparity? If you take it a step further and consider how the test cost compares with the 2021 poverty rate, we learned that the average percentage of people living under $5.50/day is at 75.58%. Some countries, like Malawi, have as much as 96.6% of their population living within this threshold while others like Nigeria have 92%, Zambia 88.1% and Kenya recorded 86.6% of its population living in poverty. 

These dire numbers almost had me doubting Macrotrends.net because I was just wondering, what is this poverty porn? But you will recall that in 2019 the World Bank reported that 85.5% of Africans live on less than $5.50 per day. Since 2019, COVID-19 has happened and quite a number of these countries have fallen into economic recession a couple of times – I guess that explains it.

The simple question is, why charge citizens of the poorest region in the world up to $300 to test their proficiency in a language they speak every day?

The worst part is that the exam result expires every two years! This brings me to the next point.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region in the world
  • The Expiration Period

If I had written the IELTS examination last year to get into Nexford, before my Bachelor’s program is completed in 2023, the result would have expired meaning my ‘English knowledge’ would have ‘expired’ even before I left school, at least according to the British Council, IDP and Cambridge University who administer IELTS. Therefore, if I was applying for a Master’s degree in the UK for example or for the Chevening scholarship, I would pay another $202 to prove that I can speak the same language I just used to graduate from school. Do you see how flawed this logic is?

My friend Amarachi will be writing her 2nd IELTS exam in three years because she didn’t secure the scholarship she applied for and then COVID happened, etc. There’s also Afees Agboola who had written the examination twice already between 2017 and 2020. Faith from the BBC interview I referred to earlier already has a Bachelor’s degree and when she applied for a Master’s scholarship she was told she’s not eligible because she has to prove her English proficiency. She had to let go of the opportunity because she couldn’t afford the IELTS exam fee which is currently up to thrice the monthly minimum wage in Nigeria.

There’s hardly any rationale to back up this two-year expiration period. Maybe if we were considering Spanish-speaking or French-speaking countries, then perhaps we could say maybe it is possible to pass the exam and within two years you can forget bits of the language because you don’t speak it every day. Maybe? But how can this also be the case for English-speaking countries?

Figure shows how the two dimensions of language cognition interact for both native and bilingual speakers

Let us consider the BLC linguistic theory using an argument posed by Jan H. Hulstijn of the University of Amsterdam in March 2015. There are two dimensions of language cognition (also called language ability or language proficiency): (i) Basic Language Cognition (BLC) versus Extended Language Cognition (ELC) and (ii) Core versus Periphery. BLC refers to the ability to produce spoken language in situations of everyday life, common to all adult L1-ers (native speakers) in a given language community. ELC is the complement or extension of BLC. Core linguistic cognition includes knowledge in the phonetic-phonological, morphonological, morpho-syntactic, and lexical domains and knowledge of how to use language forms appropriate to the communicative situation. Peripheral linguistic cognition, includes interactional ability, strategic competence of how to perform in verbal communication under adverse conditions, and metalinguistic knowledge.

Hulstijn argues that for both L1 and L2 learners (i.e native speakers and bilingual speakers), the acquisition process (the development of language cognition) is gradual and this is true for both the acquisition of BLC and the acquisition of parts of ELC. If there is no difference in the development of cognition in native speakers and bilingual speakers, why is American English or Australian English ‘rated higher’ than Nigerian English or Kenyan English? How come one ‘expires’ and the other doesn’t? This thought on language equality brings me to the last point.

  • Other Languages

It would interest you to know that with English being the language of upward mobility in Anglophone Africa and with increasing rural-urban migration, you will find a lot of L1 English speakers like me between their late teens and early 30s who cannot speak any of the indigenous languages fluently all because our schools, churches, public spaces are all operated in English. If we get to sacrifice this much for English, the least the Home Office can do is to recognize us. 

I mention this because one argument folks often use to justify IELTS in Anglophone Africa is that there are many other languages on the continent that can ‘corrupt the English’ we speak – which I think is crazy dumb but let us allow data do the talking.  We analyzed other indigenous languages spoken in the 18 countries currently on the Home Office’s ‘list of life’ to see if they also have chances of their English being ‘corrupted’. 

In total, the data represented above shows that the 18 countries on the Home Office’s list speak a combined 82 indigenous and other major languages and this was obtained from a quick sweep of historical content on the web using WorldAtlas.com as primary source. Guyana has 18 additional languages while Australia has 13. It is important to note that even in countries that speak only one or two indigenous languages, these languages were often preferred to English. In Malta, English is often referred to as the second language as 98% speak Maltese and 88% speak English. In Jamaica, even though it appears they speak only one additional language, Babbel.com reports that about 2.7 million Jamaicans speak ‘Patwa’ compared to about 50,000 who speak English as prescribed by the British. If these countries do not have their English ‘corrupted’ why is it a different case for Anglophone Africans? Especially when you consider that all of the croele spoken in the Caribbean have their roots in African languages. The logic beats me. 

As I think of possible ways to get the UK Home Office to respond to these issues raised following their ‘suspicious loud silence’ so far, I am hopeful that perhaps if we can get this petition by This Is Africa – which I’ve been promoting since last year – up to 150,000 from the current 94,000 signatures maybe, just maybe, this will be given the prominence it deserves. I also hope the UK Parliament is also keeping an eye on this because they are bound by law to discuss UK-centric issues highlighted by petitions with over 100,000 signatures. 

I am hopeful. We will win.

______

Ebenezar Wikina is the Founder of Policy Shapers and Convener of the #ReformIELTSPolicy movement. Learn more about him here

This piece is endorsed by more than 50 other #ReformIELTSPolicy campaigners

Image Credit: Christ Lawton/Unsplash

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