Helping Students Achieve Their Foreign Education Dream Is Our Passion – Avail International Consult Boss, Mrs Bola Agunbiade

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STUDY ABROAD

Mrs Omobola Agunbiade is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Avail International Consult Ltd, a study abroad organization focused on securing and processing admission for local and international students to study abroad.

In this interview with Amechi Obiakpu, 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.

Excerpts:

Can you please give us a brief of what Avail International Consult is about?

Avail International Consult is a study abroad organization, we are an agent in Nigeria that helps students or international students to gain admission abroad, and we also help them with visa applications. It’s a full package but majorly, what we do is to help students get admission. But, at times, we have clients who come to us to help them with relocation, we can also help with that, but we would like to say that we are a study abroad agency helping Nigerians or international students from Africa or international students generally to get admission to study abroad and also to get their visas. We majorly help in countries such as UK, U.S., Canada, Germany, Ireland and Australia and some other European countries. We used to do Asian countries but not as much because of the pandemic.

What about Ticketing?

Yes, we do ticketing as well. Again, we organize tutorials for the students because some universities abroad ask for IESTS, TOEF, GMAT, so yes we assist students with the registration for these tests, and we also do tutorials as well for them.

What informed what you do, why are you into this business, when you could have been into any other business?

It started from my former job, I was working in an organization which was majorly a study abroad outfit, and I was with them for seven years and before then I was into journalism, but it was not what I wanted to do. So when I got employed in the study abroad organization, 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 get 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 patronizing 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 go study abroad and come back to impact our economy, and some of them do go 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 of them do return to develop the country – a lot of them don’t return. But, you still feel their impact in Nigeria one way or the other. They still, maybe 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 don’t have all the facilities to take all our students that are willing to study here. And, even the public universities are not encouraging students, they are mostly on strike and its only the private universities that seem consistent and rather than spending so many years in the universities trying to get your degree, we encourage the 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 Masters 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 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 politics or other profession or investment in the country.

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, talk more of undergraduates. It’s looking very hopeless for the students and I sympathize with them. The damage like I said is something that is immeasurable, for some of them will engage in unethical and despicable acts that are unimaginable. Like they say, an idle mind 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 education era. Though, some of them came back with pregnancy, others could not, and you will see things like this happening. For us, it’s 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 because already, it is on the verge of collapsing?

We are on the verge of collapsing already, I think the government with ASUU and all of those who are involved should come to a meeting point. I think education is very important to Nigeria. The government might not be able to give them all that they (ASUU) are demanding, but I think it is very important that some meeting point should be arrived at by all parties.

Education is very important to Nigeria just like every other society and so the government should do all they can to meet their demand, maybe not all, but try and meet them at 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 government should hands off control to private individuals?

That may not be possible because not everybody can afford private universities. They are expensive, even when you want to go there; one may not have the resources to go there. Public universities will still exist, but you see, there must be a meeting point between the universities and the lecturers so that at least they can get some level of satisfaction from their job and pour the same to the students.

Like they say, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers and the way it is, the students are the one suffering now, and you know, the lecturers might have some other options and part time jobs available to them;  they might go to other private universities or seek employment elsewhere to still earn a living, but the students may not have much of such luxury. Some of their parents may not have the resources to consider private university option. 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 and all in all, it’s been good and we thank God for the business and we are also growing. 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 get offices internationally, but where we are, we thank God, and it is far cry from where we started from in 2011. We have moved and increased our numbers of students. In the past, we used to do an average of 30 students in one year, but now, we do an average of 300 students per year. We used to have challenges with payment of salaries, but all that are stabilized now.

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 what I call integrity from clients and schools we register them abroad. Because we have been able to prove to them our sincerity and the ability to tell the truth always. We have been able to earn that honesty from our clients because they believe and know that we are genuine and honest and again because of the level of fraud going on in the industry. People will take people’s money and promise them visas and instead defraud them. So, for us, we have been able to earn the people’s trust as to keeping our promises to what we say we will do, and our clients believe that is why we get referrals from time to time because of our honesty and genuineness.

By way of figure, can you give us an estimate of the number of students you have successfully processed admission abroad for?

From 2020, we started doing around 300 students per year, and prior to this time, we were doing between 20 and 50 students, and if you merge that with our activities from 2011, I will say over 1000 students.

How cheap or expensive are your services?

Well, for UK, we don’t charge, we believe it is our own way of giving back to the society. Though we know a lot of agencies who charge as much as N250,000 or N300,000. Some universities in US or Canada charge application fee. For that, we charge a token for processing fee, but our consultations fee is 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 heard some universities complaining to us to be more careful concerning the students we recommend and that we should ensure they are good enough in the area of communications because some students go to the UK and struggle with communications and accent especially. They could not understand what some lecturers are saying. I think a lot of Nigerians have developed now. Back then, we used to have some of those challenges that some schools had to make our students write IETS, TOEF 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 with the weather, like in Canada which is usually very cold. However, one thing I know with Nigerians is that they always find a way around everything, find a way to cope no matter how difficult it is. Some students also have issues with their health that they fail to disclose, but the school discovers it and reach back to us, and we tell them the students appeared fine to us, and we were not aware of such health challenges. 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 patronize 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 have the money but you do not feel safe, what good is your money? We hear a lot of people resigning from the banks and other high paying jobs just to relocate themselves and their families abroad.

Does your organization maintain some kind of relationship with some of the students you process their admission to schools abroad, and what is the feedback like from some of them?  

We do, but not for all students. Some of them travel and don’t even respond to us again. For some of them who respond, the feedback are usually encouraging, some of them like the courses they are studying while some others complained about their school and the likes. The thing is that in some countries, you can change school while in some other, you cannot. But in the one you can change, we assist them to make changes in their school or in their courses, but in countries you cannot change school, we just tell them to manage it and proffer ways they can get around it. In some cases, the problem is usually the challenges of being confronted with something new and instead of facing it head on, some students would want to run away from it. The first one month, some of them do that. Our experience with them shows that most of the inconvenience comes when they first arrive the country to study, we tend to encourage them.

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, I have a sister who attends the same church with me who studied computer science, but all through her education, there were no computers in her school. And I hear some say that, all the while they were in the universities, their practical study was like next to nothing. Some say it was when they left the school that they started seeing the computer. It is theory they do most of the time, so, it was until they graduated from the school that some of them became exposed to the practical aspect of the computer. But of course some of them were fortunate to be exposed while in school, maybe because of access to the computers.

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 neighboring countries to study only to discover that even some schools are not recognized. We have seen students bring certificate from Benin Republic that we refused because they are diploma equivalent or some of them not even recognized at all and this shows how desperate Nigerians are, just to get this education.

A lot of Nigerians want to go to school to acquire this education, but the resources are just not there. And I don’t know why getting into the university is more tedious in Nigeria or why we need a barrier in terms of the JAMB and post JAMB exams which isn’t friendly at all. For me, I think these processes are old fashioned and I don’t think that is the best way to get the brilliant students at all. These barriers should be scrapped. Some of the students even go ahead to register for pre-degree as a way of getting access into the universities and to avoid JAMB exams, and even at that, some of them don’t get in. So, the facilities need to be made available in universities. The absence of that is what results to people who studied a course in the university and is into an entire different profession working. For some of them, they were not properly exposed to some facilities structured for the 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?

Definitely 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 good idea if such move is done.

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 Nigerian decaying educational sector?

I am not aware of any association that brings people in this market 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 our study abroad business. All it takes for people is to put out a signpost for people to say I will give you visa and 20 people will pay you N1m each and the person will lock up the shop and relocate to another location.

This is because there is no association to hold any one down. Some people are not even registered and yet are into the profession. But, one good thing about the universities abroad is that before they will start dealing with any organization, they will first ask if such organization is registered with certificate of registration issued. There is no association linking all agencies together that I am aware of for now. But if there is, of course I will find a way to join and to contribute by way of advice to the government on ways to improve our school system.

What is it like to manage a business in Nigeria?

It is not easy at all especially with very high overhead cost, and 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 a solar system to facilitate our power generation. This is quite very expensive and many organizations are continuously finding it hard to survive in Nigeria.

But, the thing is that somehow we are used to it and since 2011 we started, we have been used to it and have found a way of surviving all through our eleven years of existence.

If there is the opportunity, what kind of help would you subscribe to from the government?

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. Maybe 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 Omobola 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 I got a job in the international education space with an agency for seven years before setting up Avail International Consult in 2011.