Nigerian students risk losing Russian scholarship as federal govt refuses to pay airfare, stipend

Nigerian students stranded in Russia used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit: YouTube]

About 100 Nigerian students may forfeit scholarships worth over $1.5 million provided by the Russian government if the Nigerian government fails to pay for their flight tickets and agree to cover their stipend before December 13.

Yearly, the Russian government offers about 100 scholarship of between four to seven years to Nigerian students in courses ranging from Medicine and engineering. The successful candidates are chosen after a rigorous selection process that includes writing exercises and interviews.

This year alone, over 4,000 students applied but only 88 were awarded the competitive scholarship. Many of the successful candidates are graduates of Federal government-run gifted schools, where some of the most brilliant Nigerian pupils are educated.

PREMIUM TIMES learned that each of the scholarship is worth between $14,000 and $20,000 yearly, which is covered by the Russian government. The Nigerian government, however, is required to pay for the flight tickets of the students to Russia and provide for them a monthly living stipend for the duration of their studies.

But many of the successful candidates may see their hope of studying abroad and perhaps, of a better future dashed because the Nigerian government has refused to pay for their trip to Russia, and to commit to covering their living stipend, in clear violation of its Bilateral Education Agreement with Russia.

According to the agreement, the Russian government covers the basic education needs of the Nigerian students, including the payment of tuition, as well for a Russian language course and a stipend of $30 for students who pass their examination with distinction.

A curious decision

The refusal of the government to honour its obligation is even more curious because in January, the Ministry of Education advertised and encouraged qualified Nigerians to apply. The ministry also advertised a list of successful candidates at the end of the selection process.

What is more, N286 million was also made available for the scholarship alongside similar programmes with Ukraine and Turkey in the proposed 2018 budget recently published by the Nigerian government.

Frustrated by the government’s refusal to pay for the student’s flight tickets, Jerome Okolo, a member of the Federal Scholarship Board Committee for Russian scholarships took to Twitter on Thursday to lament the fate of the students.

“As of 6th December, the FGN says it can’t afford to pay the airfare to Russia for these students to get free Education in Medicine, Engineering, etc,” he wrote.

He explained that students from other countries are already in Russia since September to start the mandatory language courses. He explained that the top officials at the Ministry of Education are aware of the quagmire the students are in but are unprepared to do anything about it.

“The Minister for Education, his Perm Sec & many top officials of the FGN are aware of this grotesque & callous throwing away of an opportunity of a lifetime for humble students who don’t have a voice. If a child of the rich and mighty was involved, they’d long be on their way,” he added.

Despite the lack of commitment by the Nigerian government, the Russian Embassy is doing everything it can to make sure the students do not miss the opportunity. In a letter sent to the students seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the embassy stated that it was ready to waive the visa fees for the student and even extended the application deadline.

“According to the Nigerian Scholarship Board’s information, the authority cannot provide funding for transfer to the Russian Federation and its part of academic allowances for the Nigerian students, enrolled in Russian Universities under the Scholarship program of 2017,” the letter read.

“Under these circumstances, an option of a self-funded trip to Russia has been brought under consideration.

“Given the current situation, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Nigeria, acting under an agreement with the Russian universities, confirms its readiness to provide free visa assistance for Nigerian participants of the scholarship program of 2017, who decide to embark on the study at their own expenses.

“Please be mindful of the fact that the issue of further allowances payment should be addressed directly to the Scholarship Board of Nigeria and resolved therewith.

“The deadline to confirm your resolution to travel to Russia at your own expenses and to provide your flight details is December 8, 2017.

“For those, who opt for this opportunity, the date to collect the Russian student entry visas together with other scholarship-related documents, submitted earlier to the Embassy, is December 13, 2017, at 12:00 pm. Please be on time and enter through the consular gates,” the letter stated.

When asked why the students do not take the opportunity provided by the Russian Embassy and pay for the airfare themselves so as not to miss the opportunity, Mr. Okolo explained:

“The FSB (the Federal Scholarship Board ) has cautioned students against making their way to Russia as FGN won’t recognise them as “FGN scholars” entitled to stipends unless a “letter of endorsement” is individually obtained from the Hon. Minister for Education, impossible before the deadline,” he tweeted.

PREMIUM TIMES spoke to two of the scholarship recipients who pleaded not to be named for fear that they may be singled out as scapegoats by the FSB.

One of the students who was admitted to study Oil and Gas Engineering confirmed that the FSB has mandated them to get an endorsement from the Ministry of Education before taking further steps in relation with the scholarship.

“We discussed with the FSB director and she said the FSB does not have the fund to sponsor our trip to Russia but we should write to the Minister of Education so that he can endorse our scholarship and the release of our fund. The FSB director said if we sponsor our trip to Russian with the endorsement from the ministry, we would be doing so as private students and we won’t receive stipend or award from the government,” he said.

The Russian Embassy also said we should travel with at least $1,500 to fund our accommodation, insurance and other initial expenses,” he said.

The other students who was admitted to study Agro-Engineering said the entire experience has been “terrible”. He said even if he could afford to pay his airfare to Russia, he cannot afford to finance his stay throughout the duration of his study.

Chinyere Ihuoma, the director for Press at the Ministry of Education, did not answer several calls made to her mobile number. She also did not respond to sms sent to her for comment.

PREMIUM TIMES, however, was able to reach Mary Gadi, the assistant director of the FSB. She said a meeting was being held over the issue on Thursday and the director of the FSB was attending. But she said it was only the director who can give further detail on the matter. Mrs Gadi promised to send the phone number of the director.

She, however, did not send the number as promised and subsequently did not answer further calls made to her.

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