British universities are to be allowed to build campuses and offer degrees in Nigeria for the first time, a move that supporters say will benefit a higher education system dogged by strikes and a shortage of student places.
Nigeria's National Universities Commission (NUC) has announced a pilot scheme that will allow a limited number of foreign universities to build branch campuses, twin with Nigerian institutions and offer distance-learning degrees.
The British Council, which has been in negotiations with the NUC for two years over the deal, said that UK institutions were better placed to move into Nigeria than their international rivals.
They can provide extra places and stability in a higher education system where demand exceeds capacity, it argued.
Kevin Van-Cauter, higher education adviser at the British Council, described the initiative as "a breakthrough for UK universities and colleges", while also stressing the benefits for Nigeria.
"There is an issue of a severe lack of infrastructure in its higher education system," he said. "It has huge problems in that there is not enough capacity.
"One solution is to invite foreign providers and that is the perspective of the Nigerian Government, which wants to increase the availability of education."
There is an initial core of "maybe 15 to 20 British institutions seriously interested in developing partnerships in Nigeria", Mr Van-Cauter added.
He described the country as "one of the world's biggest growth markets" in higher education.
Educational links between the two countries are already close, as the UK is the most popular destination for Nigerian students studying overseas.
According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 12,680 Nigerian students at UK institutions in 2007-08, up from 4,590 in 2002-03 - a 176 per cent increase in five years.
In a comparison of non-European Union countries that send students to the UK, Nigeria had the fourth-highest total in 2007-08, behind China, India and the US.
At an Education UK Partnership conference in Edinburgh earlier this month, Nom Habu, Education UK's business partnerships co-ordinator in Nigeria, said the scheme could drive up standards in the country, where staff and student strikes have taken their toll.
"Students who enrol on a four-year course may spend five to six years on that programme," he said. "Parents have lost interest. Some are frustrated with the system."
Mr Habu said these problems had contributed to the growth of private universities, of which Nigeria has 41. However, he added that they were struggling to provide sufficient capacity.
Nigeria's private universities will be the focus for links with British institutions. The NUC will use new guidelines to monitor and license all foreign operators.
In advertising the scheme, the NUC said it "noted with dismay" previous "so-called affiliations" between foreign and Nigerian universities. Such arrangements were illegal, it said, as they were unapproved and "the quality of the degree programmes being advertised is questionable".
Any foreign university operating in Nigeria must apply to the NUC for a licence, providing evidence of "competent" home accreditation for twinning and distance learning. Branch campuses must be a "replica" of partners' home bases and meet Nigerian quality assurance standards.
State support for worthy partners
At a recent round table conference in Abuja involving the British Council and the NUC, Hajia Aisha Jibril Dukku, Nigeria's Education Minister, promised support for foreign universities that meet quality assurance standards and are ready to help produce "globally competitive Nigerian graduates" in collaboration with domestic universities.
She said: "It is widely acknowledged that cross-border higher education has great potential in expanding access, which in turn will lead to the production of higher-level manpower that is critical to the socio-economic and technological development of any nation."
Tim Hunt, regional manager for Africa and the Middle East at Coventry University, said that Nigeria represents a "fantastic opportunity" for British universities.
But he warned that most UK institutions still lack the necessary specialist experience of working in Africa, with Nigeria's poor infrastructure and corruption presenting challenges.
"I always think Africa, up until recently, was not seen as an important market," he said. "But you compare our recruitment figures from Nigeria alone, and they are competing with India and China."
In January, grants will be offered for UK institutions to visit potential partners in Nigeria. Then, in the spring, the British Council will announce opportunities to bid for support for partnerships in Nigeria under the Prime Minister's Initiative for International Education.