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Students Struggle in Senegal's Packed University


In Senegal, like in many parts of Africa, investment in primary education has led more students than ever to attend university. Once there, their numbers overwhelm the resources available. Naomi Schwarz went to class with a first year English student, the first person from his village ever to reach university.

Abdou Ngom, an English professor at Senegal's main university in the capital, Dakar, lectures about African literature to a class of 1,500. In the overheated room, only a third of more than 20 fans are working; birds fly in through broken windows. This is one of the newest buildings on campus.

The professor tries to engage the class in a discussion.

Only a handful of students will have a chance to speak during the hour-long class. Almost all sit within the first few rows of seats. From the back of the classroom, the responses are inaudible.

Sitting near the back, Idrissa Ba, a first year English student from southern Senegal, tries to take notes on what he can hear.

"I am the first student from my village to get to university," he said.

Ba says his parents are proud of him, but even so, they have been encouraging him to leave school. He says they want him to get a job to help support the family.

But Ba says he does not want to stop studying.

"I want to go to university to study and to have a certificate to get a job," he added.

With his parents unable to help, Ba must live for the year on the $120 grant the university gives non-scholarship students.

He shares a room with a friend in a suburban neighborhood half-an-hour from the campus, paid for with help from a cousin who lives in Dakar. He says he is luckier than most.

The university has low-cost dorms for students, but there are not enough for the number of students today. No first-year students will get a room.

Ba's friend Aliou Niakh, is also studying English. He is sharing a two-person room with seven others. At night, they pull out foam mattresses.

He says his friend invited him to stay in the room. And he says all the dorm rooms on campus are over-filled, like this.

With only two beds and one small desk, there is little space in the room to study. One of Niakh's roommates, Thierno Faye, says he cannot concentrate in the crowded space.

Faye says when he needs to find a quiet place he studies in the woods near campus. He says he sees many other students there.

English professor Ngom says he had a very different experience when he was a student at the university, 20 years ago.

"It was not the same. There were few students really. I remember in my BA we were about 100 students," he recalled.

But as investment in primary education pays off, more students than ever are continuing to high school and beyond. In Senegal, every student who earns a high-school diploma is entitled to a spot at a state university. The top students go to a small university in the north of Senegal. Most of the rest end up at the university in Dakar.

Ngom says the huge number of students means they are not receiving the same quality education that he got.

"It is a real challenge for a professor here, because you see we cannot have that true assessment of the progress made by students," he explained. "There are too many."

He says another problem is finding books. Some students cannot afford to buy books. Others cannot find a copy, because too few copies are available in Senegal or at the university library.

Ngom says the government needs to invest more in higher education.

"What we can do then is to ask authorities to take measures to increase the number of universities, [and] to extend the capacities of the departments," he added.

The consequences of the many difficulties become clear after exams. Ngom says more than half the students will fail.

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