Walking onto the main campus at Donka University in the capital, Conakry, means running the gauntlet through packs of young men wearing football kit and young women with plunging necklines, their mobile phones clamped to their ears, as music blares from parked cars.
The vibrant state-run campus is dotted with posters for HIV/AIDS campaigns alongside fliers for concerts, student societies, and motorbikes for sale, much like any other university in the world.
Living in a country with one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes, Donka’s 14,000 students are extremely privileged.
Most Guineans will spend their lives more likely to use a newspaper to wrap a baguette than they are apt to hold one to read. Just 30 percent of Guineans receive any education and few of this group can afford to advance beyond their village schools.
Donka’s students say even though they have beaten the odds to get to university, getting through the four or six years in the classroom and finding work afterwards is as big a challenge.
For Fatima, a third-year medical student, most days start at 5 a.m. with a dash to get to university within two hours, even though the first lecture is never until 9 a.m.
If she arrived later, Fatima said she knows all the wooden benches in the tiny classroom would be filled. The remaining dozens or sometimes hundreds of students are forced to stand at the back, or even outside the classroom, stretched to hear through the open windows.
Some students IRIN met at Donka University bring their own pieces of wood to prop up as makeshift portable chairs, as class sizes have stretched beyond 1,200.
Members of one class said they had clubbed together and bought a particularly soft-spoken professor a microphone so that everyone would be able to hear wherever they had to stand or sit.
“If you’re stuck at the back or outside there’s hardly any point being there,” Fatima said. “It’s like watching a marionette talking - all you see is the mouth, but no words come out.”
For Fatima and most other students, making it to school before 7 a.m. is not just a question of willpower to get out of bed before first light.
Household economics are finely calibrated for most families in Conakry, where cash transactions are the norm and the city’s sprawling scale means motorised transport is a necessity, not a luxury.
Fuel prices in Guinea have soared 288 percent in the last two years, while inflation has hovered around 30 percent, making getting to school an expensive affair.
On top of 60,000 Guinean francs (US $10) in university tuition to pay monthly, students need roughly the same to pay for books every semester. Food is an extra expense. Fatima said she despairs over the additional 8,000 francs ($1.50) she has to find for commuting.
Whereas she used to be able to take a shared taxi for her 45-minute ride to school, the sharp increase in fuel costs means Fatima has to take a “magbana” - one of the rusted, over-packed minivans with holes hacked into the side for windows that career around Conakry.
Fatima sometimes asks her father, a mid-level civil servant, to drop her off when he has fuel for his car. But then she has to pay for his fuel and food for the day too, making it more expensive than the bus or taxi.
Cash for grades
Getting a good mark isn’t just a case of showing up and passing the exams.
In Guinea the smallest to largest transactions are influenced by graft, economists say. The university is no exception.
All students are obliged to buy the book or collection of readings made under each of their professor’s names, at a cost upwards for each student of 50,000 francs ($10) per month. Students who do not buy the book, or instead copy it, will automatically receive a failing grade when the professor checks each student’s copy.
Some professors are also accused of swapping cash for grades. “With many of the professors it is necessary to go and see them privately and give them some time if you want to get a good mark,” one of Fatima’s friends, who refused to give a name, said as other students nodded agreement.
Particularly poor students or those who have missed many classes have to pay more than good students who have worked hard and achieved enough to be awarded the high grade.
“If you have the means and the contacts you do not need to work here,” Fatima’s friend said.
Donka University’s professors often do not turn up to class at all, as happened on Friday afternoon when IRIN tried to meet the third-year medical students’ professor at his class to discuss the students’ allegations.
Alpha Diallo, Donka University rector, said the university’s main problem is that since it was created in 1962 the state has barely invested in the campus or its students. He also said the university frequently had difficulty getting the state to contribute the 80 percent of each student’s fees it is supposed to provide.
“All the problems you see here are because of finance,” he said. “If we had money we would organise student buses and transport and build new classrooms.”
Diallo agreed with the students that transport and overcrowding are major concerns, but said the university’s main problem is finding qualified teachers.
Donka University has 400 teaching staff on its books, but Diallo said most of these hold down full-time jobs in government ministries or are on the medical faculty staff at the hospital.
“In principle we should hire people with PhDs but there are not many of those readily available. Ideally we would hire in the West Africa region and beyond too, but the problem is that the salaries Guinean teachers accept would not be accepted by most other people,” he said.
According to the UN Human Development Report in 2004, the last time figures were available, Guinea’s government spent 1.8 percent of its annual GDP on education, compared to 2.9 percent on its military, and 0.9 percent on health.
Jobless at 26
Even when students make it through the university system to graduation day, there is no guarantee of a job at the end.
Bimba Dion Fonfana, 26, graduated from the Donka University with a degree in sociology last year. Unable to find work, he has turned to selling packets of cheap Chinese medicines at the Medina Market in Conakry until an internship or proper job turns up.
“I’ve got a problem finding work. My cousin owns this shop and she has let me work here while I look. Ideally, I would like a job as a functionary, but that means I need to know someone in a good place,” he said.
Guinea’s creaking post-socialist economy is growing at just two percent per year, far below its potential and the six percent needed to start creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty, according to the United Nations. Exact unemployment figures are not available.
For Fatima and her friends, getting a job is tomorrow’s struggle. For now, they are focused on getting through this school year. “It’s tough here,” Fatima said. “If you don’t have courage you cannot study.”