ABUJA, Nigeria — Every year about 1 million Nigerian students pass college entrance exams, but the country's universities can admit only 300,000.
The shortage of university places leaves most of Nigeria's best students frustrated and uneducated, according to Kabir Mato, director of the Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies at the University of Abuja.
“There is a tremendous national crisis that is at hand,” Mato told GlobalPost. “At the end of the day, most of those boys and girls that have passed very well will not be accommodated and so they will grow hopeless.”
Mato said the inability of Nigeria’s 122 universities to take on most of their qualified applicants is a national security concern because it drives unemployed young people onto the streets and possibly into extremist groups like Boko Haram, which has killed 450 people so far this year with their protest bombings.
Many would-be students, however, say they are not interested in joining militias; they just want to get a good job. Mato said since many of Nigeria's young people are unable to go to college, the economy also suffers from a lack of local innovation and educated employees.
Prospective university students say the fact that there are not enough university places is not nearly as frustrating as the corruption and nepotism of the application process.
Ismaila Babatunde graduated from secondary school in 2005. That year, he passed the university qualifying exams, but was not admitted to a public university. Private universities cost more than $3,000 a year, so he didn’t bother to apply.
Babatunde said he passed the qualifying exams again in 2007 and in 2012, each time studying full time for months.
Like many potential students, Babatunde said his efforts to get into college were frustrated by the fact that he has no high-level connections and not enough money. He said admissions officials work with student agents to demand cash for admissions. University officials will also consider letters from ministers or other top government offices.
“It’s only on the very, very rare occasion that there is admission on merit,” he told GlobalPost. “Sometimes you see someone that didn’t even apply to the school getting into the school.”
Corruption watchdog group Transparency International ranks Nigeria the world’s 40th most corrupt country out of 183. The group says Nigeria’s education system is perceived to be one the most corrupt in the public sector, after police, political parties and the legislature.
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Students say it can cost nearly $1,000 to bribe the right person to get into college. The person who gets the money, however, remains unknown. The cash is collected by other students who linger near admissions offices, telling hopefuls they can guarantee admission for a price.
Hamzat Lawal, a political science student at the University of Abuja, said it took him four years to get into college, despite the fact that he passed the exam with high marks four separate times. He said he couldn’t afford to pay the agents, so he paid smaller amounts to acquaintances who worked behind the scenes to get him admitted.
“When you walk in to an office, they tell you, ‘Go and get a note from a senator. Go and bring a note from a minister, or some director or go bring 150,000 [Nigerian naira],’” Lawal told GlobalPost. “A poor man like me. What do you expect me to do? I don’t know anybody. I don’t have money.”
Nigeria is growing increasingly poor, and some analysts say the lack of available university seats — or merit-based admissions — is increasing the income gap between the rich and the poor, exacerbating security issues that threaten to destabilize the country, and the West African region.
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International Crisis Group Senior Analyst Kunle Amuwo said poverty may not be the cause of security crises in Nigeria, like attacks by Boko Haram and ethnic clashes. But, he said, tensions between the very rich and the majority of the Nigerians, who are short of basic needs such as food, health care and adequate shelter are at the heart of many of the country’s problems.
“Poverty may predispose some of them to join the [militant] group,” he told GlobalPost. “But it doesn’t explain why they do what they do to get what they want. Otherwise most Nigerians would have done that.”
Seven years after he graduated from secondary school, Ismaila Babatunde says roughly 10 percent of his class has finished college. Some, he admits, appear to have turned to a life of crime and he says two have been killed in clashes with police. But, he says, many others, like him, have either moved on to jobs that don’t require college degrees, trade schools or are still taking the entrance exams, hoping to get in.
When asked if he plans to take the 2013 exams, after he missed the 2012 exams because he was promised admissions this year, Babatunde shakes his head at the idea.
“I may,” he said. “Or I may not.”