Students’ academic work suffers amid financial hardship

Students at the University of Burundi living on- and off-campus are struggling to make ends meet and this is affecting their academic performance. The meagre monthly loan of BIF60,000 (US$30) does little to lighten the load.

Students most affected are first years, whose families are small farmers with an income too small to meet their children’s most basic needs.

According to legislation, every student at the university receives a loan that must cover living expenses such as food, housing, transport and academic-related student needs. But, previously, the University of Burundi granted free housing and food to all students living on campuses, along with a small allowance.

The University of Burundi has three campuses in Bujumbura and a fourth in Gitega.

With this small loan, students are forced to rent accommodation on the outskirts of town where it is cheaper. The average monthly rent of houses with one bedroom and a living room, but mostly no power or running water is BIF70,000.

Shadrack, one of the new students from Cibitoke province, said there is no chance of eating in restaurants. The students buy food from marketplaces and take turns cooking. To cope with life, students form groups of three to four so they can share expenses.

Students take turns going to campus

“It is very hard to manage our time to review courses and cook at the same time. One of us must stay at home and prepare food while others are working on campus,” Shadrack added. The campuses are located approximately 3km from their homes and they must walk this distance each morning and evening. Due to the distance, most students eat only once a day, in the evening.

A few students do receive support from their families in the form of food from the countryside. However, their families’ income is too small to meet the needs of those at home and students at university.

The living conditions affect students’ physical and psychological health, as well as their academic performance.

The current university regulations allow students from the second year up to live in campus rooms. The law also grants them the same US$30 loan to cover room fees, food and other expenses. The monthly rent of a campus room is BIF7,000.

Part-time jobs a small consolation

Aline, a second-year student, said the students buy food from a private restaurant established on campus but after paying for housing, they still cannot make ends meet. “For example, the cost of lunch and dinner consisting of poor quality rice and beans is BIF2,000. There is not enough money to cover meals for a month.

“Our families could be our supporters, but they do not have enough to feed our small brothers and sisters,” she said.

The quality of the food students eat does not generate enough energy to enable them to work as hard as they should, Aline said’. “In addition to this pitiful meal, we cannot afford breakfast. As a consequence, we experience various diseases, and we do not regularly attend lectures.”

As a partial solution to the situation, some students look for part-time night jobs, such as working as security guards and waiters in bars and restaurants.

However, the poor remuneration does not fill the gap, said Gilbert, a student who is a security guard. “After spending the whole night without sleeping, you feel exhausted the following day and, even though you attend a lecture, you cannot concentrate,” he said.

Gilbert said cultural barriers make it difficult for women to find extra jobs because they view the night-time jobs as risky and only meant for men.

Too tired to study

Innocent Ntwari, a psychologist lecturer at the university, said he understands the challenges the students are facing and that the student loans do not cover their living expenses.

Ntwari said the situation undermines the main purpose of students and that is academic success. “I am used to seeing many students absent in lectures. Even those who are present seem drowsy.

“Their exam results are also not nearly as good as they were before the enforcement of the loan policy. The government should again subsidise rooms and food to better students’ learning conditions so that the university yields the most robust future intellectuals.”

The students interviewed in this article requested to be identified only by their first names.