Getting MUST right: New Malawi university, new opportunity

The pleas from government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities for a raise in their monthly allowances seem to be just what this country needed to begin a conversation on how to overhaul the way we fund public universities. The opening of MUST later this year, as announced by Hon. Eunice Kazembe in June, gives the country a chance to recreate the blueprint for how to provide university education.

Government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities are not only afforded a free university education, they are “lucratively employed” to pursue a university education, as somebody put it on my facebook wall some weeks ago.  As Minister of Education Hon. Eunice Kazembe explained on MBCTV recently, each government-sponsored student receives up to K400,000 per year in allowances. It is one thing to go to university for free, it is a different thing to be paid in the process.

If MUST will be run in the same business as usual terms as the other universities, then it too risks going through the same disruptions that have come to characterise the already-existing universities. Indications are that a major rethink is underway, going by what Hon. Kazembe and Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano, Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi, have recently pronounced. Three things stand out as in dire need of a rethink as Malawi prepares to open its fourth public university. These are the much-debated quota system, student allowances, and loans.

The reason why the quota system is the most controversial idea in Malawian higher education debates is because of the capacity problems in our universities. We are not moving quickly enough to address this problem. In 2011 a survey of 150 countries repeated what many of us already know, that only 0.3 percent of young Malawians in the 17-22 year age range are actually in university, placing Malawi last on the list. It is not difficult to understand where the low percentage is coming from.

Malawi University of Science and Technology at Ndata in Thyolo

Malawi University of Science and Technology at Ndata in Thyolo

The most recent intake into the University of Malawi, for the 2012/2013 academic year, was 908. The university administered the university entrance exam to 8507 candidates, out of which 6373 candidates passed. The Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) based its 2012/2013 selection on the same University of Malawi entrance exam, and admitted 456 students. The intake for Mzuzu University was 637 students, which includes upgrading students. The total comes to 2,001 students entering into the three existing public universities for the 2012/2013 academic year. The intake for private universities combined is much lower.

TEVETA’s last intake into technical colleges was 1,580, and teacher training colleges take in about 4,000 students annually. Even when we combine nurses’ colleges and other private colleges, the number of college-age Malawians actually in tertiary institutions is still less than 10,000.

The number of students who sat the 2012 Malawi School Certificate Examination was 111, 781. Out of these, 57, 906 passed. This year the universities will invite about 8,500 of these to sit the next entrance exam, but we should not let that number distort the real figure of Malawians who qualify for university education every year. Everyone who passes the MSCE exam demonstrates an intellectual capacity for higher education. That number stood at 57,906 last year.

If MUST is going to avoid the quota quagmire, admission will have to be based on what Limbani Nsapato calls a “win-win university quota selection system.” By this Nsapato means a system that is based on both merit and socio-economic factors that include gender, disability and poverty. This would give students from rural districts of Malawi and from marginalized backgrounds an equal chance of being selected. Currently, these groups stand little chance.

The second thing MUST must get right is the student allowances. The solution is to start by admitting as many students as the university has space for. Students will be asked to pay the full tuition fees. Hon. Kazembe told the nation last week that more than 60% of entering students in our public universities come from wealthy families and can afford the full tuition fees. Those able to pay will pay. Those unable to will apply for the available scholarships, providing incontrovertible evidence of their inability to afford the fees. Scholarships can include the much-debated allowances, commensurate with cost of living, for the students who demonstrate the need. But everyone else will be admitted on the full knowledge and expectation that they will bear the cost. Currently, the practice is to admit only those for whom the government has reserved a scholarship, many of whom are capable of paying the full fees.

The third thing will be the provision of loans, which will allow those in between to also pursue their education. But a crucial part of getting the loan system right will be loan repayment by alumni. It remains a mystery why we as a nation have failed to put in place a loan system that would have by now helped our universities expand and admit many more students than is the case now. MUST offers us a new opportunity for a fresh start.

Note: This article appeared on the ‘My Turn’ oped page of The Nation, Friday 21st June, 2013, under the title ‘Getting Must Right From the Onset’.

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