Malawi academics condemn University bill: Threat to academic freedom

The Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (CCASU) has described the tabling of the University Act as a way by some evil minded people to suffocate the university, saying the Bill was a former ruling DPP project meant to weaken the university and subject it to controls unheard of in the history of the university.

CCASU newly elected President Dr Symon Chiziwa told Nyasa Times in a statement on Tuesday that academics in Malawi were aggrieved by tabling of the bill, saying they were rarely consulted.

Parliament has since deferred debate on the Act to Wednesday after MPs failed to agree on some clauses in the Act.

“Bills or laws are meant to serve people therefore. Those concerned must be consulted. As academics…we had initially objected to a number of clauses in the said bill. We find the bill and its intentions counterproductive,” Chiziwa said.

Gondwe:I am out of party politics

He said the way forward is for authorities to organise open consultation meetings with staff unions and associations and other academics.

“It is ironical that the minister of education was claiming that consultations were made. This is further from the truth. We suspect there are sinister motives behind the bill. Why this veil of secrecy?” the CCASU head queried.

In February this year, the Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) noted that the new University of Malawi Act had the potential to politicize the university and compromise the provision of tertiary education.

CSEC has since cherry picked 16 faulty areas where it feels parliament needs to reject the bill and send it to the Legal Affairs Committee of parliament for thorough revision.

“It is these areas such as independence of the council, regulation of colleges, appointment mechanisms, and limitation of the Chancellorship to the Head of State among others that call for careful scrutiny of the Bill by the Members of Parliament,” CSEC Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe said .

Kondowe said surprisingly, the Act has included ‘persons with honorary degrees’ as among members of the University wondering whether an honorary degree is a title and the basis for restriction to the University of Malawi.

In 2012, the University of Jeonju in South Korea awarded Malawi President Joyce Banda with a Doctorate Degree of Economics, Honoris Causa, in recognition of her efforts to improve the Malawi economy and her impeccable service to humanity.

CCASU has since described the Act as a ‘heinous’ document meant to stifle academic freedom and kill unionism.

The Chanco lecturers also noted ‘atrocious’ provisions such as the composition and the process for composition of the Council, the sections on the Academic Advisory Board, composition of the Senate (and the erosion of the representation and power of academics), the inclusion of students in the composition of the Faculty, the tenure of the University Registrar among others.

And the education watchdog also cites certain provisions such as limiting the appointment of the Chancellor to the President only as a political appeasement at best and not a matter of productivity and worthwhile contribution towards progressive policy viability of sector.

“We need an Act that looks at what Malawi wants to be in tandem with its demands, aspirations and ambitions rather than individual’s interest,” Kondowe said.

Kondowe said the revised Bill has failed to appreciate the evolving context of tertiary education by a way of incorporating or retaining some provisions that are retrogressive not only to the aspirations of Malawians but also to the ambitions of a democratic state.

“The process to reviewing it was not broad-based and consultative enough.  The revised Bill should have embraced the spirit of an evolving and democratic society where quality productivity is a product of quality statutes, systems, human capital among others,” he said.

Kondowe also said the Act is blank on unionization in the University saying yet this is integral to freedom of association and freedom of speech.

“In fact, there is no specific provision in the Act on the unionization modalities, including formation of unions. This is further against the spirit of the Republican Constitution that provides for freedom of conscience, association and speech,” he said.

Meanwhile, Member of Parliament for Mzimba North Constituency, Goodall Gondwe, has called for the end of politicisation in the running of the University of Malawi saying it is affecting quality of tertiary education in the country.

He told parliament that the bill should introduce structures that would ensure that there is no political interference in the running of the universities.

“This bill shows that Government is closer and closer in regards to the running of our universities and that is affecting academic freedom,” said Gondwe who served as economic advisor of former president Bakili Muluzi and held ministerial positions in late Bingu wa Mutharika regime and also served as minister the current government.

He observed that the university senate should make regulations in regards to the running of the constituent colleges, noting that the  bill shows “it is not possible as the Minister of Education can interfere in the teaching and administration of the university.”

In other contributions, several members of the August house highlighted the need for increased funding citing the lack of adequate funds for the University of Malawi as hampering the improvement of quality education in the university.—(Additional reporting by Mana)

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