The question of university autonomy in Malawi

A true leader must tell his people what they must hear more than what they want to hear. This is precisely what President Peter Mutharika has done on university autonomy.

Chancellor: Mutharika

Chancellor: Mutharika

Mutharika has emphasised that in the principles of good governance, “The governance of every university is done by the council and its management. We have empowered them by law to govern the universities on behalf of government.”

Some think the President is drifting from his responsibility and others told the public that Mutharika is blaming councils.

The academia enjoys autonomy because it is part of the condition of the university. The university needs its free space to think, to ask even the questions that unsettle the State and to profess truth. This is the autonomy which Malawi Congress Party (MCP) denied the university.

For many years, the autonomy of the university was a political crime. There was no freedom to think either. Keeping some books was a crime.

In 1977, Nqumayo Muwalo “the rebel” was hanged at Zomba Central Prison. He was accused of thinking of assassinating the then president Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Among the charges, Muwalo was accused of possessing two books: George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Shaka Zulu.

He had committed a thought-crime. The State believed that these were among the books that could encourage a revolution against dictatorship. This was the climate of repression in which the university operated. A university lecturer feared to keep long beard because you were suspected to be a Marxist, that dangerous thinker.

The architects of our democracy tried to distance the university from central government.

Our democracy matures more and more with decentralisation and devolution of powers. This is part of the power-sharing principle in a democracy. But the same people, who accuse our presidents of being too much powerful, are attacking Mutharika for advocating the autonomy of the university. Yet, this is the existing reality.

By law, a university lecturer is not an employee of government, but the university council. But when there is a crisis, it is government they pick up for a fight.

The main job of the chancellor is to appoint chairperson of council and the vice-chancellor of a public university. He also awards degrees and certificates as chancellor, and not as head of State. Ministry of Education guides on policy and is part of the council ex-officio. The university authorities are supposed to resort to guidance of the chancellor as a final authority of appeal when they have completely failed to resolve their affairs.

In most countries, the chancellor is never the head of State. The more public universities you have, the more it becomes impractical to involve the president. Malawians must accept that the number of public universities is rising.

The university itself values its distance from political leadership. This does not mean that the relationship between the State and the university must be polarised or antagonistic. This of course, can lead to a political myth.

Some people in the academia believe that politics is a dirty space and that government is something against the people. When you join government as I have done, you are quietly segregated by your holier-than-thou colleagues.

Some university dons speak of government as if it is something unwanted to be fought at all times. This myth explains why the university has serious problems with conflict management. Nearly every conflict invoking the word “Government” ends up being explosive.

During the academic freedom movement, the autonomy of the university was in fact part of the argument. One man who was at the helm of academic freedom movement understands that President Mutharika is right. That is why Professor Blessings Chinsinga has commended the President for his assertion of university autonomy. Of all the intellectuals, it was Chinsinga who stood up for Mutharika because he understands the principle of university autonomy.

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5 thoughts on “The question of university autonomy in Malawi”

  1. nanyati nanyati says:

    How come UNIMA is headed by you know what. The guys at the top are non entities as far as UNIMA academic ladder is concerned. These so called bosses e.g. chair Wirima wrongly referered to as Prof., when he is in fact Ass. Prof; Prof. Saka – Vice Chancellor and Prof Al Nteje- Pro Vice Chancellor have never ever been heads of department, deans, vice principal or principal at UNIMA colleges- CoM and CHANCO respectively. Worse still, the UNIMA Registrar Malunga was just a mere Chichewa teacher at Box 2. So how do we expect these brood of vipers to perform wonders. Injini imeneyi ya nokola chifukwa ndiyadizilo koma athiramo petulo.

  2. Mwananyanian says:

    A well thought out argument, I must say. And I concur.
    But, I suggest, getting the President to be Chancellor is, by in itself, an injection of politics into the sphere of institution management. Certainly, the optics suggest so. It is time to even detach further these public institutions from government, by stopping this nonsense of the President being the Chancellor. No?
    This “Chancellorship” honor does not occur In the countries whose education we admire: Presidents and Prime Ministers do not take up this position. This does not absolve the political leaders of the ultimate responsibilities though, because these institutions are in the public interest and are of national importance. Thus, the connection between these institutions and government cannot be completely severed. And should NOT be. Because there are issues which inevitably will necessitate the government to intervene.

  3. Douglas Ndindi says:

    Well explained. But the question is, does Parliament have the right to know what goes on in Public Universities? If yes, who is supposed/required to stand up in the August house and explain whatever it is that the honourable members think they deserve to know about these institutions? Or maybe there are some aspects of life that Parliament is not supposed to poke its collective nose into? Can someone out there clarify these seemingly simple things?

  4. Makiyolobasi says:

    Mr Molande zomwe mwalembazi nchifukwa choti munthu akakhala pansana pa njobvu, amanena kuti kunja kulibe mame. Kungolemba zoduka mutu ngati ink simunamwenso. Inu zingodyani ku State Houseko and they will discard you like toilet paper once akamaliza using you. Muzawapeza anzanu munawasiya ku Chanco aja ambiri atakwelanso pomwe inu mukafikila munachokela paja. UNIMA council and management basically have no powers as long as Government has a big say on funding and who becomes a VC or councillor under the current system. Inu monga simukudziwa kuti Unima council raised fees only for government to shoot it down by siding with the students? Where is the autonomy now? People should feel sorry for the likes of Jack Wirima whose reputation is being tainted due to petty politics.

  5. Kanchenga says:

    Very interesting observation. Indeed Dr Bandai denied the university the kind of autonomy as you describe and that too was very bad. What you have not discussed is the sincerity of the intent on both personalities. From a distance you see Bandai realising the folly of unchecked freedoms in terms of the kind of development he wanted for this country. Needless to say that harshness saved a purpose for a particular moment’s need. Now the question is. Is government affording the university the autonomy because it believes in its benefits as opposed to abdication due to financial constraints. While your agruements may sound good in a rounded up society,it is a killer punch in a country besieged by many social challenges especially to the poor who need government protection. Sadly what we see is government protecting thieves corrupt officials while milking the poor with punitive taxes. Dr. Chisinga may have commended government for doing that considering how strongly he feels about freedoms but does he really see the benefit of doing that. Students say fees is too high please government help us. Government says that’s not our problem. Talk to council and council says but we can not run that university without money. Is this the situation Dr Chisinga is praising. I doubt very much.

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