Should Malawi students be selected to govt schools based on merit or quota?

By the time Malawi won the fight against the rule of the colonial masters, Britain, education was a far fetched dream for the citizens. By then, many Malawians looked at labor as the major source of living. No wonder, Malawi was mostly known as the source of labor to other neighboring countries.

Things changed with the coming of the master, and the first independence rule of Dr. Kamuzu Banda brought in the thirst for education amongst the citizenry

Malawi then formulated an 8-4-4 education system consisting of primary and secondary schools and university education.

With this system in place, each district was given an equal number of students qualified to study further education at tertiary level.

UNIMA graduates

UNIMA graduates

However, there were feelings amongst the citizenly that the system was targeting a certain region that is the northern part of the country, which was deemed to be a big benefactor in the merit or normal selection system.

But by then, it was difficult to stand up against the iron-fist rule of the ‘life presidency’ of Kamuzu Banda.

People had to swallow whatever pill was prescribed to then by leadership regardless of how bitter the dosage is.

Quota System should not be used under any circumstances because by so doing, we get the people on such posts for which they are not eligible. In the end they do nothing but harm our country. Take for example a student who has done his secondary education at Mzuzu Government Secondary School and has secured 9 points is left out, while people from Kamuzu Academy who secured 16 points from their respective boards get admitted. And in this way, a merit seat is wasted. And the student becomes a terrorist in the future when he or she does not admission to college just because of the quota system.

Quota system in Malawi also penalizes intelligent students just because of their ethnicity, as it is believed that people from the northern region are most intelligent as compared to those from the other two regions, central and southern.

Whether Quota system stays or goes, it makes very little difference in a country where majority of jobs are awarded not on the basis of talent but on favoritism. Of what good is that Degree that doesn’t get you a job? In a country where a Janitor in Customs brings more money than a college professor, in a country where you can’t get anything done without bribes and sources, I see quota system as a small leaf on a big evil tree we have grown in Malawi in the past 20 years. A large number of young urban Malawian professionals are moving abroad for a brighter future. If this trend continues Malawi will lose its most valuable resource i.e. professional manpower.

Quota system is certainly a bad thing in our country, and in my opinion it should not be extended even for a single day, but we have a lot of other problems, and trimming the top of the tree is not going to solve anything.

We must leave the quota system and adopt the merit system. There is only one way to be successful in the world and that is through the merit system. Some of our members of the National Assembly come through the quota system, and so they cannot realize the importance of the merit system.

Quota system was introduced to give the backward, uneducated, incompetent segments of the population more than what they deserve. In any other country the merit system is encouraged and practiced because it gives the more qualified the chance to succeed. They will pretty soon have to create a new fourth world category for countries like Malawi.

Let’s take for example 3 districts, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre. And then the government says because of the quota system, 30% of the top students from each district will be selected to University of Malawi. The students will vary levels of passing across the districts. If the 55% of students in Blantyre pass with a range of 80% – 90% average, the 25% will be left out due to the quota system. Similarly 55% of students in Lilongwe pass in the range of 60% – 70%, 30% of these students will be selected. This means 30% of  these students will make it at the expense of the 25% who did not make it in Blantyre, which is totally unfair.

Like most quota systems which have affected other parts of the world, ours intends to redress certain imbalances. Clearly, uneven distribution in terms of demography, education and economic opportunities exist between our federating units. Undoubtedly, these spoil our administrative system and therefore must be addressed in a dedicated and impartial manner.

However, a quota system can never be the solution or even part of the solution to our national grievances. The only known example where the quota system has worked in the world is that of the United States Armed Forces in relation to their efforts to induct more Afro-Americans into the officers’ ranks.

Although this example is not free from controversies, it is often cited as an example of a successful positive discrimination programme implemented through a quota arrangement. In Malawi we are faced with multiple problems on the social, economic and political fronts. It is with humility submitted, simply but clearly, that our plethora of social problems require appropriate and responsible social planning; our all-too-evident economic problems require positive and long-term planning between financial planners and the factors of production; and our factitious and tragically political culture and education system requires sincerity, genuine dialogue and statesmanship.

In addition, often inter-disciplinary planning and action will act to further aid policy co-ordination. With this background of what is required in Malawi, it is surely a fallacious policy that the extension of the quota system, horribly reminiscent of an empty slogan from another tragic era of our history, can deliver to us the national cohesion we all seek. Quotas and restrictions always serve narrow-vested interests only. Extending a hollow political promise, that has incrementally exacerbated the problem it was intended to address, does us all and our homeland a great disservice.

Quota system has become a weapon in the hands of the ruling class. It is quite clear that the majority of Tumbuka-speaking people think that this is injustice with them and it should be abolished. This idea is also shared by those who believe in fairness and competitive approach. Malawi, a developing country has very uneven distribution of resources. The political ruling class, the religious class, the business merchants etc. are taking advantage of the limited resources of the country. Sometimes one group takes advantage and sometimes the other. The real problem is that the rural population has a great disadvantage due to being in the rural areas. We should really take care of the rural population everywhere in Malawi.

The northern region of Malawi is also sensitive due to the fact that most of the Tumbuka-speaking populations live in rural areas. This is creating a real hatred among the Tumbuka-speaking people against the ruling elite which since the times of the Late Dr. Kamuzu Banda has been from the central region and southern region. We should try to solve the problem i.e. protect our rural population along with not penalizing our educated people. So a new concept should be developed to solve this problem. We are educated people and we should give positive solutions to enrich our country and refrain from blaming each other over decision-making.

In its September 8-14, 2012 issue the weekly newspaper Malawi News published on its front page an article titled “How Quota System Died.” Written by Charles Mpaka, the article quoted an official memorandum from Finance Minister Dr. Ken Lipenga to President Joyce Banda, recommending that the quota system be abandoned on the grounds that it was expensive. A close reading of the article, based on the quoted parts, shows that rather than abandoning the quota system, the main issue raised in the memo was reducing government expenditure on public universities.

On October 4th 2012, the University of Malawi released its 2012 selection list, while the newly instituted Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), with Bunda College as its biggest constituent college, released its list three days later. Contrary to the reported recommendation to drop the quota system as per the quoted memorandum, the University of Malawi selection list was again based on a quota system.

The University of Malawi published on its website a statement that said selection had been “done using the equitable access system of admitting candidates into public institutions of higher learning.” The term “equitable access system” is supposed to be a more politically acceptable way of describing what everyone calls “quota.” The statement went further to say:

“Under this arrangement, the top ten qualified candidates from each district were offered places and thereafter, the rest were selected based on merit and the size of the population of the districts they originated from to underscore that higher education, like any other form of development, should be seen to be benefiting the whole country.”

The number of students selected into the University of Malawi for the 2012/2013 academic year is 908. The statement said a total of 8507 candidates sat for the 2012 University Entrance Examinations (UEE). Out of these 6373 candidates passed, representing a 75% pass rate. For LUANAR, which based its selection on the same students who had applied to the University of Malawi, 456 students were admitted. It is important to put these numbers into context.

The number of students who registered to sit for the 2012 Malawi School Certificate Examination was 130,000, according to spokesperson for Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB), Gerald Chiunda, quoted in a Capital FM Radio online article.  The results are yet to be released, as of writing in mid-October. But the most recent available figures, from 2011, show that 102,651 students sat the examination. Of these, 56,273 passed, representing 54.8 percent pass rate, according Zodiak Broadcasting Station’s website. Ordinarily, passing the school leaving certificate examination ought to qualify one for tertiary or higher education.

The percentage of Malawian youth who ought to be in tertiary institutions, and are actually doing so is 0.3. It is not difficult to understand why, when you look at the numbers. In the 2011/2012 academic year only 366 students were admitted into Malawi’s second public university, Mzuzu. Of these 254 were males (69%), while 112 females (31%). In the recently released numbers for Malawi’s private and public technical colleges, the Technical, Entrepreneurial, Vocational, Education and Training Authority (TEVETA) received 16,236 applications. In their press release of Saturday October 6th 2012, TEVETA announced that they had admitted 1,580 students.

The question of whether or not the quota system is expensive is not at the heart of the matter. The true scandal of Malawi’s higher education system is that almost fifty years after independence, the country is unable to provide the majority of her young people an opportunity to access higher education and thereby contribute to national development. A project at Harvard University that studies higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa observes that no country has ever achieved high levels of development with less than 50 percent enrollment of its university-age population.

In the economic crisis Malawi is in, quota system will make us stuck in this economic backlog where the bright students are left. It will not benefit the country to use quota system.

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