Illusions of elite entitlement: Quota and Malawi’s higher education access woes

Recent media reports indicated that just before the University of Malawi released its selection list for the 2012/2013 academic year in October, the Malawi Government had contemplated ending the quota system of selection into public universities. The reason given was that the quota system was costly.

Although the University of Malawi went ahead to base its selection on the quota system, Malawians were left wondering and debating the merits and demerits of the quota system. More importantly, the question on everyone’s mind was why nearly fifty years after independence, Malawi’s flagship university, the University of Malawi, could afford space for only 908 students, out of 102,651 students who sat the 2011 school leaving certificate examination.

In order to examine whether or not the quota system is too expensive, and what its merits and demerits might be, we first need to define what we mean by “quota system.” We need to contextualize the quota system’s historical and political meanings and implications for Malawi, and draw comparisons and contrasts with higher education enrollments elsewhere in the world. We will also discuss why the number of students invited to sit the university entrance examination misrepresents the true number of Malawians who qualify for tertiary and university education each year. We will conclude by reflecting on the ill logic of higher education financing in this country, which is responsible for putting Malawi at the bottom of global enrollment tables for percentages of youth eligible for tertiary and university education.

Graduates of Unima
The ethnic origins of quota
In his remarkable memoir, And the Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, Malawi’s celebrated poet, Jack Mapanje, recounts an episode from his days at Mikuyu Maximum Security Prison, which points to the origins of the quota system. Mapanje dedicates two chapters to the episode, chapter 41, titled “Northerners as an Excuse,” and chapter 42, “Chirunga Campus Riots.” Chapter 41 talks about how Mikuyu prison played host to Malawi’s hotbed of ethnic sensitivity and antagonism. A new officer-in-charge for the prison, a Mr Mughogho, brings some changes to the prison. The diet has begun to improve, and prisoners can now eat sweet potatoes, among other foods. Then a prisoner, Mbale, escapes, leading to prison conditions being tightened and reversed back to the harsh, punitive atmosphere.
When some prisoners begin the ethnic blame game about the northerner who escaped, other prisoners point to the improvedconditions brought by Mughogho, also a northerner. The discussion continues to the next chapter, where Chancellor College students have rioted, following the November 1988 publication of the Chirunga Newsletter, a student magazine.  An article in the student magazine has described how the chair of the university council was overheard expressing his displeasure at “the large proportion of students from the north who enter the university,” wondering “whether they were admitted on merit or not.” The council chair goes ahead to suggest that a quota system would be introduced at the beginning of the 1987 academic year, in September. Students would now be admitted into the University of Malawi “on the basis of their district and region of birth.”
In this particular form of the quota system, the intent is clear. It is aimed at limiting the number of students from the northern region, who are believed to be disproportionately more than their counterparts in the central and southern regions. At the heart of the quota system debate is the incredibly small number of students who are accorded space in Malawi’s public universities. Malawi ranks bottom in the university-age cohort of young people who are actually enrolled in tertiary education, according to the website
A 2011 survey of 150 countries places Malawi at number 150, with 0.3 percent of young Malawians in the 17-22 year age range actually pursuing tertiary education. In Africa, the highest percentage in 2011 was Libya, ranked 26th in the world, at 48.8 percent. Malawi’s neighbours did slightly better: Zimbabwe at 3.9 percent, Zambia at 2.5 percent, Tanzania at 0.7 percent, and Mocambique at 0.6 percent.
Curiously but understandably enough, more heat is created by the debate surrounding the quota issue than on what solutions to pursue to increase access and allow every qualified student a place in a public university or tertiary institution. Efforts by education activists to propose a quota system that uses socio-economic, gender and class indicators do not amount to much. Emotions rule and debates are considered on which side of the quota system and the ethnicity divide the proponent stands.
A “win-win university quota selection system”, as suggested by education policy analyst and scholar-activist Limbani Nsapato, would consider merit on the one hand, and socio-economic factors including gender, disability and poverty, on the other. It would ensure that qualifying students from rural districts of Malawi and from marginalized backgrounds would have an equal chance of being accorded a place in Malawi’s public universities. With the exception of the gender factor, which was taken into consideration in the 2012 selection into the University of Malawi, the type of quota system suggested by Nsapato has never been attempted.
Quota as scapegoat
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 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.”
Who qualifies for university: the true numbers
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, 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.
Elite entitlement
The demand for higher education in Malawi has reached insatiable levels, and the country is woefully prepared for this demand. The biggest reason for this is the incomprehensible policy of the government paying for people to go to university even when they can afford it themselves. And there is no requirement for them to repay the investment. The only countries where this happens are the wealthiest ones in the global North. Even then, in countries such as the United States those who qualify for university education but are unable to afford it are given scholarships or loans.
Student loans are not a perfect solution either. In the United States, millions of students graduate with debt burdens that threaten to bankrupt them for decades. In Britain, tuition fees have tripled, and up to 54,000 potential students who were expected to enter higher education have been unable to enroll. With youth unemployment becoming a global problem, student loans are no longer being seen as a flawless panacea. For Malawi, the solution lies in balancing the lessons from the US, the UK and elsewhere, with the irreversible need to widen access and sustainably finance a growing Malawian higher education system.
In the days following the release of the 2012/2013 selection into the University of Malawi, elite private secondary schools boasted the numbers of students they had managed to send to Malawi’s flagship university. Students whose parents just a few months ago were paying more than K1 million a year for their children to attend elite secondary schools are now going to be paid K320,000 a year to study in Malawi’s public universities. Public universities in Malawi pay students “upkeep monthly allowances of K40,000 per student” according to a recent press release announcing a raise in the allowances from K33,000 last year.
This is due to the lopsided logic of Malawi’s publically-funded higher education. This emanates from two sources. The first one is well meaning: an obligation to invest in a public good for Malawians who cannot afford to pay for higher education. But the other one is misguided: a sense of elite entitlement. The practice elsewhere in the world is to admit all the students who have qualified for higher education, based on classroom space available. It is up to the students to look for tuition fees. Those able to afford the fees accept the offers and register as students. Those unable to afford the fees apply for the available scholarships or loans, awarded on merit and on need. This is how you grow a university. It is how everyone else in the world has managed to increase access to higher education, whereas we have stagnated.
By admitting students on a non-residential basis and requiring them to pay for accommodation, public universities are taking steps toward widening access. But much more needs to be done. The newly established national council for higher education has its work cut out. As for the ethnic origins of the quota system, the real issue would have been to investigate the factors that lead certain districts and populations to do better than others. There are lessons to be learned from how some parents, communities and social groups encourage excellence in education. The lessons can be used to afford equal opportunities to others so as to level the playing field and provide everyone an equal chance.
*Note: This article appears in the November-December issue of The Lamp Magazine

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