MUST shut indefinitely over school fees disagreements

Authorities at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) on Wednesday had no choice but to indefinitely close the institution after management and students disagreed on school fees.

Like other tertiary institutions, both private and public, hundreds of students at MUST are unable to pay their requisite tuition which led to management’s decision that the concerned students would not be eligible to sit for their end of semester examinations.

According to MUST communications manager, James Mphande, the students went rowdy last Monday following the decision which eventually led to authorities indefinitely closing the institution.

Dr Henry Chingaipe

“I cannot give the exact number of students who were denied access to the examinations rooms [for now] but they are in hundreds,” Mphande said.

Early this year, President Lazarus Chakwera admitted being aware of the plight of hundreds of students in dire need of fees in institutions of higher learning in the country when he assisted the University of Malawi (Unima) with K10 million towards tuition as short term solution.

“I will put in place resilient systems that will help overcome the challenges that have crippled our tertiary education for long, especially the plight of needy and deserving students,” Chakwera said.

The problem of needy students being at risk of withdrawing or withdrawing due to lack of fees is not unique to MUST. It cuts across all the six functional public universities in the country.

Last November, student union leaders wrote Vice-President Saulos Chilima, the Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board (HESLGB) and Parliamentary Committee on Education seeking an audience to address the matter. The students want the loan amount and upkeep allowance increased due to rising cost of living.

HESLGB spokesperson for the board of directors Dr. Henry Chingaipe was quoted in the press saying “it is not necessary and it is not desirable that all applicants should access loans.”

He said the challenge was that some students who are well-supported by their parents and guardians still apply for loans to have more money for fun or other luxuries without the knowledge of their sponsors.

Chingaipe said: “Some applicants are not needy and do not deserve to access these public loans. Some students are well supported by their guardians, but still do apply for loans.

“I think that what we should do is to find ways that minimise errors of inclusion where undeserving students access loans and errors of exclusion where deserving students are left out. This will require refining the eligibility criteria based on feedback.”

Based on statistics from the Loans Board, 4 123 students accessed the loans in the inaugural year 2015/16 and there were 7 846 beneficiaries in 2016/17 while 9 306 benefitted in 2017/18.

The number reached 13 035 in the 2018/19 financial year and surged to 16 448 in 2019/20 and 18 424 in 2020/21.

However, during all this time, especially from 2016/17 fiscal year, at least 2 000 applicants are rejected on a yearly basis.

Meanwhile, academic expert Steve Sharra wondered why the board was failing to carefully verify and investigate beneficiaries of the loans, saying, the cheating issue has been outstanding for some time.

He said: “We were under the impression that they had found a way of addressing because it came up a few years ago. They had put in place a mechanism to do due diligence where they investigate and verify the status of the student.

“The question is what happened to that mechanism? Didn’t it succeed or do they have capacity problems because it should be possible to investigate and verify the names. If they have enough capacity and resources, they should be able to do this.”

On his part, Civil Society Education Coalition executive director Benedicto Kondowe concurred with Sharra, adding that there is need for more resources at the board to meet the growing demand.

He said the issue of recovery should also be addressed because the recovered loans would help increase the number of beneficiaries.

“Without a serious plan on collecting the matured loans, we will not move anywhere. Government must also seek to mobilise the private sector to help, let it come up with modalities with the Public Private Partnership Commission on this aspect,” Kondowe said.

According to the Loans Board, those who qualify for the loans must be needy Malawian citizens, admitted into an accredited public or private higher learning institution.

They must also not have attended an elite high/secondary school unless there is evidence of neediness or inability to pay the tuition fees, have verifiable good conduct and commitment to studies and must provide verifiable evidence supporting their socio-economic status and inability to meet the costs of higher education.

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