Vice-President Saulos Chilima who has taken the Quota system as a campaign issue has reignited a hot debate on the matter. Chilima is promising voters that if elected as President next year, he will abolish the Quota system for selecting students to institutions of higher learning which he has described as evil and satanic. Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera has also said once elected into government, his government will abolish the system.
The quota system was first introduced in 1987. Council of the University of Malawi (Unima) recommended that each district should have 10 guaranteed spaces in the university and the balance of the spaces should be shared amongst all the districts in proportion to their population sizes. It further determined that in cases where a given district fails to meet its quota, the unfilled spaces should be allocated to those districts in that district’s region which produced adequate numbers of academically qualified candidates.
In 1993, the High Court of Malawi ruled in a case involving Mhango and others v University Council of Malawi against basing university selection on district Quota other than on merit because it was discriminatory and of no solid foundation. But from the look of things, University Council was not happy with the ruling. That is why in 2007 it introduced what it termed the Equitable system for admission to public universities. Under the Equitable system, Council for Unima made a resolution which makes a distinction between students on full government scholarship and non-residential students. In essence, this was the re-introduction of the Quota system effective 2008.
The rationale for the policy shift was that selection to public universities had been disproportionate as fewer students were being selected to public universities from some districts than others. But Unima Senate determined that such a policy shift required time and thorough consultation.
The Council then noted that arguments for or against quota may have just been impressionistic, and therefore, requested Centre for Education Research and Training (Cert) to conduct a comprehensive study to confirm or trash the impressions.
However, after 10 long years, Cert has not conducted the said study. Cert is an agency of the Malawi Government under Unima. It is, therefore, dependent on funding from Unima or government. For 10 years, Unima Council has not funded Cert to conduct the study. Was Unima Council sincere about Cert conducting the study?
In 2011, Unima Council wrote the Malawi Human Rights Commission that what “the University of Malawi is implementing at the moment is not what you erroneously referred to as Quota system of selection. The real Quota system is what was done from the 1987/88 academic year up to 1993/94 academic year when the High Court ruled that it was wrong for the Council of the University of Malawi to use a quota system of selection without consulting its Senate. However, in 2008, in keeping with the priorities set in its Strategic Plan, Council of the University of Malawi, resolved that it would employ an Equitable system of selecting first year students as part of widening access to higher education to benefit disadvantaged groups (Kondowe, 2018).
Following the establishment of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) which coordinates selection of students into public universities, one would think the agency would also have been interested to resolve this age-old issue. However since it was set up in 2013, NCHE has just been coordinating, so to speak, what it inherited from Unima or what it was mandated to do by government.
From the foregoing it is clear, Ministry of Education, Unima Council and NCHE have all not been interested in providing the funding to Cert to conduct the study to confirm or trash Quota or Equitable system for admitting students to public universities and colleges. All the three are complicit on this issue.
But this is a political issue which only political will, can resolve. Whether we call it Quota or Equitable system, the perception (in the absence of a comprehensive study that Cert was supposed to conduct) is that the system disadvantages students from one region—the North—more than others.
With the 2019 tripartite elections around the corner, this region is now votes. Chilima and Chakwera who are championing abolishing Quota or the Equitable system are likely to benefit from these votes. Elections are about creating the right perception among the electorates to give a candidate their votes.
To win an election your promises must resonate with the electorate more than other candidates. But whether Chilima or Chakwera, whoever gets elected, will indeed abolish Quota or Equitable system for selecting students into public universities is a different ball game