Talking Blues Xtra: Merit or quota?

The Ministry of Education is under attack. The issue? The selection of the 2019/20 PSLCE candidates to national secondary schools whose allocation of students to Malawi’s 24 national secondary schools is as below:

  • Northern Education Division 182 students,
  • Central East 250 students,
  • Central West 679 students,
  • South East 230 students,
  • South West 230 students, and
  • Shire Highlands 289 students.

Among the critiques is that the Northern Region was robbed despite performing better.

This was echoed and amplified by Leader of Opposition in Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa who argued that the regional allocation of SR, 929; CR, 749 and NR, 182; proportion-wise: SR, 40%, CR, 50% and NR 10% is unfair because “while the Central Region has the lowest pass rate, it has the lion’s share in national secondary schools,” Nankhumwa said.

Put differently, the Central Region – Malawi Congress Party (MCP)’s base – has been favoured.

Secretary for Education Chikondano Mussa and her pals disagree.

Mussa: It was merit

“We would like to make it clear here that merit was the major determinant of selecting students to secondary schools,” she said, adding that the cut-off point for selecting boys into national secondary schools was 380 marks while that of selecting girls was 354 and that selection to district secondary schools also depended on proximity and economic considerations.

This is one old controversy which will never end because most Malawians are either overt or covert regionalists.

In theory, Malawi adopted the Quota system as a means of affirmative action. This has often resulted in students who perform exceptionally well but are from competitive districts losing out to students with not as good grades from uncompetitive districts.

Now, assuming that merit was indeed used as the ministry wants Malawians to believe, the Central Region benefitted this time because while it had a lower average (as argued by Nankhumwa), it had the highest performers.

Next year, it could be the North or the South, depending on high performers. Whatever happens in future, the debate will never end.

Whichever region has fewer students selected will complain. Further, the merit system by design and by definition, cannot achieve equity.

It is intended to reward and encourage excellence.

On the other hand, the quota system penalises and potentially discourages students from regions and districts perceived to be competitive.

Any solutions?

From what I see, the ‘quota vs merit’ debate is complicated with emotions, the discussion is not grounded on facts and is skewed with assumptions supported by fallacies, leaving some feeling short-changed.

Secondly, most Malawians, concerning ‘quota vs merit’ debate, want to have their cake and eat it too.

Let me unpack.

When Pres Chakwera was making Cabinet or Advisor or Board appointments; practically everyone wanted their region, district and gender to be “represented”.

Sort of quota.

Come secondary or university selection, those same Malawians split into two camps: pro-quota and anti-quota.

So, for one thing and when it suits us, quota is welcome and for the other and when it doesn’t not fit our selfish agenda, merit should apply? Cherry-picking without a gram of shame? Any wisdom in this?

Check this: let’s say the 20 most meritorious Malawians are from Mangochi. Would a Cabinet which is 100% from Mangochi be acceptable?

Of course not. Malawians would demand “balance”.

Conversely, let’s say that in pursuit of quota, we pick mediocre minds at the expense of high performers. Would this help Malawi?

Of course not.

Therefore, I posit that a hybrid system, subject to agreement on which dimension between merit or quota should be prioritised and weigh more.

A practical example:

~ Let’s assume that the University of Malawi has 380 slots, and our objective is a hybrid that accommodates the best students while providing affirmative action.

~ My suggestion: out of the 380 we should allocate 100 slots as merit based. That is, awarded to the top 100 students regardless of gender or region or district.

~ This leaves 280 slots.

~ Next would be a gender dimension: split 50% apiece, divided across 28 districts = ten (5 men + 5 women) from each district.

Using this model, the districts with high performers would have more students, but their high grades would be explained. Of course, we would need to factor in population size.

Full transparency and consistency would be imperative to stop the temptation to shift goalposts.

Check this: imagine if you will, a full Cabinet from one region. Even if all members were picked on merit, would you swallow that?

Conversely, how about an incompetent minister selected ostensibly to satisfy ‘quota’ and appointed to a crucial Cabinet post. Would such a minister deliver?

Ergo, neither merit nor quota is ideal. Why because we will want to cherry-pick whichever suits us.

The solution is a hybrid model that incorporates both merit and affirmative action.

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Steve Mathambo Ngoma
Steve Mathambo Ngoma
1 year ago

Let the best minds go through if they come from one district then let it be so.

Ndafera Nkhande
Ndafera Nkhande
1 year ago

Mupite ku Lura ,Chikhuni pa boma Bolero mukaone ana mmene akuchapulira kachasu chonsecho ali mu standard 8.Nanga chonchi angasankhidwe ku masaschool a bho.

Rocky Dada
Rocky Dada
1 year ago

On point Talking Blues. Very good suggestion worth exploring. Good thinking rather than just criticizing without alternatives…

concerned yao
concerned yao
1 year ago

Quota all day, atumbuka zitsilu zokondela. Everywhere you go amangolembana ntchito Okha okha, mudzi wonse including the messengers and guards. Unless they change or there is a flame-work to change this. A Tumbuka adzaona haram. Mark my words. Zimatinyasa. U can’t have the whole office, full of people from one district.

Keen Observer
Keen Observer
1 year ago

I agree with the writer there must be the way forward

1 year ago

Don’t worry about Merit, it’s being used.Those with better facilities will be advantaged. Those with primitive facilities Ali m’madzi.Quota did not just come ,it will be remembered.In other things people cry for equal representation??

Kumavalo Nsamaonetsa Nyoni
Kumavalo Nsamaonetsa Nyoni
1 year ago

If you want a country to develop,there is no alternatives to merit. Education is an individual endeavour,it’s not a regional endeavour.Individuals sit exams with the aim of being the best,or in the case of Malawi, of being selected. Region or district does not play a part when people sit exams. It’s all in the heads of politicians. Dr HK Banda decreed that Kamuzu Academy would base it’s selection on merit.The first list based on merit was all from the North. Banda then abandoned merit and said 10 of the best from each district would go to the academy,that was inadvertently… Read more »

1 year ago

Your analysis assumes that districts do not play a role. Unfortunately in this part of the world they do. A student in Lilongwe has the advantage over a student in Nsanje anyday. Be it through access to books, electricity and the internet.

How ever let us set that aside. Your last paragraph is gold. remove the boarding schools and people should apply for courses.

Kumavalo Nsamaonetsa Nyoni
Kumavalo Nsamaonetsa Nyoni
1 year ago
Reply to  Top

You missed my point.

Students do not think about where they come from while sitting exams.No one thinks about” I am from Nsanje therefore I will pass as well as someone from Lilongwe” They just do their best,the rest is politics.

Ten Caesars
1 year ago

Anthu ena mumaganiza bhoo! Sukulu ndiya bwino.

1 year ago

Now that you clarified you make perfect sense. I think the statement ” region or district does not play a part” is the one that was confusing.

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