The truth about the plight of Mzuzu University

So much and quite a lot has said about the problem-riddled Mzuzu University (MZUNI) but nothing would ever beat the truth that’s just about to be said here. A lot more than what the Malawi nation knows has happened and is still happening, and if nothing is done to save this sinking ship, it will soon run aground.

The facts in this feature article are emanating from nothing but the truth, and based on thorough research that was secretly conducted for a period of about a year at the institution. The author of this article feels that it is important the Malawi nation knows the whole truth about what is actually going on at Mzuzu University for a number of reasons. Firstly, this institution of higher learning is run using public funds; therefore the public should be interested to know what is happening with their pinching taxes. Secondly, this institution was established by government to provide high quality education, training, research and complementary services to meet the technological, social and economic needs of individuals and communities of the Malawi nation. The focus is on the people, and again, they need to know what is going on. Thirdly, the institution was established by the Act of Parliament in May 1997 again with public interest at heart; the public needs.

If Mzuzu University was a private institution, the dire situation at hand would have rendered it a state of liquidation. It’s currently not fit to run as an institution of higher learning, if we may say so. If anybody wants to verify this ask the Malawi Government Treasury.

The problems about Mzuzu University could be attributed to the making of the institution as well as the Malawi Government. If this was to be simply put in percentages, it could be 60% to 40%, respectively. To understand this scenario better, I will start with the Government’s  bad contributions to the challenges lingering at MZUNI. The Government seems not to have the interest to run the institution effectively. This might be simply put so because the Government, as an owner, in essence, is quite aware of the major challenges facing the institution. As an example, the institution is failing to increase students population because a World Bank-funded teaching and learning facilities project which started about four years ago stalled about two years ago with no real word from the Government. The truth to this matter is that the money that was meant to suffice the said project was re-allocation by the DDP Government to other special interests of the DDP Party. Ironically, the DPP Government emphasised on the importance increasing students’ population in order to raise more money for the University

More so, as a pinpointing example, imported chairs that were meant to furnish the state of the art lectures theatres in the new World Bank-funded facilities at MZUNI were diverted to Ndata for the new university. As they awaited their journey to Ndata, the chairs were kept in a rented warehouse for almost a year and a half in Kanengo, Lilongwe. It was the tax-payers’ money that was used to rent the warehouse. The actual amount per month could not be established but rumours indicate an amount in excess of half a million of Kwachas every month. May be we should ask Honourables George Chaponda, Peter Mutharika and Ken Lipenga because they all held the Minister’s Portifolio in Education, Science and Technology when this took place.

Unfortunately, for the DDP Government, the driver on the seat of all this misallocation died before the chairs could move to Ndata. As I write, the new Government has re-allocated the chairs back to MZUNI, and two MANICA Freight 35-tonne container trucks arrived at MZUNI around 20th May to deliver the chairs. This is probably just a tip of an iceberg to more of what actually the DDP Government did to the said project. Surprisingly, a similar project at The Chancellor College was successful completed and the new facilities are allegedly housing the Faculty of Law.

Late Professor Bingu wa Mutharika (may his soul rest in eternal peace) had no direct interest in the University as a Chancellor. He knew the problems that faced MZUNI and did absolutely nothing to redress the situation. We have seen CEOs in other subvented/parastatal organisations being unceremoniously fired because of poor performance and misuse of office but this was never applied to MZUNI. Should we say the institution answers to a different set of values, laws, rules and regulations than those applicable to all other parastatals? Or this done simply because the institution is a non-profit making parastatal therefore nobody takes heart to fix broken pipes because they are only outlet and never inlet ones?

Problems Concurrently Attributed to the Two Parties

MZUNI, in its weakness, might not have requested the Government to review tuition fees that students pay to the institution but surely the Government saw the need to do so. The so-called government sponsored students are the most problematic largely because they seem not to know what government sponsorship means. Such group students are supposed to pay MK55,000 for a whole year as a contributory fee. This includes tuition, boarding, meals and other minor fees but most of them do not pay this amount and wait upon a government loan which is not normally given to all of them because by law it is not an entitlement but rather a privilege.

The loan trust which is now being handled the Malawi Savings Bank is another story on its own that could be written into a book. Students literally attend school free of charge. Some have even graduated with fees arrears amounting to MK250,000 (ask the University Registrar).

The cafeteria alone needs close to MK20 Million each month to run, and if students are not forced to pay the already minimal fees, where does the money to run the section come from? The answer is; foodstuffs collected by suppliers on uncontrolled credit or if the foodstuffs are purchased, the institution uses money collected from self-sponsored students. Yes, self-sponsored students feed government sponsored students since the self-sponsored do not partake in any food from the cafeteria. Ask anybody working for the institution.

Ironically, some of these students who fail to pay fees could have attended secondary schools where they paid the same amount they are expected in a year at MZUNI for every term. The institution is always reserved in taking action against the students because its management feels this is a political issue, and they are afraid of losing their jobs. On the other hand, DPP Government was reluctant to take action because it was part of their campaign to keep the fees to the minimum, knowing that much of the political upheaval starts in universities and colleges. This is sheer negligence by both the management of MZUNI and the Government.

The Mzuzu University Council

This is a team of highly distinguished and learned personalities in the Malawian society. Its main responsibilities dwell of scrutinising internal and government policy and making decision in conjunction with the University’s Senate. In the corporate world, this is simply the same as the board of directors. Sadly, this team is riddled with in house politics and decisions are mostly made without consultation with the Senate. The Senate has three representatives to the Council and the members represent the university on council sittings. The reason why this is mandatory is because council members do not know much of the actual day-to-day running of the institution. Therefore, they are supposed to be fed with information by the Senate who we can call hands-on people; people who know about whatever happens within daily routine of the university endeavours.

Unfortunately, the council is full of know-it-all, big-headed distinguished ladies and gentlemen; typical of Bingu’s approach to management. They never respect the views of the senators (some of whom just sit the whole day, without a single contribution for the hefty allowances). As a result, the decisions made are normally out of place within the University. The Chairman of the Council, the very distinguished, learned and experienced Professor Brown Chimphamba seems to be too soft to make unilateral decisions when the situations and his mandate allows him to do so. He listens too much (ask the members of senate to the council). Again to all this, the DPP Government gladly expressed ignorance and rendered a deaf ear even when some reports outlining all this were submitted in writing.

Management

MZUNI has been running with an Acting Vice Chancellor, an Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, an Acting Director of Finance and an Acting Registrar for some time. Some of these positions have been held since May of 2011. The office bearers of these positions are likely to feel reserved to take certain crucial decisions about the institutions because they are simply acting (so it is said). As a result, many things are left unattended to, awaiting the attention of fully capacitated officers who have been long coming to these positions.

The management at the institution (according to the statues) is composed of the Vice Chancellor, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, the University Librarian, the Director of Finance, the Mzuzu University Trust Fund Manager, the Deans of Faculties and the Registrar as Secretariat. The management is sadly divided in its daily endeavours, with the Deans left out in most of the decision making; the (Acting) Vice Chancellor mostly working together with the (Acting) Director of Finance, leaving out the (Acting) Deputy Vice Chancellor. And the Registrar simply dances to the tune of the VC.

The Acting VC (Associate Professor Orton Msiska) is little known to the Government in his position and capacity. One would think he was going to take a bold step to connect himself even to the current State President but alas! One would also think that since most of the problems faced could mainly be solved by the government, the distinguished Associate Professor would be traveling to the Capital Hill to meet officials and plead with them to save and serve the institution, he comfortably just sits in the office. Ask him if he has ever met the State President yet the students have made their move and duly done so.

Reason to this cocooning is that MZUNI has not been submitting its financial reports to the government for five years until end of last year when the management was forced to do so. The Acting VC is supposedly afraid of facing Government officials for fear of being asked about the reports. This is a distinguished man who knows very little about the institution to the point that he does not know the names of some departments in the University (ask any member of the University Senate).  And yet, this is a man whom the Director of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education, Dr. Maluwa Banda was overheard proposing that he should be elevated to a full VC. On the other hand, here is an issue the Government is fully aware of, and it goes ahead to cut subvention because of this mismanagement. This makes staff and students suffer, as a result of the negligence of a few in succulent positions who just let things go as if they are watching soccer. Couldn’t the Government take a bold move to give a directive to fire those few and employ new management? Again, is this only applicable to ESCOM, Petroleum Control Commission, MBC or MACRA, where such moves have been exercised before?

Issues of outsourcing of certain services within the University have apparently stalled. One of the critical area that badly needs outsourcing is the cafeteria. This seems to be a section from which some employees, including the procurement staff and the catering manager benefit a lot for their pockets. Surprisingly, even the Secretary to the Treasury knows about this. And he put it plainly in confidence to some people he knows from the University (in mid May 2012) that one of the reasons why subvention was cut was because “there is a lot stealing through the procurement processes in the cafeteria section”. The question might be why the Government is not acting on this.

Also there is fear that if the outsourcing goes ahead the management will find itself firing relatives and friends as there are a lot of people that are related to each other at the institution. This seemingly has nothing to do with regionalism or nepotism because some if these relationships are not based on where people are coming from but rather, what interests members of staff have with or in each other or their endeavours.

Subvention Cut

MZUNI’s subvention for 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14 is still pegged at MK1.5 billion per year, yet the institution is languishing in a MK1 billion debt as of 26th of May 2012 (ask the Acting Director of Finance). To operate efficiently throughout the year, the institution needs approximately MK2.5 billion in the currently value of our currency. The reason why the institution is currently changing its tune on opening the pended semester is because it does not have money, period. And this is true. Ask the Acting Registrar how long academic departments go without paper in the offices. Ask the Acting Registrar how many departments at the institution do have printers or photocopiers. Ask the Acting Registrar about the state of ICTs at the institution. For the information of the nation, the institution’s website is dormant and the e-mailing domain (@mzuni.ac.mw) has been down for over a year now. Have we ever wondered why MZUNI staff no longer use email account with the mzuni domain?

The Department of Finance

This part of the university is riddled with unjustified allowances claim from some of its staff. One member of staff, an assistant accountant, is known to use his own vehicle to attend to University business and then over-claim money for fuel. This is established, believe it or not.

The accounts and the cash office are handled by members of staff who don’t know how to handle their fellow workers.

It’s also been established that this department does not consult on any issue concerning decision making for the whole university. In fact this has always resulted into 70% of the remaining government subvention (after servicing the payroll) ending up being used for non-academic matters that do not help neither the students nor the departments they belong to. Although it has recently been automated, students’ records on fees payment are still in shambles. It takes ages to find out how much a student has paid for a semester within that semester. This department is also the biggest contributor to the woes at MZUNI.

The Registrar’s Office

This office is currently being run by a brilliant young man (in acting position) who has lots of potential to take the institution to greater heights but professional pride has made him too deaf to listen to everybody else within the campus. He’s very good at making unilateral decisions and likes ignoring committees set to take care of different issues in the University. For example, the current bone of contention is that a proposal about shifting of opening dates was presented to the Council after the Registrar, the Acting Director of Finance and the Acting VC unilaterally cooked an academic calendar without consulting the Senate. Again Senate is the deciding body on such issues. The Acting Registrar, Yonamu Ngwira also refuses to award promotion to some of the staff in his department (who deserve it) and have been faithfully working with the University for a long time. And these members of staff now visibly work with little or no morale. Funny enough he’s in the forefront in submission of promotion application to the University’s Promotions Committee when he can’t consider people directly below him. His promotion was rejected in 2011 by the same committee which duly cited, as one of the reasons, his lack of concern for members of staff in his department (minutes for the meeting during which this occurred are available).

His Assistant in academic affairs, James Kwilimbe, is a man who’s mostly out of office for private affairs, has a liking for flouting the university’s policies at his level. He seems to be doing all the wrong things whether by ignorance of issues or sheer negligence. Many of the lawsuits the institution ends up in are as a result of his misjudgements. Sadly, the management just pretends there is nothing wrong in this.

Another Assistant in the Administration, Chiamiko Chimkwita Phiri (new in the position) seems to know very little about Human Resources affairs and therefore decisions that are made on her part are always attached with problems. Issues of emoluments and staff recruitment, contracts and redundancy are left unattended, and files for such continue piling up in her office. In this office, issues of sabbatical or unpaid leave are always disregarded. Ask the Acting Registrar how many employees has the University allowed to go on sabbatical or unpaid leave in the last 5 years. One well known case is that of the former personal assistant to the Vice Chancellor, Marie Lwazi, who applied for a one-year unpaid leave. A few days her post was advertised in a Malawi Nation Newspaper, and this was followed by a letter of termination of services to her after two weeks.

Why are all these issues being brought up? It’s because left unattended as they are, they widely hinder in the development and the smooth day-to-day running of the institution.

Unending Lawsuits

Due to negligence and disregard for policy, statutes and procedures by management, MZUNI always faces lawsuits from employees, suppliers and other concerned parties. For some reasons, the institution ill-advises its lawyers and vice versa, and this disorganisation ends in the institution being sued and eventually losing all court cases. This year alone (2012) the institution has paid (or is supposed to pay) smiling plaintiffs in excess of close to MK20 million for lawsuits only. Officers from the Sherrif’s Department are frequent visitor to the institution as they usually hang around to impound property of MZUNI.

Transport Department

This is a department where the university also loses a lot of money. Firstly, the state in which most of the about 20 vehicles are, is trouble in itself. Most of them are not roadworthy and they pose a hazard to both staff and students. Most them spend a lot of time in repairs than they do on the road. This applies even to the VC’s official Toyota Prado which at some point in February/March it went for repairs at Mzuzu Toyota almost three times in one month. Each time the said vehicle came out of Toyota its repair bill were over MK300,000. The institution spends a lot of money fixing these vehicles instead of boarding them off to facilitate new vehicle acquisition. Secondly, one would wonder how the planning for use vehicle of each vehicle is done by the department. The vehicles are always misused. It was alleged that in some management and senate meetings there have been some members of these committees who have pin-pointed out this anomaly, and went ahead to ask the management to act on the misuse. It’s so perplexing to find vehicles moving all over Mzuzu on a Sunday let alone when school is in recession. Drivers do whatever they want with the vehicles including running family errands. The investigation found out that the vehicles do have logbooks and each time a vehicle goes out, the driver has to sign-in in a book at the main gate. Unfortunately, this ends there because the signing of the books seems to just be a formality; the drivers do whatever they want with the vehicles but very little is done to really do follows-ups on what exactly the each vehicle does when it is driven out of the main gate. A lot of fuel is wasted by the drivers when they gallivant up and down Mzuzu City doing who knows what with the vehicles. And one should imagine that every month the institution needs closed to MK1.5 million in fuel purchase alone. Why would about 20 vehicles need such an amount in fuel alone to run university errands mostly in Mzuzu where the distance from the institution to town is only 7 Kilometres? And this is even during the holiday. Also most of the use to which these vehicles are subjected to has generally nothing to do with academic issues which are the core substance of the institution. The vehicles also seem to be the easiest target for debt collectors and the Sherrifs. Ask the Registrar where the institution’s Scania Marcopolo Bus is and when was it taken away by the Sheriffs.

At the moment, two vehicles, the controversial silver Toyota Prado (MZ 8607) and a Toyota Corolla (57 SC 35) are accident damaged (the Prado is a write-off, packed on campus for almost a year now). And because there were some arrears and/or anomalies in the insurance contract, the insurance company is seemingly playing it cool, reluctant to replace and repair the vehicles, respectively.

Cafeteria

This is a section whose proposal for outsourcing is gathering dust. Apart from the payroll, this is where the university spends a big chunk of its subvention in exaggerated figures. There is a lot of fraud going on in this eating place. Cases in which numbers of heads of cattle with which to feed students were blotted for personal gains are even known to the Secretary to the Treasury (this is not a supposition, it is true with evidence). Again the question might be why the government is not doing anything about this. It is well known to the MZUNI community that the Catering Manager, who is also a lecturer in Hospitality Management as well as the Senior Procurement Officer are the biggest culprits in all the embezzlement taking place through the MZUNI students’ cafeteria. MZUNI spends millions of Kwachas every month for the cafeteria yet this eating place offers substandard meals to students. In other parastatals, Tobacco Control Commission and Petroleum Control Commission, cases of similar nature called for drastic measures and the government even went to the point of unceremoniously firing people who were not even proven to be involved. Why not with MZUNI?

Academic Departments

Members of staff in some academic departments literally earn their salaries the easy way. There seem to be a group of absent lecturers who are always engaged in personal assignments that directly benefit them at the expense of the University’s time and resources. Check in History, ICT, Nursing and Midwifery, Biomedical Sciences, Land Management, Education and Teaching Studies, Geography, Languages and Literature, and Hospitality Management. This is not to say that all members of staff in these departments are involved; No! It’s only some and they are left scot-free by the management even when it is fully aware of this malpractice.

Fundraising within some departments is strong and well established but the moment money is realised, it goes into the University’s business account in which it disappears to other commitments. And when the departments have plans to procure equipment to help in the running of their endeavours, they are always told that the institution has no money.

Students

They are too big-headed and always take the physical route in dealing with problems. They are the least informed and largely misinformed people in the University, and of course, the management is to blame for this kind of situation. Management does not take time to sit down with the students and tell them the state of affairs. On the other hand, the students do not take time to probe and dig more on issues before they take to the streets where they, in broad day light harass road users who have nothing to do with their plight. Again, this could also be in part attributed to the same stubborn management.

This is a group of people most of whom literally do not pay their fees because they have cracked the maze of weaknesses the institution has in making follow-ups on those with fees arrears every passing semester. As already mentioned, the government sponsored group, which is more than half the current students’ population of about 2030 (June 2012) is the most pompous and notorious. How can a student in a university have keys to his/her room when he has not even registered for a semester? How can a student have access to all meals in the cafeteria when he has not paid a single penny to the university? Believe it or not, this is what happens at MZUNI.

Conclusion

Over the years the institution has seen small problems growing into time-bombs and eventually they have turned into major explosions. The Government owns Mzuzu University, and believe it or not, these problems cannot be solved internally; some of these problems simply need hard-hitting decisions from the government. With these problems and many more (which have not been mentioned here) unsolved, even with MK10 billion to MZUNI as subvention, the Government should expected the money to be blown away by the wind of chaos. Nothing and nothing will come out of it unless the state-of-affairs make a u-turn at MZUNI. Let it be food for thought for every Malawian. It involves our taxes, by the way.

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