University of Malawi fees hike non-negotiable

Parliament, during the last sitting, authorised President Peter Mutharika’s government to borrow K20 billion from the African Development Bank (ADB) to help University of Malawi (Unima) to increase access to tertiary education.

That, to me, was a potent case of irresponsible and reckless borrowing. You see, it makes sense to borrow for purposes of funding institutions that cannot generate income on their own.

Unima, unfortunately, is not one of such institutions. Even our professor President—an accomplished academic—understands that Unima, just like Washington University in the US, is an institution that does not just have the potential, but most importantly, the capacity to generate its own income and fund its projects.

University of Malawi Chancellor College
University of Malawi Chancellor College

I will give you two ways. One, Unima is a factory that produces knowledge. Why not turn this knowledge into a commodity on the market? And two, by today, Unima has not less than 5 000 students both as undergraduates and postgraduates. Why not make effective use of the cost-sharing process?

The fact that we are still borrowing huge to finance an institution that, already, gets not less than 90 percent of government’s subvention, suggests a serious leadership problem somewhere. I am tempted, sometimes, to speculate that there appears to be a well-organised system in government specifically designed to suffocate Unima’s potential and capacity to generate its own funds.

Could this, perhaps, be one of government’s many tools of controlling Unima’s independence?

I will give you the instance of Unima’s unending fees saga. Since 1989 when Unima moved from being “free” to “fees paying”, there has always been a raging yet justifiable concern regarding the need for government and guardians to realistically share the cost of running the ever-increasing expensive tertiary education in the country. The concerns are justifiable because good education is expensive and, for a poor country like Malawi, you cannot keep on subsidising it.

However, government’s response—even after strong recommendation from the University Council (Unima’s decision making body)—has always been indecisive. We saw how indecisive Kamuzu Banda was in 1989 when Unima changed from “no fees” to K1 500 per year.

Our memories are still fresh over how Bakili Muluzi, in 2000, almost collapsed when his Finance Minister Mathews Chikaonda proposed the revision of Unima fees from K1 500 to K47 000. I am sure we haven’t forgotten how Bingu wa Mutharika shot in the arm University Council’s proposal to hike fees from K25 000 to K150 000 in 2011.

It is interesting to note how common their argument has been against fees hike. They have all argued, which is true to a lesser extent, that most guardians are too poor to meet the user fees of their wards.

The result of this not-so-true argument has been the complete removal of parents/guardians in taking care of their children. In fact, even parents that have the capacity, and I know they are many, have folded their arms. They are convinced that government is now responsible for paying their children’s fees. This, to be honest, is stupidity at its core.

You see, what emerged from these governments’ common indecisiveness was a lucid cost-sharing system in form of a loan scheme which, todate, is proving expensive for government to sustain.

For instance, with a K2 million support from World Bank, government, in 1989, introduced a Unima loan scheme to help students from so-called poor backgrounds to meet the K1 500 fees. They could also get a K1 500 book allowance.

However, not only was the mechanism of determining the beneficiaries weak. The repayment system, too, was absolutely feeble. That is why by 1999, graduates owed Unima a whopping K5 million due to loan defaulting.

History repeated itself in 2000. Dazed by the cost of maintaining a university student skyrocketing to K180 000 per year, University Council proposed a fees hike from K15 000 to K47 000. Government did not just halve the fees to K25 000. It also introduced, again, another loan scheme that, in terms of identifying beneficiaries and loan repayment, was even worse than the first one.

The paradox of it all is that by 2007, when the cost of sustaining a Unima student had soared to K1.5 million per year, government was paying K25 000 for fees and K5 000 (which increased to K2 000 by 2009) for book allowance to every student. The double-edged tragedy of this cost-sharing system is that, one, Unima fees is ridiculously low, and the loan scheme, which mostly benefits the already rich, is not repaid at all.

There are millions, if not billions, that Unima alumnus owe government. I would not blame the alumnus for this. Government shoulders the blame. There is no way you can loan somebody huge sum of money without devising a robust mechanism of reclaiming it.

That is why when I read in the news last week that University Council is proposing a fees hike from the current K55 000 to K275 000 and noted the deafening silence to it, I really got the sense of dejavu.

Will Professor Mutharika, the only true academic to have led Malawi so far, make a realistic difference to a problem that all his predecessors have failed? That is the question.

Make no mistake. Professor Mutharika, I am inclined to believe, understands much better the need of not politicising Unima’s potential and capacity to generate its income and finance its projects. For somebody who has been an academic for 40 years, it will be a mockers to his academic stature to play to the gallery on the fee hike issue.

Here is what I expect from Professor Mutharika. One, endorse the fees hike without alterations. He should forget the arguments civil society organisations are making on the need for consultations. What consultations? Don’t even waste an ear getting confused with empty threats from Poly and Chanco students.

Two, for those that cannot meet the required fees, here is my proposal: strengthen the mechanism of identifying the beneficiaries and, most importantly, the repayment system.

Three, institute a special Loan Repayment Commission that should trace loan defaulters and force them to pay the money they owe government.

Otherwise, Mr President, Unima fees hike, as it stands now, is non-negotiable. Or else we will keep on burdening the future with reckless and irresponsible borrowings to fund institutions that have the potential and capacity to generate their own income.

  • The article appeared in the Nation on Sunday newspaper

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