Why students in public universities ‘enjoy’ premature closures

Over the years I have been observing what has been happening in public universities with keen interest. Public universities include colleges under University of Malawi (UNIMA), Lilongwe University of Natural Resources and Agriculture (LUNA) and Mzuzu University (MZUNI).

In almost all Public colleges (with the exception of College of Medicine) what is so common is that all at one time or another are closed prematurely over disagreements that can be sorted out if all the stakeholders put the interest of the nation as priority number one.

But what is becoming common is that all stakeholders are putting their interest first and do not care about how the nation at large is being affected.

Chanco students during academic freedom stand-off vigil . Photo: Makhumbo Munthali/Nyasa Times

Since the government engaged Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) to be involved in offering loans to needy students in public colleges, we have witnessed so many occasions where students have been involved in running battles with the police. The argument from the bank has been that most students who apply for loans are not needy. The bank has been claiming that some of the student had done their secondary school education at very expensive schools.

The fees that the University charge per year is too low compared to what these students were paying
in private schools. On the other hand, students feel that the bank does not carry out proper scrutiny of the applicants because most undeserving students are given the loan facility leaving out the most
deserving ones.

Apart from the issue of loan facility, students in public colleges have also been accusing their authorities of maladministration. Do you remember how MZUNI students chased the institution’s finance officer?

While on the same maladministration, Bunda students have been sent home before the end of the semester. This follows the students’ demand that their Principal, Professor Moses Kwapata, should step down for failing to make the transition smooth from the college being under UNIMA  to LUNA.

The students want their Diplomas and Degrees to bear the UNIMA logo and not LUNA. According to the press, students threatened to destroy the Principal’s house in order to force him out. The closure of the college, it can be deduced that all the stakeholders failed to reach a compromise.

But looking at the issue critically one would fail to understand why such an issue should lead to shut down of the college. Should we say that they sat down and brainstormed and found out that the best option was to send the students home? Were the students right to become violent in order to force their Principal out of the college. Should we say the student union leadership failed to reason with the authorities and that the administrators proved to be dunderheads? Were there any efforts by the student leadership to seek intervention from higher authorities for example chairman of the council?

While accepting that both sides are to blame for the closure of the college, I would like to look at the bigger picture of the issue.  How can one explain the rampant closures of public universities compared none in private universities? Since the birth of private universities in 2003, no premature closures have been reported in these universities. Private institutions of higher learning include Catholic University, Malawi Adventist University, University of Livingstonia, and Blantyre International University among others. It is not that students in private universities are docile neither are there no problems. Problems are there. Possibly, I would be right to say that private institutions of higher learning have more serious problems than those facing UNIM, LUNA and MZUNI.

My analysis of the whole issue is that students in public universities ‘enjoy’ these premature closures. Actions speak louder, so they say. They enjoy finishing their 4-year-degree programmes late. Instead of four years or five, they have to spend more years in college.

Allow me to allege that they enjoy because their fees are completely on the lower side compared to those in private universities. For example, according to Dr. Ken Lipenga, Minister of Finance and the 2010 World Bank report, the government spends a minimum of K1, 083,088 to keep students in campus in a year. But how much do they pay? Students under UNIMA and MZUNI pay MK25, 000 and MK50, 000 per semester respectively.  This is just a drop in the ocean if we compare with what the government spends per student in a year.

Had it been that they are sweating to raise the fees, they would not enjoy these premature closures. Students in private institutions think twice before taking action against their authorities. They know for sure that the more they stay in college the more their parents will keep on struggling to find their fees which skyrockets almost each and every academic year.

So before resorting to any violent action, they engage their authorities in round table discussions. My experience as a former president of student union has shown that these discussions bear fruits. However, on the other hand, students in public universities do not have problems to find fees. The government pays for them and gives them four-star- hotel meals.

But what the students forget is that the more they stay in college the higher the number of form four school leavers who just loiter around. Most students after being selected to go to University public universities spend a minimum of a year at home waiting for space to be created following the exit of fourth year students. As they wait at home, they become idle and as a result engage in promiscuous behaviour that leads them to contract disease such as HIV Aids. Recent report by National Aids Commission (NAC) indicates that in 2011 about 89, 000 young people contracted HIV Aids. Some female students also get impregnated while waiting to have their space created at the
university. Again it should be mentioned that the more students stay in college the more the industries have their production decline due to lack of expertise.

Therefore, I would like to appeal to the government to raise the fees in public universities in order to curb these unnecessary closures. The government should also make sure that it hires competent personnel to run public colleges. College authorities should listen to what students complain about bearing in mind that students in colleges are adults. These closures are so costly and the consequences will be there eternally.

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