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Access to higher education in Malawi remains a problem

 The Big Issue Malawi 11 April 2019

Since its independence in 1964, Malawi has been trying to improve the education standards. Recently the number of schools and universties has increased but it is still far from being enough. The criteria to select students and the quality of the institutions still generate controversy. (1024 Words) - By Akwete Sande


In the first 30 years of independence in Malawi the opportunities for one to get an education were very little. There was an average of one secondary school, run by the government, per district - and there were at the time 24 districts -, with a few run by religious groups.
A student had to be carefully selected to get in to the secondary school. The population has grown from about 4 million, at the time of the independence in1964, to about 13 million today. Over 60% of the adult population never went beyond the primary level and even access to primary education was restrictive. Parents had to pay fees, even though a token amount was reason enough for one to drop out.
In 1994 the new democratic regime of Bakili Muluzi took over from the founding President Hastings Banda and introduced free primary education.
Enrolment rose from 1.5 million to about 3 million, prompting an expansive and expensive undertaking in school construction and emergency teacher education.However, quality was sacrificed for quantity, critics argue. "But the remarkable thing is that parents were given an opportunity to send their children to school. Illiteracy was reduced and the foundation for a revolution in education was set", observes Daud Chiulu, a teacher in the lakeshore district of Mangochi.
The rise in enrolment has led to an enormous demand in both secondary education and higher institutions.  The business community has responded by opening private schools.  Almost at once, over 1500 private schools became available.
This again led to the lowering of the standards. A school certificate holder was allowed to teach a candidate for the same certificate.  Former beer halls were converted into secondary schools with no minimum facilities such as toilets, libraries and laboratories.
The government stepped in to bring sanity to the system last year, leading to a closure of about 800 schools. "This was a commendable move and it will lead to serious investment by entrepreneurs.  But the downside is that we have thousands of pupils at home and many teachers jobless" says Abilu Mapila, a former teacher at a school which was shut down in Mangochi.
While primary and secondary schools were being shutdown, another controversy was arising. The government introduced an "equitable access of education" which meant each of 28 district will have 10 reserved places chosen on quota basis while the rest of the places are contested on merit.
The argument for this decision has been that the northern region of the country, with about 1 million people (Malawi has 13 million habitants) has been dominating the two state funded universities.
President Bingu wa Mutharika accused people of the northern region of nepotism hence their grip on all public education facilities at the expense of the rest of the country. He declared that besides increasing the number of universities, the present facilities should be accessible to all people.
The government owns two universities, the religious community has opened three - the Catholic Church, the Seventh Adventist and the Livingstonia Mission (Presbyterian) have their own universities while the Muslim and other large Christian denominations are yet to open their own.
Malawi has always relied on religious groups for provision of education even before colonial rule by the British in the 19tthcentury because Christian missionaries came first to the country. However the universities combined can only accommodate less than 5000 prospective students out of those sitting for school certificate examination (about 70 000).
'The statistics clearly show that access to high education is restrictive and children aspiring for academic excellence will never get a chance. The controversy over selection, criteria, equitable access or whatever we call it, would be unnecessary if the government opened more schools and allowed the private sector to go into higher education.  What can parents do to ensure their children will get professional qualifications?" Mapila argues.
The business sector again has responded by opening of institutions offering international professional qualification in such areas such as accountancy, marketing, management, among others.
"UK qualifications are popular but they have proved to be expensive' Mapila observes. 
An official from the Reserve Bank speaking on condition of anynomity agrees that UK or foreign examinations are expensive but the government can not stop it.  People need high qualification. "No parent wants a child to be at home. Vocational institutions are very few so where do the rest go? Besides, employers accept British or foreign qualifications therefore people are free to sit for these examinations. We have no choice," he says.
A columnist in a weekly paper argues that the debate on quota system is simply a symptom of another problem. He argues that the large number of students leaving school, most of them below 20 years of age, cannot be accommodated at conventional universities, therefore the solution is either a vocational or private tertiary institutions.
The government needs to do something and stop the flow of money that goes to foreign institutions.
A veteran educationist, Don Mbwanda, now retired, says the existing universities can be expanded, and distance learning can be introduced. He commends recent pronouncement by the state president that five universities are planned for the next few years.
"Such initiatives on the other hand will increase job opportunities and reduce unemployment. Government should not rush to close schools or colleges but supervise those offering theses services and create a good environment for high learning' he says.
The reintroduction of the quota system which was unpopular during the Banda regime (1964 - 1994) has sparked animosity especially among the people of the north, and threatens the unity of the country.
Songazaudzu Sajeni, deputy minister for education says the introduction of the quota system won't divide the country. However the closing of schools and introduction of quotas remains controversial and has not solved the problem of access to higher education.
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Originally published by The Big Issue Malawi ©
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