Faced with a wave of student protests in the same vein as South Africa’s Fees Must Fall movement, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika has rolled back on a controversial university fee-hike and instead announced that fees are to be cut, with the deficit to university income to be met by the government.
At face value, this may seem like a victory for hard-pressed students, and a step towards the Malawian government taking responsibility for the nation’s ailing Higher Education system. However, many are questioning whether the paltry fee reduction of only MWK50,000/£52 will go far enough to address deep-seated issues of accessibility.
Some of our Malawian scholars and alumni weigh in on recent events, and the systemic problems plaguing Higher Education in their country.
Muthi Nhlema (MBA, Business Administration, Edinburgh Business School) says:
“As a student of the University of Malawi, I personally recall being part of student protests when fees were hiked a little over a decade ago. People got hurt. People died. And we won, the hike was stopped. But now, when I look back I realize we only delayed the inevitable.
Without question, the reaction of government has been draconian and lackluster, but that aside, there is a much broader question about the cost of delivering higher education and who foots that bill. Now as someone looking in from the outside, it’s a question I can’t ignore.
If Malawi wants to provide affordable higher education to more people, they are going to have to pay for it somehow, and I don’t believe that students are the right people to lead this conversation. Although their voice is important, it is civil society and the government who must engage with the “devil in the detail”. If this is never tackled thoroughly, then we will continue to experience protests like these.
Should brilliant, but financially disadvantaged, students be given a chance to obtain higher education through the introduction of more affordable fees? That’s a no brainer- Yes! But how will that be sustainably financed in an economy where 40% of the national budget is supported by first world tax-payers?
No economy in the world has experienced substantial economic growth without an educated workforce – so education is key. But as with any decision there is, and always will be, a trade-off. What are we willing to trade-off for the sake of higher education? What systemic changes need to happen to facilitate this? Something will need to be sacrificed for the longer term – are Malawians, including myself, ready for such sacrifices? Not to be a pessimist, but judging from our past and current fiscal track record, it is unlikely to be soon.
How am I, as an alumnus and someone who has benefitted from scholarships, personally contributing: I am making a determined decision to pay back my student loan which the government of Malawi has failed to recoup from me for the last 10 years. The current administration has revived the loan recovery scheme after about a decade of it being defunct. There is an intellectual awareness of the need to recoup these funds but no real system to track and recover these funds. It has been an issue for discussion for some time and finally there has been decisive movement toward addressing this.
I believe very strongly that paying back the billions in student loans that have not been recouped from previous students such as myself, who can now afford to pay, will be one step to relieving the funding crisis and, hopefully, bring down the fees in the medium term. I am only one person. And my effort is probably a drop in a limitless ocean, but at least I will have done my part. That’s a start.”
Tawachi Nyasulu (MSc Digital Communications, University of Leeds) says:
“It is indeed disheartening that our leaders continue to be so short sighted as to place priorities on projects that focus on immediate consumption and provide short term benefits to a few individuals, usually ruling party supporters, instead of focusing on investments that foster long term development of the nation as a whole.
It is also unacceptable to fund party manifesto projects from the national budget, unless it is in line with national development policy documents. For instance, currently it is unreasonable for government to allocate billions of Malawi Kwacha to the decent housing scheme project aimed at building houses for the ‘poor’, which is purely from the ruling party manifesto only, and benefits only a few ‘connected’ individuals.
The only wise thing to do is to channel those funds to subsidizing tertiary education which has a significant impact on the development of Malawi. The previous government had a similar housing project but it was not funded from government coffers. For sustainability, I think we need legislation that prevents use of public funds to fund party manifestos that are not in line with national development policy guidelines, because this is done at the expense of pressing national priorities.”
Brighton Chunga (PhD Water Resources Management, Cranfield University) says:
“Nowhere are the words of Nelson Mandela that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ more relevant than in a country like Malawi where still only 61% of the population is literate and only 50% of the population have completed primary school.
I think as a country we can do better. Change of mindset and improving efficiency in many sectors would at least allow us to save and invest in education. Imagine how much money we lose through corruption every day? And I mean huge-scale corruption, beyond what is being reported in the news. I believe wholeheartedly that if we tighten up our financial systems and clampdown on individual and national corruption, we will have sufficient resources to run our universities. The problem is that the state no longer values Higher Education enough even to have a Ministry dedicated to its promotion and development.”
Paul Makocho (PhD Science Education, University of Leeds)
“What should ailing African economies be doing in order to shoulder a significant proportion of student fees? If we have a feasible mechanism that answers this question, then we can forward the same to our governments.
I am a lecturer in one of the public universities in Malawi and I do feel the strain of the tight budgets that we are subject to, against a background of the need to provide quality education. Admittedly tertiary education is not cheap and as African governments are grappling with issues to do with poverty alleviation, it is not easy to provide quality infrastructure and learning materials at highly subsidized level. Malawi, in particular, has been hit by drought and the cost of averting famine is colossal.
Yes, we do sympathize with the students, but it is unfortunate that they should be blocking the streets and causing lots of damage to campus property. It is highly important, however, that our police act professionally and avoid brutal reactions to defenseless university students.”