The decision by the Ministry of Education to stop granting
study leave to teachers in the middle of the school year, to avoid disrupting teaching and learning, reminds me of what
happened when I got my posting fresh from teachers’ college. That was back in
1993. I had graduated as a primary school teacher from Lilongwe Teachers
College, in September of that year. This was after a four-year teacher training
programme known then as Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme (MASTEP), a
fore-runner to the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) model now in place.
In December 1993 I was posted to a school in a remote part
of Dedza district, on the western border close to Mozambique. To get there, I
took an early morning bus from Dedza Boma, and dropped off after about two
hours. As instructed, I walked to a nearby school and asked the headteacher for
directions to the school I had been posted to, which I had been advised was
much further away. As I had been told would happen, this headteacher found a
Standard 8 boy and ordered him to escort me. The headteacher then gave me his
bicycle. The Standard 8 boy got on the carrier, and we pedalled away.
The boy pointed to some hills in the distance, and said our
destination was behind those hills. I despaired, but decided to continue. We
pedalled for three hours, and finally reached our destination. The headteacher
for this school was away, but I left word that I had been posted there, and
would be coming back with my household items when the second term opened at the
beginning of 1994.
|School children in Dedza|
We got back on the bicycle and cycled furiously. The bus
that had brought me in the morning would be making its return leg in the
afternoon, and I needed to catch it to return to Dedza. Miss that bus and I
would have had to wait for the next afternoon when it would be making its next
routine return leg. I went back to the DEO and told him I would be seeking a
transfer to Zomba. I was burning with a desire for higher education, and it
would be easier for me if I taught in Zomba. I was not granted a transfer to Zomba, but as a compromise I asked for Ntcheu. I was posted to Gunde Primary School, somewhere in between Khwisa Rail Station and Balaka Market. It was close to my father's ancestral home, so I accepted the posting.
Thus when I read the article about the end of study leave
during the school calendar, in The Nation
of Monday 4th
June, I knew what this meant for the thousands of
teachers affected. The hunger for higher education amongst Malawians is
legendary. We know the numbers of how many Malawians make it to university
every year. Less than 3,000, out of over a hundred thousand who sit the MSCE
exam every year. Many who don’t make it after Form Four spend the rest of their
lives sweating to find an alternate route to a university education.
In June 2011 I met a Standard 4 teacher who was spending his
entire salary on fees for his bachelors’ degree programme at a local private university
in Lilongwe. He was studying at the Assemblies of God School of Theology. I mentioned this teacher’s plight, Amos Matchakaza on twitter, and Hastings Fukula
Nyekanyeka, a friend of mine and former classmate, came to the teacher’s
rescue. The teacher finished his degree this year, and is now seeking funding
to proceed to a masters’ degree. Two factors enabled this teacher to finish his
degree. First, someone stepped in to assist him financially. Second, the
university he was going to has an evening and weekend programme.
|Amos Matchakaza on his graduation day|
That is the solution to the problem the Ministry of
Education is facing. Unfortunately there are very few reputable Malawian
institutions of higher learning that offer the flexibility for evening and
weekend classes. This is a huge, untapped market, particularly in the big
cities and towns. Lilongwe, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, is
the only capital city I know of that does not have a full-fledged public university.
The few private universities that attempt to offer evening and weekend classes
are bursting at the seams, unable to cope with the demand.
This country is in great need of more universities that can
cater to the unmet demand for higher education amongst teachers and other
working professionals. It is a well-established fact that higher education is a
necessity for national development. By facilitating the availability of flexible
options for higher education, particularly for our teachers, the government and
Malawian universities will be solving two of the most protracted problems
plaguing education in Malawi today: teacher morale and empowerment.