When a university student performs poorly and is withdrawn, the problem is with the student. But when 132 students perform poorly and are withdrawn, then the problem is no longer with the student alone. The university itself has a problem. When it is two universities, then it is not just the universities that have a problem, it is the broader national educational system.
It is instructive to scrutinise the numbers. The number 132 comes from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), out of a first year class of 700. Granted that a few were withdrawn from second and third years, but LUANAR authorities are on record to have said the majority are first year students. That figure, 132, is almost one fifth of the class; 19 per cent, to be precise. From Chancellor College the number withdrawn is said to be 116.
In the 2012-2013 academic year, the group speculated to have yielded the mass weeding, Chancellor College admitted 399 students. This is based on records uploaded on the University of Malawi’s website on 25th September 2012. If these numbers are accurate, 116 out of 399 is 29 per cent.
A few theories as to how such numbers could be withdrawn in one year have dominated commentary on social media, in newspaper columns, and on the street. The list includes: the results of cheating at MSCE; the quota system, poor preparation in secondary school, capacity problems in the universities in question, and students entering university too young, among others. Both LUANAR and Unima say they have investigated the causes of this massive performance failure, and will be releasing reports. So it is difficult at this point to pin down any single cause.
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But some of the reasons thus floated are less likely to be causes of the problem. Cheating at MSCE is less likely a cause of the poor performance because selection into either Unima or LUANAR is not based on MSCE results only; students sit an entrance examination. Selection is based on an aggregate of both the MSCE and the entrance exam. If an exam is the problem, then it is both the university entrance exam and the MSCE.
The quota system is also an unlikely single cause. The majority of students entering Unima and LUANAR these days are coming from elite schools and well-to-do families. Joseph Patel, president of the Independent Schools Association of Malawi (ISAMA) says private schools contribute 80 per cent of students entering Malawian universities every year.
Researchers Stella Kaabwe and Lillian Kamtengeni estimate that 91 per cent of university students in Malawi come from wealthy families. Poor families send less than one per cent. The remaining eight per cent are from somewhere in the middle. The double bar system of two exams means that whoever ends up getting selected has merited their place.
Most of these students will have gone to very good secondary schools. If you are in doubt, next time the university selections are announced just look at the full-page congratulatory advertisements from elite schools listing their students who have been selected. And many of these students will have received specialised university entrance exams coaching. For most students, you have to come from a well-to-do family background to afford an expensive private school, and the exams coaching.
If cheating at MSCE and the quota system are not plausible explanations, the other suggested causes have a higher likelihood: poor preparation in secondary school, capacity problems in the universities, and students entering university too young. Let’s briefly examine each in turn. Poor preparation in secondary school sounds counter-intuitive, considering that many of the students are said to be coming from elite secondary schools. One lecturer, quoted in a Nyasatimes article, said many students struggle with English, while some students speak perfect English but have very poor writing skills.
This raises the question of what the MSCE and University Entrance Exam measure. Do they measure what a student knows? Or do they measure a student’s reasoning capability and aptitude? Or both? Is it possible for one to be coached perfectly and pass the entrance exam when their aptitude cannot withstand the rigours of higher level reasoning?
Many students these days are learning to speak perfect English without grasping the fundamentals of reading, writing and reasoning in that language, let alone in their mother tongue. The reason for this, as argued by language education researchers, is that learners learn best using a language they are familiar with. Learning in a familiar language facilitates not just learning but reasoning, writing and problem solving.
Our problem in Malawi is not that we are introducing English too early, no. It is that we are abandoning the familiar language too early, before children have developed important faculties such as reasoning, arguing, writing, problem solving and discovering. The best education systems in the world teach their children using a language they are familiar with, and then add a second language such as English for non-English speaking societies.
What Malawian private schools are doing, abandoning local languages very early in a child’s development stages, is going to affect intellectual aptitude in later academic life. The stipulation in the new Education Act to make English the language of instruction from Standard 1 is a big mistake. It has no basis in language education research. It is Malawian children who will pay the price for this mistake in later life. The solution would have been to introduce a multi-lingual policy, with a deliberate provision to strengthen local languages. This needs resources, but it is a worthy national investment decades down the line.
At the secondary level, our secondary schools are going through a troubled period, an extension of poor preparation in early childhood and primary school. Secondary school teachers in government schools report large, overcrowded classrooms. There are very few books such that in some cases ten students have to share one copy. Reading is the foundation for intellectual development. We have students who finish Form Four without finishing a single prescribed literature book.
Another explanation offered thus far has been capacity problems in the university. As Dr. Boniface Dulani of Chancellor College told me in a private conversation, accommodation problems in the universities and in surrounding areas mean that some students reside in conditions that make it difficult for them to concentrate on their education. Some are residing in houses with no electricity or running water, far from campus. Dr. Dulani also bemoans the unpreparedness of those that come too young. At 14 or 15, one is too young for the university, unless one is a certified genius. There are geniuses and child prodigies alright, but it cannot be everyone.
Some classes are very large and are a burden for the lecturers, as Dr. Dulani indicates. Without a system of Teaching Assistants or Graduate Instructors as is the case in US universities, students have no opportunity for extra help. The culture of consultancies also means that attention to individual students has to compete with attention to a lecturer’s other responsibilities and needs.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is quoted as having received reports from the universities on what has happened for such large numbers of students to have performed so miserably. There are a number of questions one hopes the reports have provided answers to: What are the percentages of students withdrawn from particular years? What is the ratio of male to female students withdrawn? What is the proportion of those on the parallel system to those on residential? What disciplines have been most affected?
We will also need to know what support services are available to students, from their lecturers and from their respective administrations. How many of these students came from private schools? How many from government schools? How about community day secondary schools? How many received coaching for the entrance examinations?
Note: A shorter version of this article was published in The Malawi News of 14th December 2013 under a different title.