Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reframing the discussion on Malawi’s problems of access to higher education

This article first appeared in The Nation, on Wednesday 15th December, 2010, under the title 'No solution to Malawi's problems of access to higher education?'.

Returning from a trip outside Malawi, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Professor Peter Mutharika, brought back home some ideas on how to change Malawi’s higher education landscape. Professor Mutharika told journalists that he had held discussions with various officials in American universities on Malawi’s plans to introduce six new universities in the next ten years. One particular idea the minister mentioned was that of community colleges.

I recently suggested in an article published in The Nation newspaper, in Pambazuka News and at the Zeleza Post, that one way of making the six universities a reality might be to elevate the country’s five public teacher training colleges into universities, granting bachelors degrees and higher to primary school teachers and other educators.  In addition to the proposal from Professor Mutharika for Malawi to explore the possibility of community colleges, let us consider two more ideas. The first would be to elevate all technical colleges to university status granting 4-year bachelors’ degrees. The second would be to convert all 3-year diploma programmes into 4-year bachelors’ degree programmes. Otherwise, the proposed six universities will remain a mere drop in the ocean of lack of equitable access to higher education in Malawi.

The results of the 2010 Malawi School Leaving Certificate (MSCE) examinations help put the problem of lack of access to higher education into sharp perspective. In 2010 68,642 Malawians sat the exam (The Nation, 18 November, 2010, p.1). Out of these, 36,621 passed. Going by this year’s university selection numbers, less than 5,000 of these will be accorded places in the country’s universities. The University of Malawi will take in approximately 2,000, and Mzuzu University (MZUNI) will take in about 500. The Catholic University of Malawi (CUNIMA), the Malawi Adventist University, University of Livingstonia, Blantyre International University, African Bible College, and the other 4-year degree granting institutions will not take in any more than UNIMA and MZUNI, combined.

The remainder, no less than 31,000 young Malawians, will be faced with very grim life chances. Some might find places in the certificate and 3-year diploma granting institutions such as Domasi College of Education, Malawi Institute of Journalism, Malawi College of Health Sciences, the various nursing schools, teacher training colleges, and others. Even then, the numbers won’t add up to much. Others will find some form of self or paid employment in the formal and informal sector. But many others will languish in a socio-economic limbo, unable to turn their school leaver status into economic viability.

As of 2007, the year for which current data is available from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST)’s Education Management Information System (EMIS) Section, the total university enrollment for UNIMA and MZUNI was 8,168. The figure was much smaller for the seven technical colleges in the country, 1,388 students. No figures are available for the total enrollment of students in other tertiary institutions, such as nursing colleges, the college of health sciences, the Malawi Institute of Journalism, Domasi College of Education, and others. The gross enrolment of secondary school students in Malawi hovers around 233,573 (Education Statistics, 2008). Each year Malawi releases on to the streets and in the villages no less than 30,000 young people who have passed the MSCE. Another 30,000 fails the exam, and has to either repeat, or forget about a school-leaving certificate altogether.

The case for drastic changes in access to and enrollment in our universities, and expanding the number of higher learning institutions in the country, is overwhelming. We could establish community colleges, as Professor Mutharika proposes. We could elevate technical, vocational and teacher training colleges into 4-year degree granting institutions. We could also abolish the 3-year diploma programme across the board by adding one or two more semesters and award graduates with a full bachelors degree. In some countries such as the United Kingdom, three years of full time study earns one a bachelors’ degree.

In the United States of America, community colleges offer a two-year associate’s degree. Anybody who has successfully completed a secondary school education is eligible. The cost is remarkably lower than conventional universities, making them accessible to as many Americans as possible. According to Dr. Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President Joe Biden, a private university in the United States costs an average of $26,000 per academic year. A public university costs an average of $7,000. A community college costs an average of $2,500.

It is strange that many Malawian institutions of higher learning cling to the outdated 3-year diploma model. Students in these diploma programmes do work that is comparable to 4-year degree programmes. It is a huge waste of time and money for the students, their families and for the nation to make people undergo a three-year diploma programme, and then a few years later bring some of them back to spend another two or more years to finish a bachelors degree. It should be possible to redesign 3-year diploma programmes into bachelors’ degree programmes. We could save a lot of time, money and interrupted lives.

Such a change would increase the number of highly educated Malawians. It would also prepare more Malawians for post-graduate studies. This would also lead to a wider pool of Malawians with requisite academic qualifications and intellectual training better qualified to teach in the degree-granting institutions. The above point is important to make in response to the inevitable question of where Malawi can get qualified university lecturers and professors to teach the numbers that would result from these proposed changes. Affording more Malawians an opportunity for an appropriate university education relevant to Malawi’s context locally and globally would be good for the development of the country.

As I pointed out in the aforementioned earlier article, most countries around the world are realizing that the future of their societies lies in improving access to and the quality of university education and research. Countries such as India, China, Singapore, and the United States of America are looking up to and increasing funding to their universities to help revitalize their economies and chart a better future for their people. Recent talk from President Bingu wa Mutharika and Professor Peter Mutharika, suggests Malawi is also beginning to make access to higher education a national priority.

In the United States, community college enrollments represent 40 percent of all higher education enrollments. There are more than 18 million students in approximately 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, according to Harvard University professor Louis Menand, in his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Reaction in the American University (2010). Calling it “one of the best-kept secrets of higher education,” President Obama in 2009 asked Jill Biden to lead a new initiative to revamp America’s community college system. President Obama and Vice President Biden have proposed $12 billion dollars for the initiative, over a ten-year period. They hope to strengthen the capacity of community colleges across the United States and enable them produce up to 5 million graduates over that period. Long seen as a poor alternative to a university education, community colleges have started seeing their enrollments rise in the wake of the economic crisis America has been undergoing since 2008.

Some community colleges in America have already been working on plans to link themselves to universities so their graduates can seamlessly transition from 2-year associate degrees into bachelors’ degrees. Community colleges have very flexible entry qualifications, offering access to a diverse range of Americans. Some students are parents who left school so they could raise families. Others are workers who have been retrenched and are looking for an opportunity to re-skill and catch up with new advances in their profession. The operational premise here is that if you can successfully complete a secondary school education, you can successfully attend university. In Malawi, the acute lack of space in the university system has bred the belief that merely passing the MSCE is not enough; you have to pass it with distinction. This belief is misleading. It has wasted the lives of many capable, brilliant young Malawians on the grounds that they did not achieve a distinction at MSCE.  

Considering all of these proposals for the Malawian higher education context would go some way toward fulfilling national education policy as laid out in the National Education Sector Plan (NESP) 2007-2-16, the blueprint guiding education policy and practice in Malawi. The policy priorities for all educitonal areas outlined in the NESP are improved governance and management, quality and relevance, and access and equity. The climate seems ripe for a discussion of such bold initiatives in the country’s higher education system. We will miss a golden opportunity if we fail to engage each other and consult as widely as possible in this national discussion.


The Maru and Aquanuts Divers said...

Good post. What is your view on the problems up at MZUNI? It looks as if it may not even open this year. Talking about expanding access when Malawi's current universities aren't functioning well seems to be putting the cart before the horse doesn't it?

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