Sunday, June 30, 2013

Getting MUST right: New university, new opportunity

The pleas from government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities for a raise in their monthly allowances seem to be just what this country needed to begin a conversation on how to overhaul the way we fund public universities. The opening of MUST later this year, as announced by Hon. Eunice Kazembe in June, gives the country a chance to recreate the blueprint for how to provide university education.

Government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities are not only afforded a free university education, they are “lucratively employed” to pursue a university education, as somebody put it on my facebook wall some weeks ago.  As Minister of Education Hon. Eunice Kazembe explained on MBCTV recently, each government-sponsored student receives up to K400,000 per year in allowances. It is one thing to go to university for free, it is a different thing to be paid in the process.

If MUST will be run in the same business as usual terms as the other universities, then it too risks going through the same disruptions that have come to characterise the already-existing universities. Indications are that a major rethink is underway, going by what Hon. Kazembe and Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano, Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi, have recently pronounced. Three things stand out as in dire need of a rethink as Malawi prepares to open its fourth public university. These are the much-debated quota system, student allowances, and loans.

Malawi University of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy : Nyasatimes

The reason why the quota system is the most controversial idea in Malawian higher education debates is because of the capacity problems in our universities. We are not moving quickly enough to address this problem. In 2011 a survey of 150 countries repeated what many of us already know, that only 0.3 percent of young Malawians in the 17-22 year age range are actually in university, placing Malawi last on the list. It is not difficult to understand where the low percentage is coming from.

The most recent intake into the University of Malawi, for the 2012/2013 academic year, was 908. The university administered the university entrance exam to 8507 candidates, out of which 6373 candidates passed. The Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) based its 2012/2013 selection on the same University of Malawi entrance exam, and admitted 456 students. The intake for Mzuzu University was 637 students, which includes upgrading students. The total comes to 2,001 students entering into the three existing public universities for the 2012/2013 academic year. The intake for private universities combined is much lower.

TEVETA’s last intake into technical colleges was 1,580, and teacher training colleges take in about 4,000 students annually. Even when we combine nurses’ colleges and other private colleges, the number of college-age Malawians actually in tertiary institutions is still less than 10,000.
The number of students who sat the 2012 Malawi School Certificate Examination was 111, 781. Out of these, 57, 906 passed. This year the universities will invite about 8,500 of these to sit the next entrance exam, but we should not let that number distort the real figure of Malawians who qualify for university education every year. Everyone who passes the MSCE exam demonstrates an intellectual capacity for higher education. That number stood at 57,906 last year.

If MUST is going to avoid the quota quagmire, admission will have to be based on what Limbani Nsapato calls a “win-win university quota selection system.” By this Nsapato means a system that is based on both merit and socio-economic factors that include gender, disability and poverty. This would give students from rural districts of Malawi and from marginalized backgrounds an equal chance of being selected. Currently, these groups stand little chance.

The second thing MUST must get right is the student allowances. The solution is to start by admitting as many students as the university has space for. Students will be asked to pay the full tuition fees. Hon. Kazembe told the nation last week that more than 60% of entering students in our public universities come from wealthy families and can afford the full tuition fees. Those able to pay will pay. Those unable to will apply for the available scholarships, providing incontrovertible evidence of their inability to afford the fees. Scholarships can include the much-debated allowances, commensurate with cost of living, for the students who demonstrate the need. But everyone else will be admitted on the full knowledge and expectation that they will bear the cost. Currently, the practice is to admit only those for whom the government has reserved a scholarship, many of whom are capable of paying the full fees.

The third thing will be the provision of loans, which will allow those in between to also pursue their education. But a crucial part of getting the loan system right will be loan repayment by alumni. It remains a mystery why we as a nation have failed to put in place a loan system that would have by now helped our universities expand and admit many more students than is the case now (as I argue in an earlier article, loans must be approached with great care. In the US, where student loans are widely available, they have become a burden on graduates, and threaten the country's economic stability).

MUST offers us a new opportunity for a fresh start.

Note: This article appeared on the 'My Turn' oped page of The Nation, Friday 21st June, 2013, under the title 'Getting Must Right From the Onset'.

Distinguishing between cultural revival and ethnic chauvinism in Malawian politics

I have lost count of how many times I have heard the term “harmful cultural practices.” One would think that every aspect of what is supposedly Malawian “culture” is harmful, and must be stopped. The problem is not whether some practices are harmful or not, rather it is what constitutes our understanding of what we call “cultural”. A lot of what is called “cultural” in this particular context has nothing to do with culture. It has everything to do with gender-based violence and abuse fomented by economic, political, social and gender dynamics that masquerade as “culture” when they are not.

Notwithstanding the onslaught that is threatening to obliterate everything to do with “culture”, the country has seen an unprecedented proliferation of cultural preservation groups. While some of these groups have organised quietly and with noble goals, others have taken advantage of the political fortunes of their clansmen and women, and sought political mileage out of ethnicity. In critiquing how we define culture, we are not dismissing the existence of genuine culture and institutions that define a society. Rather, we are guarding against the abuses and excesses of the concept of culture and the tendency for political hijacking of government structures.

Performing artist Masankho Banda performing a story at TEDxLilongwe, 25th May 2013 

It is difficult, but extremely important, to distinguish between cultural preservation and ethnic chauvinism. The difficulty becomes more prominent when we factor in the recalcitrance of our political class to observe separation of powers. Whenever you hear the cry “Bomaaaa” it is usually from party diehards who see their ruling political party and the government as one and the same. It is a hangover from the one-party era that we have failed to cure.

Cultural preservation is an important part of national development, and it must be supported by government infrastructure through constitutional provisions and educational programmes. Separated from political party machinations, government support for cultural preservation provides a level playing field for all ethnicities. We are coming from a history of ethnic chauvinism in which some ethnicities were privileged over others. That set the tempo for how successive governments and their ruling parties have treated the issue of ethnic nationalism.

The reasons why Malawian ethnic groups are clamouring to be recognised may sound counter-tuitive, at first glance. We are yet to deal with the legacy of colonialism which entrenched in us an inferiority complex about our culture, our identity, and our very being. Religions that were imported into the country succeeded on the back of the success of that campaign to inferiorise our very core identity. We have never recovered from that spiritual vanquishing.

It is this recognition that ought to guide the government’s role in restoring cultural pride. If colonialism defeated us on the basis of our identity, any rebirth we wish to initiate will have to be based on reclaiming our worth as human beings. This will be very hard, particularly for those of us convinced that nothing in our existential identity is worth salvaging.

We pay a heavy price for the inferiority complex imposed on us. Our political class has abandoned all sense of agency in taking control of our destiny. We see all social problems as beyond our capacity to deal with them. We scorn and abandon everything that reminds us of our ancient past, which we have been schooled had nothing to do with greatness. Even the efforts we are making at cultural revival are merely cosmetic. What they are achieving to revive are the outward manifestations of culture, in the form of dances, rituals and regalia. These do have their place in cultural preservation, but they do not form the complete cultural agenda.

For this cultural revival to be meaningful, we need to deepen our understanding of the bigger purposes of why we exist as a people. We need to go beyond the outward appearance of culture and identify beliefs and attitudes that affirm our existence and develop our sense of community. This calls for a critical examination of the structures we have inherited for governance and development. We have inherited systems that privilege very few people while marginalising the majority of Malawians. The development agenda in our country is in the hands of only those who can understand the English language, yet the majority of Malawians do not use that language.

This is why even after nearly five decades of independence, the majority of Malawians have not been afforded the opportunity of a meaningful education. A meaningful education does not confer upon one knowledge for the sake of knowledge only. Education entails a deeper understanding of one’s purpose for existing and for belonging in a community. Our guiding purpose ought to be making Malawi a better place than we found it, starting in our homes and in our community. An education that alienates people from their community and their culture is not only retrogressive, it is outright dangerous.

But cultural preservation does not mean holding on to beliefs and practices that have clearly proved to be harmful to individuals and to societies. Cultural development entails a critical outlook, learning about other societies and adopting new ideas.  But this learning has to be on our terms, rather than on the terms of those we would like to learn from. This is where the government’s role in cultural development lies. We must never allow individuals to distort the essence of cultural revival by hijacking government structures for political ends. That will be our undoing.

Note: This article appeared in the Sunday Times Oped debate on 16th June, 2013, under the title Government has a role in cultural revival

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Solving the study leave conondrum for Malawian teachers

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. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

University education and the crisis of leadership in Malawi

Upon attaining independence, African countries’ expectations were that universities would be the primary institutions to produce leaders who would propel their countries to prosperity. According to Ghanaian scholar Professor Akilagpa Sawyerr, Africans expected their universities to build capacity “to develop and manage their resources, alleviate the poverty of the majority of their people, and close the gap between them and the developed world.” African countries hoped that universities would achieve these goals by providing a “home-grown leadership in areas in need of rapid material and social development.” The way to think of these goals was through what Sawyerr calls a “developmental university”, an institution of higher learning that was expected to contribute to a country’s development.

Five decades since independence, what have African universities contributed to the leadership of their respective countries? In this article, we will turn this question onto the Malawian leadership landscape and assess the extent to which our universities have produced, or failed to, the kind of leadership Malawians have always desired. Regardless of the fact that none of the four presidents Malawi has had thus far has been a product of a Malawian university, graduates from our institutions of higher learning are in various leadership positions in the public and private sectors. We discuss why the universities have fallen short of expectations, and what solutions are being suggested by some of Africa’s most prominent intellectuals.

Part of the Chancellor College campus, University of Malawi

As far as educating a new generation of Africans, Sawyerr argues that African universities have succeeded in fulfilling some of these expectations. He says had it not been for these universities, it is hard to imagine where African countries would have been today. But while African universities have made remarkable contributions to the addressing of African problems, these institutions have also failed their respective countries, particularly in the area of leadership both in the public sector as well as in the private sector. The causes of the failures are to be found in the political economy of dominant global ideology, within the institutions themselves, and in the political leadership of African countries.

Sawyerr has discussed the failures of the African university in the broader context of the global influence exercised by international financial institutions and their neoliberal prescriptions (“Challenges Facing African Universities: Selected Issues”, African Studies Review, Vol 47 No 1, 2004). He singles out the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s, which he calls the “lost decade,” for causing “enormous social costs, including the deindustrialization of national economies and the substantial loss of national control over economic and social policymaking.

Professor Thandika Mkandawire, a world-renowned Malawian development economist, has also written extensively on this very topic. He has argued that the anti-tertiary education policies that the World Bank adopted, and has since disavowed, robbed African countries of opportunities to educate a professional class of technocrats. The structural problems African economies experience today have their origins in that era of missed opportunities.  

The death of 'Intellectualism' in African universities

In a 2003 lecture given at the University of Nairobi, Professor Ali Mazrui decried the death of “intellectualism” in the African university. He argued that for a university to help develop its society, first the society has to help develop the university. He identified three crucial relationships that mediated the role of the university and its dealings with the wider world: political distance from the state, cultural closeness to the society, and intellectual links to wider scholarly and scientific values. He argued that it was possible for a university to be funded by the state and still maintain its political distance, as is the case in North America, Europe and elsewhere. He cited the example of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki whom he said had surrendered his chancellorship of six public universities.

Mazrui said African universities were “colonial in origin and disproportionately European in traditions,” adding “African universities are the major instruments and vehicles of cultural westernization on the continent.” This was where the African university faced its most formidable challenge in its attempt to be of relevance to its society (“Towards Re-africanizing African Universities: Who Killed Intellectualism in the Post Colonial Era?” Lecture given at the University of Nairobi, published in Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, Vol 2 No 3&4, 2003).

In a more recent lecture, which we discussed at length in The Lamp (September-October 2011), Ugandan intellectual Professor Mahmood Mamdani echoed Mazrui’s characterization of the African university. Mamdani said the Western university system on which African universities modeled themselves was out of touch with African problems. He said the African university did not prepare students for the conditions in which they would work, conditions they would be expected to have a good grasp of if they were to make meaningful contributions to development (“The importance of research in a university”, Pambazuka News, Issue 526, 21st April, 2011).

Academics versus politicians

But an important factor in the failures of the African university has been the relationship between African academics and African political leadership. In Malawi, the relationship between the University of Malawi (until recently the only university in the country) and Malawi’s political leadership has always been a testy one. Although the establishment of a national university was one of his major dreams upon the attainment of independence, founding president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda detested a university that exercised intellectual autonomy. In his 2003 book Rethinking Africa’s Globalization: Volume 1: The Intellectual Challenges, Malawian intellectual and economic historian Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has described the brand of African leaders in the mould of Kamuzu Banda as having been “suspicious and dismissive of academics.”

One tragic consequence of this relationship was, argues Zeleza, the reduction of scholarly work to “sycophancy.” Academics competed amongst themselves to outdo each other in singing praises of the political leadership and concocting subversive plots to bring each other down. One Malawian academic who bore the brunt of this brand of politics of destruction was Dr. Jack Mapanje, a leading poet and then chair of the English Department in the 1980s. Mapanje has described, in his 2011 memoir And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, the circumstances that led to his betrayal by his superiors at Chancellor College and his detention without trial for three and a half years.

Zeleza points out that the authoritarianism of the state meant that universities were also ran in authoritarian ways. The state appointed senior university administrators who appointed heads of units, who made recommendations for promotions based not on merit but on levels of sycophancy. But Zeleza apportions part of the blame for this state of affairs on the African universities themselves. He writes: “Besotted by opportunism, careerism, parochialism, factionalism, and ideological intolerance, intellectuals have often weakened their collective defense against state assaults.” In the case of Malawi, “intellectuals not only conceded political space to the state, but sometimes assisted in authenticating its authoritarianism.”

The authoritarianism also meant that institutional decisions were top-down rather than democratic, which marred communication, and strained relations between lecturers and university administration. It is in this context that African universities strayed from their missions, and became part of the larger problems that impeded national development. Writes Zeleza: “buildings decayed, libraries and laboratory facilities deteriorated, and the culture of learning and knowledge production degenerated.” This is the history that informed the academic freedom struggle Chancellor College lecturers fought in 2011, and continue to in their rejection of the proposed University of Malawi Act 2012.

In a personal anecdote that illustrates the extent of intellectual degeneration in Malawi, Zeleza writes about visiting Chancellor College in 1996 and discovering that the university bookstore had been closed, and the building was being converted into offices. Close to two decades later, the University of Malawi continues to operate without university bookshops in its constituent colleges. The implication of this situation is a pernicious type of intellectual deprivation that leads to students who graduate from university without adequate preparation for the roles society has carved out for them. Zeleza points out that failure to address problems of intellectual quality in African universities is tantamount to condemning “African students to intellectual backwardness and dependency, both of which constitute a monumental crime against Africa’s development and future.”

The Great Hall, Chancellor College

Do universities’ mission statements matter?

Is it still possible for Malawian universities, public and private, to assume their rightful roles in fulfilling societal expectations and providing for the country a cadre of graduates who can contribute to national development in a more meaningful way? A cursory glance at the mission statements of six public and private Malawian universities reveals a common concern with providing a high quality education that meets the needs of the country.

Malawi’s universities want to “advance knowledge, promote wisdom and understanding and provide services by engaging in teaching and research and by facilitating the dissemination, promotion, and preservation of learning responsive to the needs of Malawi and the world” (University of Malawi). They desire to meet the “technological, social and economic needs of individuals and communities in Malawi,” (Mzuzu University), and to train professionals who manage the country’s agriculture and natural resources (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources).

They want to “contribute to the integral development of the nation” (Catholic University of Malawi), and to equip graduates “with knowledge, skills and competencies that are necessary for service to God and mankind” (Malawi Adventist University). They aspire to “educate and inspire students to become principled leaders who will transform society for the glory of God” (University of Livingstonia), and to train “competent scholars with relevant skills such as problem solving, decision making, research and analytical skills to contribute towards the improvement of social economic development of the country and beyond” (Exploits University).

Blantyre International University talks of providing “high quality university education for this century,” while Skyway University aims “to provide quality services in a professional and nationally-conscious manner, with integrity within a conducive learning environment.”

Cultivating new leaders

It is one thing for universities to have elaborate visions and impressive mission statements, and another for them to live up to those lofty ambitions. In a paper titled “Learning and Leadership: Exploring the linkages between higher education and developmental leadership,” Laura Brannelly, Laura Lewis and Susy Ndaruhutse of the Developmental Leadership Program (2011) argue that universities cannot adequately prepare leaders if they do not espouse the core principles of leadership in their mission statements, their curricular content and their classroom practices. 

The three authors point out that there is a “symbiotic relationship between higher education and developmental leadership,” and higher education institutions need to be clear about how their aims and objectives can promote good leadership amongst their graduates. Developing the next generation of leaders, argue Branney, Lewis and Ndaruhutse, starts with the types of skills and competencies universities teach and embrace. Teaching methods must demonstrate transformational qualities rather than perpetuate mechanical, top-down transfer of knowledge.

Teachers need to be mentors and role models to their students. Institutions of higher learning themselves need to embrace and practice governance and management models that they teach, as these are the competencies graduates will need to demonstrate as they take up leadership roles. This point was also made by Zeleza who observed that authoritarianism in the state reflected authoritarianism in the university.

Students need to be involved in the institution’s decision making process, habits of practice that good leaders follow. A lot of the vandalism and violence that have come to characterize Malawian secondary schools and universities in recent years stem from a lack of meaningful and democratic involvement of students in decision making.

Passengers no longer

As Malawians debate the legacy left by the pioneering leaders, it will be instructive to keep in mind the plethora of causes that have led to the leadership crisis in the country. Some of these go back to the structures bequeathed to us by colonial history, while some have arisen from the global economic and political structures. The solutions, as suggested by all the scholars discussed in this article, lie in rethinking the governance structure of our universities, the curricula taught in these universities, and the pedagogical methods used.

Mazrui calls for a more Africa-centered curriculum with African languages given a prominent role. He points to the need to recognize African models of knowledge that have the same rigour and depth, outside Western models of science. Sawyerr emphasizes the “primary, irreducible responsibility of the state” in funding and maintaining high standards in the higher education system. Mamdani wants the next generation of African intellectuals to be trained in Africa so as to prepare them for African realities, while Zeleza looks to the “africanization” of global scholarship, and the “globalization” of African scholarship.

Writes Zeleza: “As intellectuals, we must articulate clear agendas for African societies and people, especially as the continent encounters new processes of globalization. These agendas must be rooted in the unfinished tasks of progressive African nationalism—development, democratization, and self-determination . . . Without strong, well-funded universities and research programs, we will continue being passengers.”

Note: This article first appeared in the March-April 2013 issue of The Lamp magazine.