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.