Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's the matter with Malawian universities?

When a university student performs poorly and is withdrawn, the problem is with the student. But when 132 students perform poorly and are withdrawn, then the problem is no longer with the student alone.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 Granted that a few were withdrawn from second and third years, but LUANAR authorities are on record to have said the majority are first year students.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 From Chancellor College the number withdrawn is said to be 116.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A few theories as to how such numbers could be withdrawn in one year have dominated commentary on social media, in newspaper columns, and on the street.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.

Will the new Malawi University of Science and Technology 
herald a new approach to higher education?

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?

Only a holistic analysis can provide answers to these and other questions. This is more than about the students alone. It is about the entire education system and its recent history.

Note: A shorter version of this article was published in The Malawi News of 14th December 2013 under a different title.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Where is the 'holy anger' over cashgate?

A wide section of the Malawian punditry has been arguing that there has not been enough anger expressed over cashgate. Some are going as far as suggesting that there has not been any anger at all. I sympathise with the argument. However I wish these pundits could take the lead and demonstrate exactly how they would like Malawians to express their anger over the scandal. It is very possible that they have specific ideas about how we ought to express the anger.

My own view has been that there has been enough anger expressed by those who have followed the scandal closely. But these are only a small fraction of the Malawian populace. These are Malawians who have regular access to the Internet and are on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Nyasanet. They read Nyasatimes and the other numerous online sources. These are Malawians who have access to the daily newspapers, listen to the radio regularly, and watch TV. In other words, these are Malawians with the means: a formal job, successful entrepreneurs, urban-based, educated up to secondary level and beyond.
Urban Malawi 
The statistics tell us that the above-described Malawians are a minority, no more than 10 per cent of the population at most. And that’s being on the generous side because even for urban dwellers, a huge majority of them earn far too little to be able to afford the daily paper, a TV, and Internet access. Confounding this picture is the exclusive use of English as the dominant language of the daily newspapers, business, parliamentary deliberations and communication, higher education and research, and social media. This is made even more dire by our extreme donor dependency.

Out of a population of about 15 million people, the highest print run for our newspapers does not go beyond 50,000, and we are talking of the weekend papers, the most widely read. Even when you factor in the mukawerenga-mupatse-ena effect where several people read the newspaper in a household, a workplace or an entertainment joint, the number of Malawians who have access to newspapers on a regular basis hardly goes beyond a quarter of a million people.

The radios reach far more people, and use far more Chichewa and other local languages than the newspapers. However MACRA’s attempts to quantify the figures go only as far as percentages of listeners per radio station without giving actual numbers for each station. According to the most recent available data from Internet World Stats, only 4.4 percent of Malawians (whose total population they estimated to be 16 million in 2012) have access to the Internet; the actual number being 716,400 as of 2010.

For Facebook, the number is much less, about 204,000, or 1.2 per cent of the population. The figures are clearly out-dated, but there has not been a major economic or technological transformation enough to bring about drastic changes. The business of numbers of ICT users is an area where MACRA’s initiative is conspicuously lacking.

The picture being presented by the estimates above points to a nation with inadequate information and intellectual infrastructure to muster nation-wide interest in national issues. The ‘holy’ anger summoned by Malawian civil society over cashgate has thus far been restricted to what is known as ‘clicktivism’; Internet activism by the mere click of a computer mouse. The few activists who have managed to galvanise action have only managed to reach the tiny population of newspaper reading, English-speaking and Internet-accessing urban-dwellers.

Even the term ‘cashgate’ is an English term; there has been no attempt to come up with a succinct, evocative local language term to capture the essence of the scandal. With the exception of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter and position on cashgate (which they later undermined with their response to the Peter Chinoko saga), there has been no attempt to provide a comprehensive local language explanation of what happened and what the effect of the scandal has been for the ordinary people. The hearings the Public Accounts Committee of parliament held recently were exclusively in English.

All these factors make it impossible to create a critical mass of outrage and ‘holy’ anger enough to make cashgate a turning point for Malawi. I am personally complicit in this failure; there is nothing I have written in a local language over the issue. Although I have a Chichewa name for my blog, I blog exclusively in English.  And I am writing this opinion piece in English.

The failure to generate a critical mass of national interest goes far beyond cashgate. It pervades the entire development edifice of the nation. Malawians are having very different conversations between urban and rural spaces. President Joyce Banda knows this, as did her predecessors and all politicians. They benefit from it, and therefore do everything in their power to perpetuate it. Unless this changes, it is difficult to imagine a significant transformation happening in Malawian politics and development anytime soon.

Rural Malawi
There are precedents of past mass movements to learn from. The independence struggle being one of them, and the transition to multiparty being another. It behooves the punditry, including myself, to go beyond the rhetoric and point to actionable methods of bringing this discussion to as many Malawians as possible.

To paraphrase the late Chinua Achebe some four decades ago, we have been given the English language, and we are going to use it. We cannot suddenly stop using English. But we need to invest more in multi-lingualism. We need to develop a greater capacity and expertise for translation between English and the local languages. This should be a two-way process. There is a lot of knowledge being created in local languages which remains unrecognised and unutilised because of our retrogressive language policies.

There are a few attempts at harnessing this new knowledge developed in local languages, through local language publications such as Fuko by Nation Publications Ltd, and Mkwaso, from Montfort Media. Some radio and TV programmes are also contributing to this new knowledge, but the effort is far less than the resources poured into maintaining the dominance of the English language.

For changes to happen, we must begin with our daily newspapers, parliament, higher education, research and publications, and social media. Only then can we begin to hope to bridge the chasms between the Malawi of the urban people and the Malawi of the rest; the Malawi of the rich and that of the poor.

Note: A version of this article appears on the opinion page of The Malawi News of Saturday 11th January, 2014.