If Malawi truly wanted to improve the quality of public education, three questions would need to provide guidance. Which local, endogenous wisdom would we draw from? Which countries’ models would we want to learn from? And, how would we want the learning to look like? Although there are no easy answers to these questions, there are good reasons to pursue them.
Drawing from local, endogenous wisdom is important because learning from other societies is as inevitable as it is messy and complex. You can never borrow and transplant an entire system. You can only adapt what you are borrowing to an already existing, endogenous yet dynamic system. For which countries to borrow from, this is not a straightforward matter either. There are successful education systems in the global North and in the global South, with very different cultures.
As to how we would want the learning to look like, we would want to learn on our terms, not on the terms of those we are learning from. That is how successful egalitarian societies have managed to achieve their success.
|A teacher continuous professional development session in Thyolo|
What we know thus far about successful egalitarian education systems is that not only do they understand the significance of making their teachers the best educated and most prestigious professionals; they actually make the necessary investments. All countries say education is important. The difference between successful nations and unsuccessful ones lies in going beyond the rhetoric and implementing national plans.
On 16th September 2015, President Professor Peter Mutharika opened Chiradzulu Teachers’ College and said what must have been the most pleasing statements any Malawian educationist would want to hear. The president said, as quoted in Nyasatimes, “We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions. My government wants to make sure that teachers also live a good life like Engineers, lawyers and doctors as a way of motivating them to mould our children’s future with dedication.”
The president went on to say: “Let us be people who raise the flag of our standards very high. We deserve the best and must aspire to be at our best. Education is where we begin the making of a nation.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, these were very powerful, delightful things to say and Malawians are waiting to see the fulfilment of those promises. If what the president said were to become reality, Malawi would have one of the best education systems in the world.
There are countries that have actually made good on such promises. In Africa, Zimbabwe is one example. In Asia, there is Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In Europe, there is Scotland, Germany, and Finland, among others. What these countries have done, particularly Finland, is to make teaching the most prestigious profession. Finland’s teacher preparation programmes are the most selective, admitting only the best scoring students and subjecting them to a rigorous interview process before finally accepting them into a teacher education programme.
The minimum qualification to become a teacher in Finland, starting at the preschool level, is a research masters’ degree. The result is that the Finnish education system ranks amongst the best in the world, despite having slipped in PISA rankings since 2012 (In the 2015 rankings, released on 6th December 2016, Singapore took the number one position). Teachers, educationists and researchers from around the world go to Finland to learn how the country achieved this.
In the 1950s Finland was a largely agrarian society with very low school enrolment and transition rates. In the 1960s the country made a decision to transform its economy, and it started with the education system. In 1968 the country changed its basic education system and introduced comprehensive and compulsory education from Grades 1 to 9. They changed teacher certification requirements, introduced a new curriculum and started providing free meals to all students.
The country consolidated these changes by decentralising control to local municipalities and assemblies, and later shifted from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Education became the basis for innovation, open-mindedness, and flexibility. Students were taught to be responsible for their own learning, and schools and teachers were given autonomy. Top-performing students were incentivised to join the teaching profession, resulting in highly educated professionals who were trusted.
Critics like to point out that Finland has a very small, homogenous population and therefore it cannot be a model for countries that differ from its makeup. That is well and true, but it does not negate the importance, nor the feasibility, of heavily investing in teacher education and professional development, and fostering responsibility for students’ own learning and self-awareness.
If Malawi were to transform its education system and improve the quality of education, we would need to start by conscientising ourselves to endogenous forms of knowledge that define who we are as a country. We would then be in a position to determine what we wanted to learn from others, on our terms rather than on the terms of those we were learning from.
We have not done a good job of learning or borrowing, and that is why we have mismanaged our education system. The results have had adverse effects on much of our society. One particular form of endogenous knowledge we have not explored is that of uMunthu; the human dignity imperative.
The most recent education statistics, from 2015, show a few gains and many losses. We have improved in net enrolment and at least 95 percent of our six-year olds are entering school. The problem is that they are not persisting to completion. We have made great strides in getting girls into school, who now outnumber boys in primary school by a small margin. Girls also outnumber boys in Form 1 selection, and our teacher training programmes are now enrolling more female student teachers than males. We are training more teachers and the qualified teacher pupil ratio is slightly improving.
A significant percentage of primary school students drop-out annually (3.8 percent) and, an even higher percentage repeat annually (21.9 percent). By the time they reach Standard 8, up to 68 percent have dropped out or are repeating. Of those who finish Standard 8, only 36 percent transition to secondary school. In terms of net enrolment, the percentage of 13-17 year-olds who are supposed to be in secondary school, only 15 percent actually are.
Our secondary school system leaves out so many young people it has become dangerously unsustainable. The majority of Malawians 15 years and above have never attained a secondary school education. The figures stand 64 percent for men and 74 percent for women, according to the 2016 Malawi Health and Demographic Survey (p.11). For those who do attend, the quality is very poor, except for very few in elite public and private secondary schools. The majority of teachers in community day secondary schools are unqualified. It is even worse in private secondary schools, where 72 percent of teachers are untrained.
We have a textbook shortage, but it is made worse by irregular distribution and uncertainties in supply. It is a common sight to see twenty students sharing one textbook while new, unwrapped books are kept inside cupboards in headteachers’ offices for fear that if they get damaged there will be no replacements. We have many students both in primary and secondary schools who go for years without touching a textbook. These students end up in universities and are unleashed onto the streets.
In the tertiary and higher education system, our approach to solutions has been more politically-driven than based on sound thinking. The quota system, officially termed equitable access, is supposed to be used to level the ground for students disadvantaged by poverty, gender and disability, but it has become a tool that punishes high performing students even from among the disadvantaged groups. We need to address resource imbalances and shortages at the primary and secondary levels so as to give everyone a quality basic and secondary education.
We also need to acknowledge that a few private universities now offer alternative options to high performing students. These institutions deserve government support. They are now taking in the many qualified students left out of the public universities. Levelling the ground from basic education and utilising the private universities to widen access would eliminate the need to apply quotas at the higher education level. It would leave academic merit as the only criteria.
The higher education system itself is now reeling from years of elitist exclusivity and arrested development. The decades-old failure to expand access has created bottled-up pressure that is now exploding due to escalating costs amidst rapid expansion. The debate around the fees hike is undifferentiated, pitting two sides that are using sweeping statements to argue that the fees are either justified or they are too high. Missing from the debate is a discussion of how to use data and verifiable records to make students from wealthy families pay, while providing loans and scholarships to those who cannot.
Within three months of its loans recovery campaign, between April and June 2016, the Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board (NHESLGB) was able to recover K27.5 million, from 2,700 former students. This averaged K10,000 per former student, very little when compared to the actual amount spent to educate them.
The NHESLGB has the potential to become an important part of the solution to the problem of higher education fees, especially if it can recover loans at current exchange value and inflation, with interest. It needs to find bolder ways of growing its fund base. The lesson from successful education systems is that their governments use aggressive taxation, particularly from natural resources, to generate enough revenue to provide higher education to as many citizens as possible. We are on the extreme end of the continuum.
The current capacity of our higher education misleads us into thinking that the majority of our secondary school leavers do not qualify for university education. In fact they do. Every year no less than 70,000 pass the MSCE but only 6,000 or thereabouts find space in our public universities. An even smaller number go to private universities. The reality is that many more students deserve to be admitted into higher education but capacity problems deny them this opportunity.
If we truly wanted to improve the quality of education in Malawi, we have the knowledge and the expertise. We know where to learn from. Our leaders say all the right things but fail to put them into action. It has become cliché to say what we lack is political will, shorthand for inaction due to politicised rather than national visions. It is time we moved from a planning nation to an implementing one.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Lamp magazine.