Friday, July 06, 2018

‘That we be free from fear’: Thoughts on education and Malawi at 54

On 6th July 1964, fifty-four years ago, there were four secondary schools in Malawi, and not a single university. There was Blantyre Secondary School, Zomba Catholic Secondary School, Dedza Secondary School, and Mzuzu Government Secondary School. There were close to 360,000 primary school learners, and the country had between 3 and 4 million people. That year, 6,000 Malawians entered secondary school to start Form 1. The University of Malawi was opened exactly three months after independence, on 6th October 1964. Its first intake was 180 students (other sources put the figure at 90).

Fifty-four years later, there are over 1,400 secondary schools in Malawi and just over 380,000 secondary school students. About 100,000 students enter Form 1 each year. There are four public universities with about 20,000 students. The University of Malawi alone has 13,000 students. There are more than 28 private universities, accommodating what can be estimated to be close to 20,000 students, although the real number could be less or more than this. A Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) is expected by the end of this year, which should help with more accurate numbers.

The above numbers show what has changed on Malawi’s educational landscape since 1964. It looks impressive when compared to the numbers of fifty-four years ago, and puts to rest the argument that we rushed to become independent; that we should have allowed the colonialists to continue ruling over us so as to develop the country more rapidly. They ruled the country for seventy years, and the 1964 numbers represent what they achieved in that period. But compared to the potential that we have as a country, in terms of resources and talent, we could have done much more.

We have achieved gender parity in Standard 1 enrolment although we lose that parity starting from Standard 4. Selection to secondary school is also almost at par for boys and girls, although the pass rates both at Standard 8 and in Form 4 still favour boys. The MSCE results have been improving, especially in 2017. More boys and girls score 6 points at MSCE, which gives the impression that Form Four exams these days are not as hard as in the past.

My hypothesis is that kids today have wider access to general knowledge because of modern technology: smart phones, satellite TV, radio stations. Nutrition has also improved from several years ago, which has in turn improved academic performance. There are many more students sitting exams, a natural consequence of our population boom. When I sat my Form 4 exams in 1989, there were 13,000 of us. As I am writing, 209,000 are writing the 2018 MSCE. In statistical terms, the chances of more students scoring 6 points are far greater these years than they were in 1989.

We still have enormous challenges and are nowhere near where we should have been after 54 years. An incredible number of students who enter Standard 1 do not reach Standard 8. In 2017, just over 255,000 students sat the Standard 8 examination. When this class entered Standard 1 in 2009, they were just over 877,000, according to the 2013 EMIS (Educational Management Information System). Some 622,000 students did not make it to Standard 8, for one reason or another, usually to do with dropping out or repeating.

Of learners who enter Standard 1, only 16 percent go to secondary school, according to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III. The total primary school enrolment currently stands at about 5 million, yet there are only 380,000 students in all of Malawi’s secondary schools. We have too many people out of the school system who should be in school.  A rough calculation of tertiary enrolment shows that there are not much more than 50,000 students in our colleges and universities. We have the lowest tertiary enrolment rate in the world, at 0.8 percent, as per the MGDS III.

We do not treat our teachers with the respect they deserve, especially primary school teachers. We have improved in paying them on time, but we are failing to pay some of them their leave grants. Each year many teachers are upgrading their qualifications but they are going for years without the government issuing them their well-deserved promotions.

When they upgrade, they leave primary schools and go to teach in secondary schools or teacher training colleges, because we do not have a structure for university-educated teachers in our primary school system. We deprive the primary school system of highly educated teachers, believing that primary school learners do not deserve well-educated teachers. This is a travesty.

We have finally began doing something about improving the education of primary school teachers from a two-year certificate toward a university diploma, and hopefully, eventually, toward a university degree. Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Hon. Bright Msaka, told parliament in March that consultations on this had started.

In fact, this has been on the agenda for the past ten years. It was provided for in the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development 2008-2017, but not much happened in the ten years since that document became operational. The entry level requirements to go a teacher training college have been hiked to a minimum of four credits, a measure aimed at improving the quality of teachers.

Learners at January Primary School, Thyolo district
Infrastructure in rural schools, where the majority of Malawian children and youth are educated, remains in a state of disrepair. A few weeks ago the nation was shocked by the deaths of four learners at Nantchengwa Primary School in Zomba rural, crushed to death when a classroom block collapsed and fell on them. It had been constructed by the community in their desire to support their children’s education.

As has been the case for several years now, the education sector was given the biggest chunk of the national budget, at MK166 billion. In the 2017-2018 the education sector was given MK235 billion, which means that the 2018-2019 education budget is less than last year’s. This is surprising, considering that the 2018-2019 national budget has gone up from just over MK1 trillion to MK1.4 trillion (after a recent adjustment downward from MK1.5 trillion presented in parliament).

Youth unemployment has started dominating public discourse, a recognition of the dire straits many young Malawians are in. Because many youths do not have meaningful employment, they have become easy to manipulate and abuse for political purposes. With the 2019 elections approaching, it has been deeply disturbing to see youths being abused yet again, sent on political errands to terrorise journalists, civil society activists and others expressing their frank opinions about developments in the country.

Reports of people getting beaten up in the full presence of police, receiving death threats and having their rights to free expression and association violated are a throwback to the one-party dictatorship. It is as if the masses of unemployed youth are actually part of a deliberate plan to advance political interests.

There is a line in our national anthem that goes “join together our hearts as one, that we be free from fear…” One would think that in this day and era, we would have robust structures that promote debate and discussion over national matters in a free manner, devoid of fear and threats, but it would seem the closer 2019 approaches, the more steadily we are edging towards an abyss.

There is an urgent need to do something about the many Malawians who have been denied an opportunity for a decent education over the years. The Sustainable Development Goal for education stipulates free secondary school education, an idea that does not enthuse Malawians, owing to what happened last time we made primary education free. Today, primary education is free only on paper. In reality, parents and guardians of primary school children are paying for the education of their wards, only it’s not called school fees.

We have huge disparities between a few who can afford decent education in good private schools, and the many who go to poorly resourced public schools. We are a very unequal country, and that inequality distorts the discussion we need to have around providing quality education to everyone.

We need to seriously think of education as an investment that lays the foundation the country needs for development that is really meaningful for the majority. It is only when we can begin to address the inequality in our country, rooted in the disparities in educational opportunity, that we can begin to be truly free from fear.