The Malawi Polytechnic lecturers are on strike over perks whereas Chancellor College lecturers say they might down tools if they do not get a convincing response to a demand to have their salaries raised by 113 percent. Is government doing enough to mitigate the problem? Frank Namangale speaks with Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) executive director and human rights activist Benedicto Kondowe.Â
Government has ordered the University of Malawi (Unima) to reduce the intake of government-sponsored students from about 2000 to 900 to enable them manage its subvention following 21 percent salary increment made to all parastatals. In general terms, how is this going to affect education in the country?
The decision is retrogressive and has the potential to stifle demand for access. The decision negates governmentâ€™s obligation to provide tertiary education and live up to the national demand. While the decision attempts to address the demands by the boycotting lecturers, it does also undermine the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and the education sector policy which endeavour to double intake.
As government claims, one of the three aims of the National Education Sector plan is to increase equitable access to education. The reduction of intake of sponsored students to the University of Malawi poses several challenges. The decrease, in my view, will lead to giving up of the spaces to students of rich parents who can afford to sponsor themselves, which will mean that students from poor families will categorically be denied access to university education.
Are we now saying that university education is only for the rich? Why is government turning against its own policies? Government has an obligation to provide tertiary education to its citizens. While we appreciate the limited resource argument, we feel that the decision is a huge disservice to Malawians. All these have implications on quality and outcomes. We believe that government has to widely consult before making this decision. The Ministry of Education should give a clear justification for this decision.Â Â
Government has offered a 21 percent salary increment to Unima staff, but a directive was made earlier by government that a 15 percent salary increment it offered earlier should not affect the Unimaâ€™s activities, is this realistic?
This sounds too unrealistic and denotes lack of proper policy guidance. Memos, one from Statutory Corporation and another from Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, failed to provide a framework in which the increment could be realised. Announcing the salary increment, while at the same time directing the university to operate within the approved budget, leaves a lot to be desired.
How would Unima, for example, increase salaries without increased or additional budgetary support? In fact, the memos were not a product of negotiation which remains the major source of contention. Government has increased studentsâ€™ allowance by K7 000 to K40 000 in line with rate of inflation, is this enough in your view?Â The increment of K7 000 to cushion devaluation and inflation is an insult to the students.
Mzuzu University (Mzuni) lecturers were recently on strike over pay, The Malawi Polytechnic lecturers are currently on strike over the same issue whereas Chancellor College academic staff last week gave a 21-day notice to the university to increase their salaries or else they too would go on strike, do you think government is doing enough to mitigate the problem?
The challenge that we have for the past 10 to 15 years is governmentâ€™s failure to look for long-term solutions. We appear to live in an age of reactionary actions rather than progressive (pro-active) approaches to dealing with problems. Poor governance also appears to be at the centre of the emerging issues that our public universities are grappling with. It is apparent that there hasnâ€™t been meaningful engagement or contact and dialogue as most of the decisions are done behind closed doors by one party. Such practices create unnecessary suspicions and animosity which in turn leads to lack of cooperation between the employer and employees.Â Â
Do you think the lecturersâ€™ demand for a 113 percent salary increment is realistic?
Explaining the demand simply based on the rising inflation and two devaluations may oversimplify the matter. Indeed, such an approach may relegate the complexity of the issue to Standard-One Arithmetic. We need to face facts and make hard choices for the betterment of our tertiary education or we should forget about the desirable outputs our universities are expected to generate.
One thing remains a fact that our lecturers are the least paid in the region (Sadc). This does not only compromise quality but is also potential ground for brain drain. For example, last year some senior lecturers (PhD holders) were getting a gross salary of K278 000 per month whereas some professors were getting a gross salary of K300 000 per month.
This is too low to keep such learned minds in our universities; hence, claims that most of such fellows are engaging in consultancies. While a consultancy is a critical component for continued knowledge generation/creation, it must also be known that consultancies are sources of income. According to an Ernest and Young report (2006), a study commissioned by Malawi Government revealed that lecturers in Malawiâ€™s public universities were getting 1100 percent below the Sadc average. Whether the demand is unrealistic in the short term, it still remains a fact that our lecturers deserve better conditions. This is an issue that we should genuinely exhaust in order to come up with sustainable solutions to the problems.