The High Court sitting in Lilongwe has granted leave for judicial review to some University of Malawi (Unima) students protesting Unima Council’s decision to hold a virtual graduation, but denied them an injunction to stop the event.
Unima Council announced on March 29 that due to Covid-19 restrictions, it will hold a blended virtual graduation ceremony on April 28 which all graduands will attend online while key staff and dignitaries will physically attend at Chancellor College’s the Great Hall in Zomba.
The statement, signed by Unima registrar Benedicto Malunga, drew mixed reactions from prospective graduands, with some in support while others oppose it.
Those opposing the virtual ceremony, led by law student Alexander Chibayo, sought a court intervention to stop the process, arguing Covid-19 preventive measures do not prohibit academic congregations.
However, another group in support of the graduation, also led by law student Welkam Phiri, has asked Unima to withdraw those opposed to the virtual graduation from the current list, arguing people globally are observing Covid-19 precautionary measures and Malawi cannot act in isolation.
Among others, Chibayo and team prayed for the court to review Unima’s decision to hold the virtual graduation without students who are writing supplementary or referral examinations, but also compel Unima to hold a physical graduation.
But in a ruling made in the High Court Lilongwe Registry, Judge Ruth Chinangwa observes that granting the said injunction would affect many prospective graduands; hence, the decision to allow the process to continue.
She said the applicants have sufficient interest in the matter as prospective graduands and will be directly affected by Unima’s decision.
Ruled Chinangwa: “The matter is a public law matter considering that the happenings of the university are governed by a statute with its accompanying rules and regulations, which include the issues at hand in this matter. It is on this premise that leave for judicial review is granted.
“The court further finds that it’s only just not to grant the application for the injunction as doing so would have a colossal effect on the whole student body that is about to graduate. The application for interlocutory injunction is denied.”
In an interview yesterday, Chibayo said they were still looking at the judgement to determine further steps, which may include appealling and engaging senior government officials to intervene on the matter. He said a decision will be made by today.
In an earlier letter to Unima Council, Chibayo and team had proposed that Unima should decentralise the graduation ceremonies to constituent college level and limit the graduation attendance to essential personnel which includes graduands as the primary parties.
Reads the letter in part: “The Covid-19 preventative measures do not prohibit academic congregations. In our opinion, a graduation ceremony is not a public gathering, but part and parcel of university academic exercise.”
On the other hand, those in support of the graduation asked Unima to allow those who remain opposed to virtual graduation to be withdrawn from the current list, arguing graduands should lead by example by refraining from behaviours that risk the spread of Covid-19.
The Unima Council statement published on March said the decision to have a virtual graduation was arrived at as one way of containing the further spread of Covid-19 and that President Lazarus Chakwera is scheduled to preside over the event.
It read: “Kindly note that due to gazetted, management and control measures of Covid-19, only congregation staff and invited government officials shall be allowed into the Great Hall.
“Virtual graduation links on Youtube, Facebook and Chanco Television shall be communicated in due course.”
In October last year, Unima students, who completed their studies in 2019, also threatened to hold demonstrations in protest against Unima Council’s plan to hold virtual graduations.
The graduands, from all Unima constituent colleges, namely College of Medicine, Kamuzu College of Nursing, The Polytechnic and Chancellor College, described the virtual graduations as “totally absurd”.
Later in November, during a physical graduation ceremony, Unima installed Chakwera as its sixth Chancellor.