The education system is now a disaster and a huge threat to economic development. It requires the highest authority of the land to declare a disaster if we are to secure the future of this country. We already have a health crisis that is so easy to see because of unnecessary deaths. Lack of drugs and doctors using own resources for some procedures in public health facilities.
Education on the other hand is a disaster that is not visual like unnecessary deaths but comes with a weak human resource base over time, a strategic flaw in our development process. A closer look at the education system reveals that government has ignored a problem that has now grown big, with a heap of piecemeal solutions.
Two decades ago, free primary education was introduced. School enrolment in primary schools went up and most kids that could not afford basic education had a taste. The five-year-olds of 1994 are in early 20s and most of them have had their dreams shattered. The 250 secondary schools that were planned were never built. There has been zero investment in vocational education by way of building new institutions or expanding the capacity of existing ones, except for some Tevet solutions, not good enough.
The churches have had to completely privatise some of their schools because government has not delivered on their promises of funding them adequately. While private schools have mushroomed, their costs are beyond the reach of many, and in other cases, quality aspects have been questionable.
To see why this problem warrants a crisis declaration, pay attention to the university selection for the past five years. Expensive private-owned schools have dominated entry into the university. While there is nothing wrong with such schools doing well, they represent a small minority of all students that sit for Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations. That makes it a crisis, not so?
Similarly, the education minister had to defend the selection of students to Nkhata Bay secondary school in Parliament. While his critics questioned the accuracy of the figures in his statement, it is clear that most of deserving children cannot go to secondary schools. Simply build more schools. How many have we built in the last five years? Are there any funds in the budget? That calls for a disaster declaration as we are not strategically training critical human resources, a requisite precondition for sustainable economic growth. We should not be exchanging barbs over the quota system, a piecemeal solution.
While the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) is a good idea, I believe it has been a piecemeal solution, just like many other. Mzuzu Teachers College was turned into a university and deprived government of an institution to train teachers for primary schools. The same has happened for Domasi College of Education. If these decisions are linked with free primary education, it is clear that a crisis in terms of high number of students enrolled in primary schools is under the instruction of unqualified teachers. It is a reason that the pass rates have been appalling across various national examinations crippling the entire education system.
Declaring education a disaster means undertaking some tough key decisive steps. Three public universities exist now. It is the right time to immediately invest in them so that they can take at least 20 000 students every year. The Polytechnic has one lecture theatre, Chancellor College has two and some very small rooms that cannot accommodate enough students. The same can be said about Mzuzu University (Mzuni) and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar). Must does not have a laboratory, even though it is a university of science and technology.
Some tough steps that are imperative to fixing the education disaster are to stop the planned construction of the Mombera University, politically incorrect as it sounds and expand the capacity of the existing ones. Mzuni has not started developing the piece of land in the Choma area.
If we are to realise the plans of 10 percent plus growth in gross domestic product (GDP) as the president’s chief economic adviser outlines, then tough decisions must be made now than later. Some serious soul-searching should be done on how we can divert some the agriculture and cement subsidies to expanding the capacity of universities, technical colleges, primary and secondary schools. This is where the future of Malawi relies most. It is now or never but we need a total war on education. It is not too late. n