Now that the University of Malawi (Unima) has reopened its colleges after being closed for six months over fees hike wrangle, the university council needs to come up with innovative ideas to run the higher education institution efficiently.
It is disappointing that President Peter Mutharika, who is Unima Chancellor, Minister of Education, Science and Technology Emmanuel Fabiano and the council have been too slow to solve the issue.
By the time they were coming up with the solution, irreparable damage had already been done. Students had spent the whole first semester and first month of the second semester at home because leaders abdicated their responsibility.
While the university needs adequate funding to run efficiently, this should not be achieved through ridiculously hiking fees as they did last year. The fees are still high for the majority of Malawians whose disposable income is low and waning.
Quality university education should be as affordable and accessible as possible for deserving students. Unima vice-chancellor John Saka was quoted in the media as saying access to tertiary education in Malawi is 0.4 percent. This is extremely low compared to many neighbouring countries.
Limited number of universities, fees and quota system are some of the problems that have barred students from accessing higher education. Some students from poor households have dropped out of university because they could manage to pay fees.
Instead of trying to burden the students with loans, which should be the last option and high fees, the university council should come up with innovative solutions to run the university effectively and efficiently.
The economic environment has drastically deteriorated compared to a decade or two ago.
Our public universities cannot continue to rely on government subvention and student fees only.
The current financing model is not good enough.
Unima and other State-run universities need to adapt to the dynamic economic environment by adopting business models, including setting up companies to generate income to complement government subsidies.
For example, the university council in collaboration with Ministry of Education, Science and Technology should engage the private sector and parastatals-the major beneficiary of graduates-to sponsor students or contribute part of their profits to fund higher education.
Companies are making millions in profits. Part of the profits can be channelled to finance tertiary education. Some organisations, including Press Trust, are already sponsoring university students.
A long-term agreement should be brokered for a more sustainable relationship. Many corporations have social responsibility programmes which could be tapped to fund university education.
The university should also set up some companies to generate profits. For example, the university through The Malawi Polytechnic, can set up a construction company that can be involved in the construction of roads and buildings. The College of Medicine can set up a private hospital or clinic. Chancellor College can set up a legal firm. Equally, Mzuzu University should find a business venture that can rake in constant revenue. However, such innovative decisions need government buy-in and initial funding.
Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) has set a good example of such innovative ideas to sustain itself. It has constructed a filling station and supermarket. Other projects are also in the offing. Such innovation should be encouraged by other public institutions.
Burdening poor students with exorbitant fees as a means to sustain public universities should be avoided. University education should be as affordable and accessible to all Malawians because it is critical in national development.
Malawi produces very few graduates because of few universities and unaffordable fees. In this present era, no deserving student should be denied access to university because of fees. It is high time our public universities started thinking outside the box to generate funds beyond traditional means. n