Experts say education is key to breaking the generational cycle of inequality. However, as EPHRAIM NYONDO finds out, the quota system of selecting students to public universities is worsening inequality in Malawi.
John Muyila, 18, dreams to make it to Chancellor College to study education and become a secondary school teacher.
The sixth born in the family of eight is the only one, so far, to have gone far with education. All his elder brothers and sisters dropped out in primary school. Some are married while others still live with their subsistence farmer parents.
John—who has never travelled beyond his home district of Chitipa and lives in a house that has never been electrified—is currently in Form Four at Wenya Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the district.
It is not an ideal school, according the 2015 National Education Standards.
With an enrolment of about 479 students, the school has four classrooms, a staff room and eight teachers. None of them is female. The teacher-pupil ratio is 1:102. Most students sit on the floor–something one of the teachers says is forcing girls to drop out.
Teaching and learning materials, especially textbooks, are a hurdle here. A senior English teacher confided in me that there is only one English Literature book for each designated book and only the teachers have them. Students rely on notes taken, and that is the only reference material they have to study while preparing for examinations.
John, whose favourite subjects are sciences—especially Biology, Agriculture and Physical Science—has never seen a science laboratory in his life. Science subjects here are taught like English: purely theoretical, yet during national examinations, he will have to sit for practical examinations.
Being a school with an abject history of having never sent any student to public universities—and again, the best MSCE score so far being 29 points in 2011—John optimistically says, based on how he has been performing in end term results, he can manage 19 points in the national examinations, beat history and wing his way to university.
Can he really?
Now compare John’s story with Ndabaninge Msimuko, 15, whose father’s home of origin is Chitipa as well. The last born in a family of two, Ndabaninge is also in Form Four at Michiru Boys Private School in Blantyre, a district where he was born and raised to this far. His father is a chartered accountant and his mother, a registered nurse.
He dreams of becoming an economist and every weekend, he visits his elder brother, Yamikani—an alumni of Zingwangwa Secondary School in Blantyre—who is in his second year studying Engineering at the Polytechnic.
On the way to see his brother, Ndabaninge passes by the College of Medicine, and while at Polytechnic, he has a chance to interact with his brother’s friends studying economics at Chancellor College.
His parents cannot be described as rich. However, they are a middle-class family who provide every basic necessity Ndabaninge needs to fertilise and water his dream to fruition.
His school is quite an ideal. It has a good number of teachers, most of them with university degrees. With an average pupil-teacher ratio of 1:50, the school has laboratories for Ndabaninge and friends to put their science lessons to practice. At last term’s examinations, Ndabaninge scored nine points.
“We have a library, and if I cannot get a book I need, it’s either I try to look for it at the National Library, where I am a member, or my father will have to buy it for me. At school we do regular studies,” he says, adding: “I am convinced I will make it to Chancellor College.”
Can he really?
The paradox of Malawi’s education is that, soon, John and Ndabaninge, despite the worlds-apart education exposure, will have to sit for the same Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations administered by the Malawi National Examination Board (Maneb).
It is, of course, almost without expression that Ndabaninge will score better than John.
Let us assume Ndabaninge will score nine points and John, 19 points; to mean, both will have qualified for public universities.
However, to be selected to any of the public universities, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE)—courtesy of the current version of the quota system of selecting students to public universities—will subject Ndabaninge and John to compete equally without considering their backgrounds because, originally, they come from the same district.
Under the system, the NCHE reserves 10 spaces for every district, regardless of where those from the district write their examinations, and the remaining spaces are shared according to the districts’ population size.
To mean, all the students that share John’s story studying in struggling schools in Chitipa, in the first place, compete for the 10 spaces with all the students, whose home district is Chitipa, but who, like Ndabaninge, are studying in well-provisioned schools across the country.
When unfortunate students like John miss on the 10 spaces, they will, again, compete with other students across the country with the population size as a deciding factor.
Granted, does the current quota system really help hardworking but unfortunate students like John to access tertiary education in Malawi?
The paradox of it all is that most people in Malawi live in rural areas, like John, and consequently end up learning in not-so-well furnished CDSS. However, the system does not recognise this challenge.
According to a 2000 report by the Malawi Institute of Management (MIM), the majority of CDSSs are in rural areas. The implication of this finding is that these schools mostly cater for a population where the majority of the poor live.
These are the poor, like John, stuck in the generational cycle of inequality. To break this cycle, experts argue, access to education for hard workers like John, especially high education, is key.
And here is why. Education is a fundamental factor of social mobility—the ability for a person to move from a lower social class to a higher one.
The understanding is that education equips people with necessary skills for the job market, eventually determining their social class position.
Consequently, the more educated someone is the higher the earning power they command.
Empirical evidence supports this.
A 2010 study titled ‘Education and Employment in Malawi’ by Vincent Castel, Martha Phiri and Marco Stampini found that within regular wage employment, secondary education is associated with a 123 percent wage premium whereas university education boasts a 234 percent wage premium (relative to illiteracy).
Not only that.
A 2009 study carried out by the University of Malawi’s Professor Ephraim Chirwa and Mirriam Matita established that secondary education improved one’s earning potential by 15.4 percent.
A university education, on the other hand, improved one’s possible income by 66 percent.
A primary school qualification, meanwhile, improved one’s earning potential by a meagre 5.1 percent.
This explains why education remains the sterner agent of the great equaliser—uniting people from varied backgrounds and statuses into a community of enlightenment, prosperity and development.
Granted, if Malawi leaves the fortunate Ndabaninges to compete equally with the unfortunate Johns of this world, is our education, with quota system still in place, really uniting people from varied backgrounds and statuses into a community of enlightenment, prosperity and development of the nation? n