Four years after Bunda College of Agriculture was delinked from the University of Malawi to form the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), our reporter FATSANI GUNYA engaged the university’s Vice Chancellor Professor GEORGE KANYAMA PHIRI on the journey so far. EXCERPTS:
What strides has Luanar made since it became fully operational in July 2012?
Luanar has already established itself as a force to reckon with in as far as achieving academic excellence is concerned. Such excellence has also reflected on other sectors such as in teaching and learning, research, consultancy and outreach. Luanar’s intake has also increased tremendously over the years as compared to way back when it was Bunda College of Agriculture.
Bunda used to admit candidates based on availability of bed space despite increased demand for our academic programmes. The move kept denying some deserving students access to higher learning. Today, we have a student population of about 5 000 in all our campuses—Bunda College (about 3 000), Natural Resources College (1 592) and off campus (500).
What challenges has increased enrolment brought to Luanar?
Just as it is with rose flowers having their own thorns, the increased enrolment at Luanar has brought with it some challenges. Learning and teaching materials are no longer inadequate. So too is on-campus accommodation, library space has been getting smaller and smaller for the ever-increasing student population. The current teaching and learning facilities are not suitable for teaching large classes, to say the least. The ICT infrastructure, a key beacon in growing modern education, has also been left with much more to be desired. Consequently, these challenges may have an effect on the delivery of programmes and quality of graduates in the long run.
How is the university dealing with accommodation challenges?
That’s one area that keeps giving us some headache. Out of the 5 000 students, only 600 are accommodated at Bunda campus and 630 at NRC. The rest are into self-boarding. The fact that Bunda is 35km and NRC 20km away from Lilongwe city means the students are denied standard accommodation, even if they may have the capacity to fund their own accommodation. This is detrimental to attaining our academic excellence as a country.
It is even hampering our efforts to achieve the stipulated mission of advancing knowledge and produce relevant graduate with entrepreneurship skills for agricultural growth, food security, wealth creation and sustainable natural resources management through teaching, training, research, outreach, consultancy and sound management.
Talking of infrastructural development, most of the construction projects seem to have stalled despite some of them starting way before the university became operational. What has happened, Professor?
When government declared that Bunda shall become the main campus of Luanar, the next thing was for it to support the campus by financing the construction of a teaching complex and an administration complex. Unfortunately, over the past two years, the funds flowing from government have declined quite considerably to a point where we are moving at a very slow pace to complete them. So in a way you are right by saying that the structures should have been completed by 2013 or 2014. For now, what is important is that there is a structure, plus the government will is there; meaning one day, the projects will be completed.
There has been talk about public-private partnerships (PPP) in growing the country’s socio-economic status. Do you think it can work to help Luanar address such challenges?
As a matter of fact, that is where we have turned our eyes towards, to help the institution address its accommodation challenges. We have since started leasing out some of our land we have to interested private investors who can construct student hostels. We can only accommodate about 700 while the rest outsource accommodation in near-by villages like Chilowa and Mitundu. This is not conducive to learning.
In my thinking, hostels are a quick money spinner. Interested investors can come and construct some hostels under a lease in PPP. Luanar is also already in talks with some South Africa Property Consultancy firm to help ease the accommodation woes through a ‘Build, Operate and Transfer arrangement’. Under such an arrangement, the private sector builds an infrastructure project, operates it and eventually transfers ownership of the project to the government. n