The big bang launch of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) at Masintha Ground in Lilongwe has had one important effect. It has in a very extraordinary way shaped what is called popular policy discourse. Perhaps leading the pack has been the question of access to higher education in public universities, focusing on government’s ‘selection policy’ and the ‘too good to believe’ assertion or pledge to create a milly of jobs in one dozen months. This entry is about the ‘selection policy’ to public universities.
There is an avalanche of very difficult normative questions about the policy of quota-based selection to public universities which popular discourse has raised. The questions relate to what the selection formula is, whether the selection formula is policy at all, what problem was it designed to address and are the universities the loci of the problem, what its outcomes are and more importantly, what normative social values it advances—equity? Equality? Merit? Tribalism? Regionalism?
It is evident that access to public universities in Malawi is an issue of widespread public concern. It is a public policy problem that necessitates government action i.e. public policy solution. In policy sciences, a public policy is simply a general plan of action, designed by government to solve a problem or pursue an objective. Many official documents of the Government of Malawi refer to public policy as a decision or a position taken by Government to address a particular public issue and that decision guides the translation of national aspirations into actions. So yes. Quota-based selection to public universities is a policy.
The ton of questions raised in popular discourse on ‘selection policy’ to public universities demonstrate at least one thing. The deficit of transparency and accountability in the policy realm. It is trite knowledge that social problems of widespread public concern are defined differently by various groups so much that the first thing in making social policy is to contest and win the definition and locus of the problem to be addressed. In so far as the current selection policy is concerned, there is no record of a formal process that pinned down the problem that the policy solution had to address. In fact the dominant narrative is that there was a presidential decree of the policy and technocrats were politically obliged to work backwards to rationalise the policy solution by tacking it to one or two problems. Good policy making is problem driven. The quota selection policy comes across as being solution driven. Such policies often address the idiosyncrasies of the proponents but hardly the empirical problem they publicly claim. But it is not my intention to debate the merit and demerits of the quota-based selection formula. My point is that the problem definition that necessitated the quota-based selection policy is at best opaque and at worst whimsical. Someone, somewhere in the public space is a legitimate duty bearer that must be accountable for this. This is one of those issues where the process of defining the problem and designing a solution are much more important than the solution itself.
The quota based selection to public universities is described as a policy of equity by its proponents. But they are not clear what kind of inequities are being addressed and whether the inequities are at the level of universities or at the secondary school level, whether they are about districts, regions, ethnicity or simply class? Nonetheless, it is true that affirmative action solutions promote equity. However, in a context of a hotpot of values such as freedoms, equality of opportunity, equity, merit as opposed to ascription, affirmative action measures such as the selection policy in question must be won by a transparent argument that puts credible data and analysis on the table and applies the socially desirable values in making sense of the data. A further principle is that affirmative action by quota must build in its design elements of merit and that by supporting the social group that has hitherto suffered exclusion or inadequate access to higher education, the measure must not reduce the chances of those who do well on merit i.e. selection based on quota should help disadvantaged groups without reducing the advantages of others. Thus the question is: How is quota-based selection to public universities actualized and what are the considerations in selecting candidates?
Furthermore, quota as a form of affirmative action is and should be a policy of exact means for exact goals. Having implemented two variants of district-based quota (the late 80s to early 90s, and the current one) for selecting students to public universities, can the authorities account for the effectiveness of the policy? There should be a ton of data that should support evidence-based policymaking.
The policy debate on quota selection to public universities has so far proceeded on the basis of inadequate information about the design and implementation of the system. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology—the policyholder and ultimate duty bearer for the education sector and the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) that oversees the process of selecting ‘qualified’ students to public universities have a duty to provide information to support informed discourse while being accountable for the policy.
—*Henry Chingaipe is a governance and development specialist.