Political correctness or expedience by each successive government since the introduction of students’ financial contributions to public university since its introduction in the late 1980s is the reason the fees have been kept too low.
And I want to say it with a straight face as I have always said many times before that university education is not cheap anywhere in the world. But in Malawi a good percentage of the population has chosen not to appreciate this bare fact. Our human rights or education activists who are supposed to know better have not helped the nation on the matter either on what ought to have been done.
As a result, government has been sitting on a ticking time bomb waiting to explode by keeping financial contributions to public university fees too low for a very long time.
It is a fact that resources being poured into the public higher education sector have not been in tandem with the rising costs for the provision of tertiary education. As an alumnus of the University of Malawi (Unima), I have watched how infrastructure in its constituent colleges has crumbled over the years—save for the College of Medicine (CoM) because it is largely donor funded—aggravated with the brain-drain due to low salaries.
Talk of hostels and lecture rooms; they are all in a derelict state. In some lecture rooms there are not enough chairs resulting in some students attending lectures while standing. While enrollment has trebled, lecture room space has not. There is a running joke about all this that due to having too having too many students in one class, students learn by rumour because the students at the farthest end of the lecture room cannot hear what the lecturer is saying so he or she has to rely on what fellow students relay to her or him. At Bunda students used to learn in a marquee. The lecturer needed a public address system be heard by the student standing at the far end of the room.
And where you have as many as 90 or more students in one class, you cannot think of giving written assignments? Needless to say, all these have negatively impacted on the standards of education Unima has been offering.
Thus, I totally agree with Unima Council chairperson Professor Jack Wirima’s observations that degrees from the public universities have become weak and diluted that they are not being recognised anymore in Europe, America and even in some universities in South Africa. In Africa out of 200 universities Unima is now ranked 147 from 90 a few years ago.
This is a result of failure to align resources pouring into the public university sector with the rising cost of providing education.
Government should have ensured a sustained and gradual increase of fees in line with the rising cost of education and dwindling resource envelope without looking at how politically unpopular government would become with fees hike. That way, students and guardians would not now have felt that the fees has been raised too much at a go.
And I can say without contradiction that if this year or next year were an election year, government would already have lowered the fees. In fact, it would not even have increased the fees for fear of becoming unpopular and losing votes.
Unima Council has made it crystal clear that fees will not fall. The stakeholders meeting the Council held in Lilongwe on Wednesday was just meant to justify the fee hike. It thus did not come as a surprise to many that less than half of the invites attended. They knew beforehand the outcome of the meeting. They had better things to do. Nothing would change.
As I write this article today on Thursday, Unima students’ leaders are scheduled to meet with the Chancellor of the Unima, President Peter Mutharika in Lilongwe. The Unima leaders will indeed meet the President but I can say without fear of contradiction the meeting will yield nothing. It is unlikely that the President will reverse the fees or indeed reduce them significantly, if at all. If the President really wanted to do that, he would not have waited for the nationwide demonstrations against the fees hike, or indeed to meet Unima students’ leaders.
My take is that the student leaders’ meeting with the President was just meant to dampen the demonstrations and give the students the feeling that something will happen. Common sense tells me that the President would want to act on advice from the Unima Council more than complaints from the students leaders. In fact, the tone of the statement from Unima Council says it all. n