Selection to public universities will now be done by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). I explore the merits and demerits of the system.
Powered by an Act of Parliament, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) has taken over the responsibility of selecting students to public universities effective 2015. The NCHE is guided by a mission statement that reads: “To promote and coordinate relevant, accessible, equitable, sustainable quality higher education in Malawi through accreditation, quality assurance, policy support and planning, and representation of Malawi’s higher education interests nationally and internationally.”
This is a departure from the previous system which recognised the needs for respective colleges to select eligible students. University of Malawi colleges through the University Office, Mzuzu University, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) and the College of Medicine have been doing own selection over the years.
Nonetheless, characterised by the equitable access to education system popularly known as quota, which was adopted a few years ago, selection by these universities has lately been questioned for leaving out students with better grades on Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) certificate, as well as for cases of selecting students to two or more colleges or universities.
In separate interviews, some educationists expressed cynicism in NCHE handling selection successfully. They also wondered that NCHE can be empowered to carry university selection.
Danwood Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, says the development raises serious legal implications.
“I do not know how it can be that the power to admit students could ever be taken away from universities. Hence, I have to take a look at the law that creates the so-called council.
“Only in Tanzania is admission to universities made by one institution and the country is not known for producing particularly good graduates. There are fundamental issues of academic freedom and institutional autonomy which are key to excellence in academic institutions. None of the institutions I have studied, except Tanzania, has such a system,” says Chirwa.
This is further explained in his research report titled. “Higher Education Councils and Commissions in Africa: A comparative study of the legal basis of their establishment, functions, autonomy and accountability”.
The report reveals serious irregularities in the way similar councils or commissions in other countries have been performing towards their objectives. It shows that most such councils fail in the areas of transparency, accountability and improving quality of higher education.
Out of the seven countries under study, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania, only South Africa’s councils for higher education achieved 10 of the 11 objectives and principles. Five failed to achieve any.
This raises questions as to whether the system will be successful in Malawi, now that NCHE has been mandated to handle—in addition to other roles—the crucial role of university selection instead of just providing guidance and monitoring services as done by most such councils in other countries.
Paradoxically, NCHE has phased out the University Entrance Examination (UEE) which was previously designed to check quality of students being admitted into the university against a backdrop that most grades on MSCE are not a reflection of students ability.
Without ruling out cheating at MSCE, Manford Ndovi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education says: “Government now believes that most students deserve what they score during national examinations, but still, those who do not perform well in the university will be withdrawn from their respective programmes.”
But what are the merits and demerits of NCHEs handling the university selection?
Ndovi says previously, some students were applying to all public universities and in most cases they were being admitted to two or three public universities. He says it took time for a university to know that a student has gone to the other institution.
“This costs someone’s opportunity to be in college,” says Ndovie, who adds that the new system does not do away with the equitable access to education system of admitting students to university and will continue.
Benedicto Kondowe, executive director of Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec), says they have welcomed NCHE on university selection because the concept promotes harmonisation of university selection.
“With a single panel selecting all students, NCHE will help improve transparency in selecting students and improve credibility and quality of students in public universities,” says Kondowe.
Educationist Dr Steve Sharra welcomes the decision with both optimism and pessimism. He says the merits are that the harmonisation process will benefit students because they will not have to apply to each and every university and the problem of multiple selections will also be eliminated, thereby ensuring that university space is not wasted.
“I also feel that NCHE has come at the right time, when higher education is expanding and creating problems hitherto unforeseen,” he says
However, Sharra doubts the capacity of the council to handle university selection in addition to other roles.
“The challenges NCHE should expect is too much work. The numbers of public universities and those of eligible students keep increasing. Selection is becoming a problem even for individual universities. There will be a lot of work for the council, unless it finds ways of involving the universities themselves in a harmonised process.
“There have always been complaints about the quota system. The council will inherit this problem. It will need to exercise high levels of transparency in how it selects students into the public universities,” warns Sharra.