The system used to select students to public universities worked well when Malawi had one public university. Malawi now has four public universities and the system has outlived its usefulness. The public universities need to overhaul the entire process and move to a more efficient, coordinated system.
When the University of Malawi was the only public university, it was automatic that once selected, one was going. The only exceptions were students from the few super wealthy elites whose options included attending universities outside Malawi. For the majority of students, however, there was no other option.
With four public universities and several credible private universities, students now have several options to choose from. Selection no longer means automatic acceptance. The case of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), as reported in The Daily Times of Friday November 21, points to the need to change the selection system.
According to the Times story, 9 161 students applied for admission to Luanar this year. The university admitted 873, and only 400 accepted. Of the remaining 423 about 50 students rejected the offers. The rest did not submit any response. The university was forced to conduct a second, unplanned selection, according to the story.
The story goes on to indicate that the National Council for Higher Education (Nche) has already started working with the universities to harmonise the selection process. And it seems Luanar has already identified a way to sort out the problem. What I suggest below are some further thoughts on what the council and the universities could do to prevent the problems that have arisen with a system that was designed for a country with one university. As some of what I suggest is already happening, I present my thoughts as a way of raising the broader issues that need consideration as Malawians rethink key issues in access to higher education.
Before announcing a final selection list, universities need to start by informing students who have been accepted and offered a place. The universities need to inform the prospective students of the requirements to take up their places. Students need to be told the full tuition cost per academic year, the total cost of full board (food and accommodation) on campus, available options off campus, the total cost of textbooks, and other relevant details. Universities should inform students of deadlines for their decisions, while keeping a standby list.
The students would then study the offers they have received, and make a decision as to which university to choose, based on affordability, suitability, reputation, quality of the education offered, among other important factors. Universities would then know how many students have accepted the offers and how much space is still remaining. They could then go to the standby lists and make fresh offers. Students who have not already accepted offers elsewhere would be able to commit themselves, thereby filling up the remaining available spaces.
The story in the Daily Times says students are usually given two weeks between being informed of the selection and reporting for classes. That has become unrealistic, and needs to change. With tuition fees on the increase, students need several months’ notice so their parents and guardians have enough time to source funds. Students need to be informed of the full annual cost of a university education, including monthly upkeep, full board, textbook and equipment costs, with no government subsidy.
There are students whose parents and guardians can afford the full cost without government assistance. Those unable to afford the full cost need to provide irrefutable proof of need, and should be given full government (and other) scholarships, or loads, covering tuition, full board, textbook allowances and other necessities.
By offering full scholarships only to those who have a real need, it will no longer be necessary to give allowances to every admitted student, regardless of need.
The author is an educationist who likes to comment on social issues