Government has abolished the policy of enrolling students into public institutions of higher education based on the controversial quota system.
The move has won President Peter Mutharika’s administration cautious praise from the policy’s abolition proponents worried that the decision could just be a tactic to attract the Northern Region vote ahead of the fresh presidential polls set for May 19.
The reactions came after Minister of Education, Science and Technology William Susuwele Banda announced two policy reversals at a press briefing in Lilongwe on Thursday: cancellation of the quota system and reintroduction of Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations abolished in 2015.
The quota policy—which critics claimed suppressed minorities, especially those from the Northern Region—selected students into public universities based on their district of origin, instead of merely merit.
In it, some saw a form of affirmative action for students from the country’s Central and Southern regions due to their perceived regional underrepresentation in public universities.
But proponents argued the quota system was an effective way of addressing disparities in access to higher education in Malawi nationwide.
University selection under the quota system requires that “the top 10 qualified candidates from each district are offered places and thereafter, the rest are selected based on merit and the size of the population of the districts they originate from”.
At the time the late president Bingu waMutharika re-introduced quota in 2009 framed as Equitable Access to Higher Education Policy, the number of students per district into public universities was 30, but fell to 10 as pressure against the system mounted.
The emphasis on district of origin has shaped the quota debate along tribal lines, distracting the country from the real issue: that the disparities in access to higher education in Malawi are a reality and the factors behind it are more socio-economic than regional or district underrepresentation in general as some study has shown.
A 2016 World Bank report shows Malawi’s tertiary gross enrolment rate at 0.4 percent, one of the lowest in Africa.
The report also found that the vast majority of university students come from the wealthiest strata of the country’s population—signalling that regional origins were largely inconsequential in recent times.
The report noted that in 2006, for example, 91.3 percent of students in higher education were from the fifth—or richest—quintile of households compared to just 0.7 percent drawn from the first quintile, which hosts the poorest in Malawi.
Some education experts such as Beaton Galafa of the College of Teacher Education at Zhejiang Normal University in the People’s Republic of China agree with the bank’s model of a working quota system.
In his paper titled Higher Education Reforms in Malawi with Specific Reference to Equitable Access published in the Makerere Journal of Higher Education, he said he generally agrees with the need to maintain the quota system “as a necessary measure of redressing the current disparities” in Malawi, but he “endorses other critics’ recommendations for an equity-oriented system that targets the disparities based on the socio-economic status of the candidates’ families”.
Apart from eliminating the dominance of students from wealthy families through quota and bring more students from poor backgrounds into public universities, experts generally agree that the long-term solution to cutting the disparities is the expansion and construction of more public universities so that they admit more students who qualify.
But in explaining the policy on quota, Susuwele Banda said the administration based its reversals on the need to accommodate views of citizens who have been criticising the system.
The other reason, he said, is that there is now increased space in public universities with the opening of new colleges and expansion of old ones.
Said Susuwele Banda: “Since quota was introduced in 1987, the context has changed as we now have reasonable spaces. Quota system of selecting students into various colleges and universities is abolished forthwith.
“However, government will continue with its affirmative action towards girls and students with disabilities, including persons with albinism.
“Our duty as government is to ensure that there is equitable distribution of resources, including infrastructure across the country. Our examination system will continue to be water tight to avoid examination leakage.”
On the re-introduction of the JCE, the minister conceded that as critics had been pointing out, the abolition of JCE examinations meant that students were staying for four years in secondary school before sitting for a national examination.
He claimed this arrangement encouraged students to relax and ultimately not to do well in their final examinations.
But records indicate that since the abolition of JCE in 2015, the pass rate at MSCE has moved up by 5.62 percent.
Between 2015 and 2019—the period without JCE—the average pass rate at MSCE was 58.33 percent while the pass rate between 2011 and 2014 was 52.72 percent.
The minister said JCE examinations will be reintroduced in the 2020/21 school year and the first examination will be taken in 2021.
The quota system has been a hot political topic, with some political parties calling it “evil” and pledged to abolish it once in power.
In the run up to May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections, opposition Malawi Congress Party and UTM Party included the abolition of quota system in their manifestos.
This is the political context that may have given critics a pause although they praised the move.
Civil Society Education Coalition executive director Benedicto Kondowe said although coming late, the move is commendable. He wondered about the timing, suspecting political motives in the decision as many groups have for over a decade pled with government to abolish the system, but to no avail.
“Why at this time when we are heading towards the presidential rerun elections,” wondered Kondowe.
In September 2019, people in the North held demonstrations criticising government for rendering a deaf ear to cries by Malawians to abolish the quota system.
Reacting to the announcement, Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), one of the fierce critics of the system, said it welcomes the news, but it will take a wait-and-see position to monitor implementation.
“Well that is good, but we will not say much now until we have seen the implementation because announcing is one thing and implementing is another thing,” said the synod’s general secretary the Reverend Levi Nyondo.
Quota Must Fall Movement president Binna Shaba, whose movement’s objective was fighting against the system, said it is looking for tangible actions than a mere announcement.
Independent Schools Association of Malawi president Peter Patel also welcomed the developments, saying continuous assessment was not a good alternative of administering JCE.
“That’s encouraging because students were becoming lazy knowing that they will write exams in Form Four only,” he said.