Hon Folks, the problems rocking the University of Malawi (Unima) right now—hiked fees, violent demonstrations, police brutality, poor infrastructure and deteriorating standards—are a proof of inertia of the multiparty dispensation.
At the time we were choosing to ditch Dr. Kamuzu Banda and the one party system, Unima was indisputably highly rated and its alumni were easily accepted for post-graduate studies in reputable universities in the world.
World-class scholars did not feel out of place walking along the long red-brick corridors of Chancellor College or the Polytechnic, as technically agile and shaped as a butterfly, or Bunda College of Agriculture, gracefully grounded in Lilongwe, Central Region, the hub of agriculture in Malawi.
In the twilight of the loathed one-party dictatorship there was the Kamuzu College of Nursing and the much cherished College of Medicine, the only constituent college of Unima which commands respect on the continent.
When we gave Kamuzu and his dictatorship the boot, we thought we were tackling the problem of arbitrary arrests and detention without trial. If that were true, the outcome would have been harnessing wings of academic freedom to the high education standards.
Instead, Kamuzu left but so too high standards of education in the university. Its a case of throwing away the baby together with the bath water.
Kamuzu’s successors, probably because they all amassed honorary doctorate degrees without having anything to show for it, readily accepted the baton of Unima’s Chancellor, pushed the issue of standards to the periphery but gladly tolerated the students play the cheerleader at political rallies as long as such association was with the president and the party on the ruling side of government.
But if the students dared use their right to freedom of association or freedom of assembly to reinforce the expression of their collective grievances, the Chancellor would in turn unleash on them the police, armed with teargas canisters, handcuffs, vituperation and, in some cases, live bullets.
Often such missions have yielded victims, not suspects. Students who stay in their rooms while demonstrations are going on end up being smoked out with teargas then bundled into police vehicles and thrown into custody. They would be granted police bail after a night or two in a stinking police cell, no food, no water no blanket.
The neglect is not only trained on the character of students but also on the quality of education at Unima, the biggest public university for the country. The mediocrity churned out by such an institution is the human capital Malawi will bank on as it strives to get out of the poverty web and improve the living standards of its growing population.
This is the fact omitted in the narrative on the way forward in the wake of protests by students in almost all Unima constituent colleges after the University Council decided to increase tuition fees from K275 000 to K400 000 per year.
There is no denying that hiking the fees by 45 percent at a go is too much. But that is what you get when your strategy is to go it alone while languishing in abject poverty. With almost 75 percent of the population starving and commodities fetching peanuts on the market, we should brace for more increases of abnormal nature.
Which is why, I believe, students from well-to-do families who, we are told, constitute 90 percent of Unima student population, must accept it is their parents’ duty to pay for their education, accommodation, meals, etc.
Government in turn should use taxpayers’ money to provide, not only tuition but also accommodation, meals and an upkeep stipend for the remaining 10 percent that comes from poor households.
The money spent on the needy students should be a loan to be paid back after they have graduated. A system for recovery of such loans can be worked out by the right authorities.
What is immoral is for government to pretend that no student will fail going to college if it simply provides loans on tuition or a fraction of it. How do these students from poor households survive in the cities where the cost of living is very high and growing? n