The University of Malawi (Unima) is standing on the brink of splitting into separate college universities. If this happens, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s model of one university with several college campuses will be changed, argues AYAMI MKWANDA in this final part on Unima unbundling.
Former president Kamuzu Banda had three dreams after his release from Gweru Prison: to transfer the capital from Zomba to Lilongwe, to construct the Lakeshore Road and to establish the University of Malawi.
“And all dreams were fulfilled. It is therefore sad to note that some are planning to kill one such dream,” says Sam Mpasu, a former Unima student and speaker of Parliament.
According to sources within Unima, ‘some officials’ within the university have always agitated for the break up.
During the United Democratic Front (UDF) reign, some individuals were using Brown Mpinganjira, then Minister of Education, to split Unima. Around 2007, during Bingu wa Mutharika administration, issues of unbundling surfaced again. Then two years later, there came plans to restructure the university, sources say.
“Bingu wanted the Polytechnic to merge with College of Accountancy to form a separate university. Chancellor College would combine with Domasi College of Education. Bunda College would merge with Natural Resources, [it has already merged as Lilongwe University of Natural Resources-Luanar] and the nursing courses of College of Health Sciences would go to Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) while remaining courses would go to College of Medicine to form a university,” one Unima professor told Weekend Investigates.
However, the sudden change of government in 2012 stalled the plans to restructure Unima, save for the delinking of Bunda.
“Then this year, following some problems currently going in the university mainly concerning members of academic staff and government about remuneration, some administrators and politicians found a chance to push for plans to split the university,” he further reveals.
However, Sylvester James Ayuba, President of Students Union of Chancellor College (Succ), says that the plans to unbundle Unima are unpatriotic.
“I don’t believe it is in the best interest of any Malawian that Unima should unbundle. If anything, the move will just satisfy the greed of few administrators and politicians,” he argues.
Arguments for unbundling
The movement for unbundling has been working under cover for many years now, using politicians or vice versa to break the university into stand-alone colleges. Unima sources say that their arguments centre mainly on the issue of bureaucracy.
Benedicto Kondowe, education activist and director of the Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) says unbundling Unima is the right path to take to do away with bureaucratic arrangements that impede the growth of the institution.
“The structural setup and procedural requirement of Unima do not offer sufficient space for innovation among the individual colleges to exploit their potential especially under the environment of skewed power imbalance between University Office and the colleges,” he urgues.
Within the university some feel splitting will ease financial hiccups the university faces as well as allowing independent universities to expand.
Fallacies in unbundling agenda
Within the university some administrators of colleges, deans, professors and student leaders, have reservations to unbundle Unima. They say arguments of unbundling are fallacious and lack substance.
“The arguments for unbundling are not convincing. They just underline the state of a nation without clear vision and direction,” says Ayuba.
Mpasu agrees with him, saying that the reasons advanced are not convincing because nowadays, people are talking about bigger universities.
“Unima should consolidate the four colleges. The trend everywhere now is for universities to have many campuses and many students to benefit from economies of scale,” he argues.
He says according to economics texts, economies of scale are the reduction in per unit cost of production as the volume of production increases.
“What it means is that if a university has around 10 000 students, you need auditoriums for them to learn under one tutor. About 500 students can sit in one auditorium to learn Mathematics. In doing so, you save costs to pay many teachers to teach the same course to 50 students in 10 university colleges,” Mpasu explains.
Another professor who opted not to be named agrees with Mpasu that what is happening in the world now is that colleges are coming together to form larger universities to benefit from economies of scale.
“The argument that Unima is too big to run smoothly, therefore it must split is faulty as the University of Nairobi in East Africa has over 40 000 students but there are no calls to unbundle it. The major challenge facing universities in the world now is funding but they are not splitting to solve them. Governments are just finding other solutions,” he said.
One college principal who also fears reprisals if named, argues that if Malawi Government is failing to fund one university, how will it fund four universities with four councils, vice chancellors and a duplicated system?
“In South Africa, the government is busy merging colleges to form single universities. This will reduce funding,” the principal says.
He also cites the examples of the universities of Manchester and California which are bigger than Unima but are able to operate without complaining of bureaucracy. He further argues that in a democracy, every institution is a bureaucracy.
Weekend Investigates took time to look at some universities around the world and found out that in Africa, some colleges in Rwanda in 2013 merged to create the University of Rwanda. It now has six colleges. In South Africa, the University of Johannesburg merged with other universities to form one university in 2005. It has 90 departments.
While in Kenya, the University of Nairobi has 11 colleges, Moi University has eight and Kenyatta University has nine. In England, University of London has 18 constituent colleges and 161 270 residential students and over 50 000 distance learning students.
University of Cambridge, founded in 1209, is one of the oldest and has 31 constituent colleges. Oxford University has 38 colleges and in the United States of America, Harvard University has 13.
Funding Unima has not been easy.
In 2014/2015 academic year, Unima received K19 billion. In 2015/2016, K21 billion, 2016/2017 it was again K21 billion and this year, 2017/2018 season, it has been allocated K23 billion.
If the university is split, government will have to increase funding to the four universities that will have separate councils and vice chancellors, Mpasu points out.
According to Weekend Investigates investigations, some officials of Unima argue that government should not entrust the employees of Unima with unbundling, as they are interested parties themselves.
“Government, as the owner of the institution, should not trust its employees to decide what’s in the best interest of Malawians. When Dr. Banda had intentions to open a university, he called for two independent commissions, one from England and another from America, to offer directions,” Mpasu says.
He says government should send officials to Kenya to find out from them how to manage and run bigger universities as universities all over the world learn from each other.