This article has been written by my friend Isaiah Paul Makwakwa. Isaiah holds a BSc in Computer Science from Chancellor College, University of Malawi and an MSc in Informaton Theory, Coding and Cryptography from Mzuzu University. In this article, he adds his thoughts to the ongoing debate on Equitable Access to University Education in Malawi. In total, there are three parts. This post carries Part 2. Interested readers are encouraged to read Part 1 first before reading this one. Part 3 follows here.


Of Regions and Merit
It is amazing that we could possibly be discussing such an important policy without empirical statistical data. They say the devil is in the detail and in this case it is turning into policy debate by rumor and assumptions.

It appears that some consider the regions as some rigid structure which defines some exclusive socio-demographic divisions. Well, we disagree. First because the regions (as well as districts or constituencies) are administrative structures created to allow for an abstraction of government that is closer to the public and hence enhancing the responsiveness of government.

Secondly, a regional socio-demographic/socio-economic abstraction does not exist. In fact we have the tribes spread throughout the regions (e.g. we have the Ngonis in Ntcheu, Ntchisi, Mzimba and Mwanza; the Tongas in Nkhata Bay and Nkhota Kota; the Chewas in large parts of the central region, Nkhata Bay (Kabunduli) and lower shire (Lundu); the Yaos in much of the Eastern Region and central Lake shore districts of Salima and Nkhota Kota). Dare we talk about poverty, distribution of schools, religion etc.? Clearly, these sociodemographic factors dispel any regional configuration often alluded to. In fact, these factors more than favour a one nation abstraction. Why must the state therefore treat the Chewas respectively Ngonis, Yaos, Mang’anjas etc) from the different regions differently? Doesn’t the nation then have no reason to be suspicious?

Admittedly, we did have a problem with gender equity in access to higher education. The problem is easily defined: “years of cultural stereotyping as objects of male dominion implied psychological (women can’t do certain jobs), financial (better fund a boy child’s education) and cultural (e.g. early marriage etc.) blocks to education”. And then again this was and still is a social engineering problem rather than a biological or regional problem.

One proponent of this (Tom Mchela writing in the Daily Times) contends that early missionary contributions distorted the educational space towards some region(s). A fair argument one may argue considering the fact that missionaries settled in different regions and with different focus. But to use his argument, will now the government fund entrepreneurship training for regions (groups/peoples) who due to lack of interaction with the Arab traders do not have a natural inclination towards entrepreneurship?

Or shall we say that considering the regional populations (and the grand position of the state presidency), it would be great to introduce a rotating state presidency? And we can list these examples ad infinum with increasing socio-political consequences.

As for the Missionaries themselves, it is mystifying that over four decades of post missionary domination of the educational policy debate (and one could say the whole educational space too) our educational policy development has been unable to correct the distortion? As this appears to be a form of a national self-indictment, we would not be too keen to readily advance it.

What constitutes one’s region of origin?

To say that there is a regional distortion is to say for a fact that there are individuals that belong to some region. This section tries to fix a definition of one’s region of origin.

In Malawi, we have both matrimonial and patrimonial oriented ethno-linguistic groups spread across the regions (refer to the above). For example, the northern region is predominantly patrimonial, the central – matrimonial while the south has to a certain level both. There is for a fact considerable intermarriages. And above all the Malawi republican constitution has enshrined freedom of movement (i.e. internal migration). Now we will use these two factors to test the above question (for now forget about the cities which are normally treated as distinct entities in the current educational policy, and read these as typical village situations).

  1. If one’s mother (matrimonial) comes from the central/southern region and the father is from the northern region (i.e. patrimonial), what is one’s region of origin? Well, just in case – they did stay in both the central/southern region and northern region pre-university schooling (i.e. has both regional educational experiences and both regional blood).
  2. One’s parents migrated to the northern region while still in primary school (standard 6) (i.e.has quite a bit of an education from the south). What is his/her region of origin?

Do we then use what is in the passports or my forefathers’ point of entry (i.e. where they initially settled when coming to Malawi – well whatever it was to them!)? Clearly, one’s actual regional experience (education or otherwise) would as well be completely different.

Now suppose we do institute such a policy, then the region feeling aggrieved has recourse to underhand but legal solutions. One simple solution is to encourage intermarriage with the region considered worse off and thus has more opportunity for admission. In fact this does happen on the international level (call it naturalization by marriage). Any wonder district quota’s didn’t work?

The 900/3500 Eligible Candidates Argument

It is argued that instituting such a quota will not reduce the standard of university education considering that all the 3500 candidates qualify. Well, we do not agree and as opposed to the proponents we will give statistical evidence for the same.

At the Mathematics in Malawi (MiM07) hosted by the Mathematics Department of Mzuzu University in 2007, Dr. J.J. Namangale et. al. presented statistical evidence linking one’s performance in the aptitude test to one’s performance in College (initially only Chancellor College data was analysed – over several intakes). This linkage implies that the 900 thus admitted represent the best chance of completing a College education (in fact we used to say back then – ‘amawida’ (you do get withdrawn!)). Projected onto the economic management space, the 900 represent the nation’s best return on investment both in terms of funding and future contribution to national development.

In fact, under the microscope the 900/3500 statistic represents a good example of fraudulent statistics to create alarmist reactions and social discomfort. First we have Mzuzu University taking in hundreds of students each year (and these are supposed to be only university material and in this case they must come from the 3500-900 = 2600 candidates not admitted into Unima). Then of course we have Malawi College of [accountancy/forestry/health sciences/fisheries etc.], NRC, Domasi College and the Technical Colleges etc. all being government funded. Even the most cursory look in their admission requirements should confirm to the doubter that these too target the 3500 (or now [2600 – Mzuzu University admission]!). We have lost count now.

Perhaps the debate we need to have is how to provide equitable access to quality higher education. For some might argue, these often provide up to diploma level education only and sometimes the fees is too high. This too is a self-indictment of our educational policy. For example, it appears to us that the Technical Colleges have stagnated before they even learnt to walk. It is our view that the natural progression for these was to develop into institutions of higher learning in the mould of Technikons of South Africa that provide high quality technical degree programmes. In fact this could be done with very minimal infrastructural investments and some investment in faculty training.

The argument of education becoming an economic issue is misplaced as clearly from the above paragraph not only can we have high quality graduates with skills to develop a service and manufacturing industry (as in China and India) but also pioneers who would create employment
opportunities. The not so forward thinking may be content with a government recognized university degree equivalent qualification and receive rents for the same.

About lowering of educational standards, we will offer two responses. The first is the time tested issue of the performance of national/some private(esp. with strict entry requirements)/mission secondary schools Vs district secondary schools in MSCE exams (well before a perforated Maneb had us anyway). As admission into national secondary schools was largely on merit (Lockean) (including teacher allocation), they outperformed most district secondary schools for many many years. This is a time tested nationwide statistic as opposed to that of Kamuzu Academy (which was a private institution anyway). But even then one wonders what would have been unleashed if that brilliantly administered, staffed and resource rich institution admitted only the best of the nation. Now if that does not represent a lowering of standards, we don’t know what does.

In fact, this standards argument largely assumes that universities world wide exist as autonomous systems devoid of links and independent of the rest of the world. Well, we are afraid to say this is not so. Rather, we submit that these institutions are rated depending on the quality of publications from the faculty, performance of its students, employment record of its graduates, the campus experience (cultural diversity etc.) etc (all not part as some propose). This rating in return attracts funding, recognized faculty from all over the world, research partnerships (inter-university and industrial) etc. As is clearly seen this is then directly linked to the survival and growth of the institution. This is why universities strive to admit and retain (as faculty) the best of the lot.

The Other Countries Argument

It is often the case in developing countries that we feel that ‘things are brighter on yonder shores’ well not quite as Hillary Clinton once put it ‘celestial choirs don’t quite sing there’ (paraphrased). You see we are in a Pareto World. In fact Locke is still so much at play such that there is a notion of a multi-tier American university system with the so called ivy league Colleges (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, West Point, University of California at Berkely etc.) etc. The job opportunities (and thus economic benefit of education we are talking about) depend so much on these ratings. If you factor the arguments (plus the population of the USA) from the previous paragraph then you have a fair view of what this argument translates into.

On the contrary, the subjective nature of social justice implies different societies, and thus nations, have different perceptions of social justice. For example, it is virtually impossible for American workers to countenance the block wage negotiations of the 1980s Nordic Social Democracies because Americans have a very strong Lockean sense of social justice in terms of individual compensation.

In fact, just because the Americans and the Western Europeans say it is just, does not mean it passes our sense of social justice. We have and must exercise the Malawian sense of social justice (whatever it may be) with cursory reference to others for implementation (not judgment) scenarios but not on perception of justice. Nations must not be in the business of contracting out their sense of social justice.

A good and immediate example is the fertilizer subsidy (coupon system) that the government introduced. At its inception, all our development partners (World Bank, IMF and donors) were on record that this system was not good for us. Needless to say at that time the proponents of this policy stood their ground, took a considerable funding risk and prevailed. Sufficing to say that this position had the absolute support of the majority of Malawians (i.e. was just in a particularly Malawian social justice perspective) who when the chips were down willed it on through a parliamentary deadlock. For these people to turn around and betray this Malawian sense of social justice and cling to foreign judgment in deciding a policy position is self-defeating and counter productive. Therefore this argument does not apply.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative actions are by nature temporal corrective interventions that ultimately graduate into more solid corrective policies that permanently reverse the wrong. Permanent affirmative actions have a cumulative effect of distorting nature’s fair dealing and as such lead to social exclusion (e.g. the Black Economic Empowerment experiment in South Africa and apartheid also in South Africa).

They signify a failure in the policy development process often covered in political rhetoric. For example it is clear that pressure on access to university admission (not just equitable!) had publicly manifested by 1996/97 (the UEE case) and that though Mzuzu University was opened, such pressure remained (if not grew over time), why didn’t our educational policy developers plan for a new university or at least some increased intake? How far ahead is today’s planning in accordance with the projected census figures? Are we sure we are dealing with the root problem or covering policy process failures?

For suppose not, then at least there should be corresponding debate and policy development dealing with the root causes of this distortion. In the absence of such a corresponding debate the nation (or individuals) have a right to be suspicious of the underlying motives.

The Hand of History

Not a while ago another regional educational policy was introduced with not a small amount of fanfare and upheaval. Teachers from some region(s) were to be transferred back to their region of origin. Did it correct the situation? Or why should we be having this debate today?

Or shall we say the district quota system corrected the situation then? Many proponents of this debate are the first to agree that it did not. As a contrast, consider the case of women access to education. Has more access resulted into corresponding increase in representation of women in decision making positions? Is the problem perhaps a social engineering one? Now, exactly what is our level of assurance that we have a correct problem definition?

You can move on to Part 3.