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.There are three parts. This post carries Part 1. After this, you can read Part 2 and Part 3.


Every nation is either by nature or by entering into various labours endowed with some common good which are non-renewable and the consumption thereof is constrained. The constraints wear many faces, for example insufficiency of the good (often the case), some scheduling constraints etc.

Examples of such common goods include hospital floor/bed space, funds for fertiliser subsidy, doctor appointments (doctor-patient ratio) and university places. Since these goods are in common ownership, public authorities (in consultation with the public) moderate (regulate) the consumption thereof for the benefit of the wider public. One example of the moderating influence of public authorities is the use of fertiliser coupons or those with a western perspective, the welfare state.

This moderation is achieved through interference with the natural endowment or rents of individuals and/or regions (areas). For example, the rents of more productive individuals (or economic sectors) are used to subsidise the consumption of the less productive often in the form of distortionary taxes or in some cases block wage negotiation. Or home based care for some patients to create bed space etc. Closer to home, the taxes of some are used to pay for a fertiliser subsidy.

However, such interventions are not without controversy as they interfere with what is perceived by some as nature’s unbiased endowment and others as a necessary evil that can save others from certain tragedy. A field of study dedicated to such questions is called social justice.

A stand out principle of social justice theory is called the Pareto principle which in short says that it is not possible to share a common good without someone coming out worse off. Thus social justice theorists have mainly focused on dealing with the question of ‘the worse off’. Several theories exist but for brevity and relevance, two stand out: Rawlsian and Lockean social justice theories. It is now imperative to point out that social justice theories have the following inherent limitations:

  1. Social justice is perceptive (and thus subjective).
  2. Various situations require different applications of the theories (i.e. circumstantial).
  3. Social justice theories can be (and often are) conflicting i.e. that which is just under one theory may be unjust under another theory (e.g. a purely Lockean perspective is unjust in a Rawlsian social justice view) (i.e. conflict).

Lockean social justice theory briefly states that each individual should be free to seek their self interest regardless of the social ramifications of their actions (i.e governments must not interfere in individual endeavours). This is the theoretical basis of rightist political thinking (i.e capitalist). This group favours tax cuts, small state (i.e small welfare state), unbridled economic activity (regardless of environmental impact) etc.

Rawlsian social justice theory states that since it is inevitable for some to be worse off, intervention be applied to preserve the welfare of the worse off. This is the theoretical basis of leftist political thinking (i.e socialist). These favour high taxes, big welfare state and environmental preservation etc.

Malawi does not yet have a political system based on firm theoretical positions and thus no obvious a tendency to resort to stereotype on social justice and equity issues. However, the overall good generated by this is eroded by the resulting quality of public debate on important public policy. The resulting chaos is often resolved by a combination of an active civil society, public consultants and technocrats in line ministries.

It is the intention of this brief contribution to broaden the scope of the on going debate on equitable access to university education by drawing on broader elements of social justice thought.


1. Definition of the good

It is by now common knowledge that access to university education in Malawi is a classical social justice problem. The Chairman of the University of Malawi Council is on record that it is in the proportion of 3,500 eligible candidates chasing 900 places representing a ratio of 4:1 (i.e four students chasing one place of admission).

In fact, equitable access to university education is not a new problem. We chronicle below prior instances in which it was identified and solutions prescribed. We analyse these solutions with a social justice perspective to gain a broader understanding of the current conundrum.

2. Historical Interventions

  1. Initial Admission:At inception, admission into the University (of Malawi) was based on application of Lockean theory (it merely depended on one’s performance on the School Leaving Certificate Exams). This was just in a Lockean perspective of social justice (i.e. to individual students).
  2. District Based Quota System:But then this is a Pareto world. Soon (1980s) access to university education was perceived to be distorted towards some ethno-linguistic groups. Thus Locke was considered unjust viewed from this perspective. Thus administrative intervention was enforced in form of a district based quota system. However, this was soon successfully challenged in court by some affected students (see we live in a Pareto world!). Notwithstanding, the court believed that the quota system was unjust (That on a purely Lockean perception of justice and thus just in that respect).
  3. University Entrance Examinations (UEE):By 1996/97, a combination of a growing number of eligible students (no doubt the population had been growing!) and the security surrounding the administration of MSCE exams led the university council to introduce an aptitude test as a primary basis for university admission. Pareto didn’t have it, instead this view was challenged in court and considered unjust. However, this time the court took a Rawlsian view of social justice and ruled that the university council consider the welfare of those who came worse off in the aptitude test (UEE). This too is just, but in a Rawlsian perspective.

As can be observed, all the three limitations of social justice theory as mentioned in the introduction have been fully manifested in various forms in the above solutions.

3. Current Status

The University of Malawi under the direction of the executive is on record that the current Merit based system is unjust. It is their view that the system contains some regional distortion. To correct this trend the university intends to admit students based on region of origin.

4. Two Social Justice Problems

Perhaps the greatest problem with this debate is based on the exact definition of the problem. It is our considered view that in this case we are dealing with a non-singular social justice problem.

If the regional distortion exists, we hold that this is two social justice problems namely:

  1. An individual candidate’s sense of social justice (type A).
  2. A region’s sense of social justice (type B).

Admittedly they appear as one and are often discussed as such. It is often the case that one responds with a type A perspective to a type B question and vice versa not without reasonable confusion. Due to the nature social justice and the limitations as discussed in the introduction (i.e. circumstantial, subjectivity and conflict), this results in misapplication of justice.

In our case, a type A problem is rooted in the fact that each individual deserves the fruit of nature’s fair dealing (i.e. natural endowment) and personal labour. This perception simply says if I am better than my neighbour, I deserve better regardless of ethno-linguistic/regional allegiances of my neighbour. And it is justified in both a Lockean and Rawlsian perspective.

We need to expound on the Rawlsian perspective bit. Recall that a Rawlsian approach in this case would consider those individuals worse off not individual regions. In fact, it does not call for a re-weighting of the hand of nature towards the worse off rather it calls for a consideration of the welfare of the worse off individuals. This is based purely on a type A social justice perspective.

One would consider the current Merit based system just in both Lockean and Rawlsian (to an extent) social justice perspectives especially if one considers the fact that the welfare of women (who have been provably and internationally considered worse off) is more than considered. The welfare of the physically disabled (and other proven and internationally recognized disadvantaged groups) would be an interesting moot point.

A type B problem would be rooted in the apparent fact that the good is more accessible to some regions than others. It says ‘this is a common good, all regions must have a fair share of it’. It is justified in a Rawlsian perspective of social justice as long as we can prove that the current Merit based system does have inherent unfairness.

This last question should be the bone of the current debate, for once we have established existence of an inherent skew in admission introduced by region of origin alone then we have a confirmed two social justice problem. An acceptable solution can be derived there from and for completion, we do suggest a possible solution towards the end of this brief.

You can move on to the Part 2.