The Chinese government will fund the construction of a new science university in Malawi as part of the country's ambitious initiative to open five new institutions of higher learning in the next decade, President Bingu wa Mutharika has said.
China is funding major development projects in Africa, in a diplomatic initiative aimed at building good relations on the continent and averting criticism that it is only after Africa's rich natural resources.
In a speech delivered at the official opening of parliament's budget meeting on 24 May, wa Mutharika said China had already approved the funding of the Malawi University of Science and Technology to be located in the southern Thyolo district.
wa Mutharika said the funding and construction of the science institution was one of five pledges made by the Chinese government in 2008, in addition to funding and construction of a highway, an international conference centre and hotel complex, and a national stadium.
The Chinese have already built Malawi's US$50 million ultra-modern parliament, officially opened last month, which the President attributed to his country's espousing of the One China policy. The parliament is one of many built or earmarked for construction by the Chinese across Africa, including in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Analysts believe the Asian giant has launched a programme of goodwill on the continent following allegations it was only after Africa's resources to fuel its own development. China has become the continent's biggest trade partner, overtaking the United States.
wa Mutharika described the higher education crisis in Malawi as "a deep structural problem" and said the Chinese-funded institution would offer courses in health and medical sciences, applied engineering and technology, earth and climate change sciences and cancer research, among other disciplines.
Among other new institutions spread across Malawi's districts, the University of Bangula would be constructed in the south, devoted to cotton research and water resources management, and the University of Marine Biology would be built in the western district of Mangochi to advance wa Mutharika's personal initiative on aquaculture.
The President said the opening of five new institutions would result in the abolition of the controversial quota system in which entry into university is determined by place of origin rather than merit. The system has fuelled tribalism as it has affected some tribes, especially from the north, where students benefited the most from merit-based selection.
Reintroducing the controversial quota system also prompted wa Mutharika to sack some officials from his governing party who openly criticised it. It also led to a confrontation with clerics who demonstrated and petitioned the head of state in protest.
In his speech, the Malawian President said the paradigm shift that would see the quota system abolished within a decade, after the new universities had been built, was informed by the fact that there were too few places to accommodate growing demand for higher education. This could not be solved by the quota system or court injunctions aimed at stopping it, but only by increasing university places.
He said that to achieve sustained growth and development Malawi needed large numbers of scientists, medical researchers and medical doctors, technologists and engineers, teachers and educationalists, people trained in climate change and environmental management, industrial designers, machinists and architects, among many other skills.
"Our country does not have enough universities and institutions of higher learning to develop these skills. Every year many of our children fail to continue with their education because there are no places at the universities to take them. We need to change this and do so resolutely," wa Mutharika told parliament.
The government's plans to increase the number of universities have been welcomed by many people and the media. In an editorial on 25 May, the Daily Times said there was nothing "sweeter" from the president's speech than the promise to build more universities.
"Not so long ago, Malawians woke up to a stark reality that the university cake is too small for everyone and from every corner of the country," the paper commented. Out of about 5,000 students who deserved university education, a paltry 1,000 had chance to get a university bed space. This posed a "huge and delicate challenge".
Even more painful, the Daily Times added, was the realisation that Malawi ranked at the bottom in terms of higher education in the Southern African Development Community, producing the least university graduates.
Plans to build five universities in a decade are ambitious but pragmatic and could be implemented, wa Mutharika said. Malawi was "a nation on the move" with the economy recording high annual growth rates of more than 7%, low inflation rates and a stable exchange rate since 2004.
There had also been considerable progress towards gender equality, with representation of women in decision-making positions in the public service increasing from 19% in 2007 to 23% in 2009 and women in parliament increasing from 14% in 2005 to 22% in 2009.
Mutharika said Malawi was one of Africa's most peaceful and stable countries with no political prisoners or detainees in its jails and adherence to democracy and good governance, human rights and the rule of law.
Not all would agree on the human rights front. For months Malawi has been in the global spotlight for sentencing to 14 years in prison a gay couple who publicly declared their union with an engagement, in violation of the country's laws.
On 29 May wa Mutharika pardoned the couple following a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The UN was one of many countries and organisations that had urged Malawi to reconsider the sentencing.
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