MALAWI: Entrance quotas back - again

The government intends to reintroduce a controversial university entrance quota system that was outlawed last year, Minister of Education, Science and Technology George Chapomba has confirmed.

Chapomba said the government had already communicated the quota plan to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority, an autonomous organisation charged with formulating new policies for higher education. "The system will be effective starting in 2010," he said.

The Minister's confirmation followed a widely quoted letter in Malawi's media that his ministry had written to the authority concerning the intended changes. Non-government and church organisations, including the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, have condemned the latest move saying that it will promote discrimination.

The quota system was introduced in Malawi in 1988 by former autocratic ruler Hastings Kamuzu Banda because the country's Northern province had more students entering higher education than any of the others.

The quota system stipulated that to achieve greater equity through affirmative action, students must be selected on the basis of district or region rather than straight merit. In 1993, after Malawi attained multi-party democracy, the system was successfully challenged: the Malawi High Court declared that it was discriminatory.

A recent bid to reintroduce quotas at the University of Malawi faltered after some students went to court saying it was discriminatory because in districts where students performed well, bright youngsters failed to secure a university place while in other districts where students did not do as well, the university still accepted 10 students. The university is appealing against the judgment.

The government's determination to bring back quotas first championed by Banda is in line with current President Bingu Wa Mutharika's desire to maintain the late dictator's legacy.

After coming to office Wa Mutharika, an India and US-trained development economist, restored the names of all national institutions and roads named after Banda. This despite the fact that his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, had removed them arguing that naming anything after the first post-independence ruler-turned dictator was an insult to Malawians.

During a graduation ceremony at the University of Malawi earlier this year Wa Mutharika, who is also the institution's chancellor, said Banda had contributed immensely to higher education in the country. "Sometimes there are stories we do not say and there are songs that we do not sing. Let us say and sing whenever it is necessary," Wa Mutharika said.