MALAWI: Controversial quota system only partly applied

The government of Malawi has bowed to pressure against its controversial quota system by allowing partial implementation of it. The University of Malawi said last week that resident students had been selected using district quotas but non-resident students had been admitted purely on merit - and that it had achieved gender parity among students.

The quota system, which the Malawian government refers to as Equitable Access to University Education, requires higher education institutions to admit students based on where they come from. It is aimed at discouraging a trend under the merit system that saw people from the north entering higher education in greater numbers than students from the south.

In a statement last week the country's oldest and biggest university said that selecting non-resident students on merit had resulted in the proportion of female students rising to nearly 50% of all students.

"A total of 579 candidates have been selected: 294 males and 285 females representing almost 50:50 gender distribution," the University of Malawi revealed, adding later that the "selection into the non-residential programme was based on merit for those that had applied."

It said non-resident students who had been admitted would be required to pay tuition fees, and would be expected to find and pay for their own accommodation and meals.

There are differences in the funding of students admitted under the two systems. The government pays some of the learning and living costs of students selected via the quota system while those admitted on merit alone must raise their own finances.

Although the Equitable Access to University Education policy was outlawed by Malawi's High Court in 1993 and 2008, last year authorities announced that they would re-introduce it again effective from 1 January this year.

Two students, Innocent Longwe and Wilfred Mkochi, mounted a legal challenge but the High Court recently ruled in favour of the government and the University of Malawi, which were the respondents in the case.

High Court Judge Joseph Manyungwa ordered the students to pay the legal costs including those incurred by the University of Malawi. Last week newspapers reported that the university had threatened Longwe and Mkochi with legal action if they failed to pay within seven days.