MALAWI: Fee hike scrapped after widespread protest

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has been forced to set aside a 220% university fee hike after protests from the general population, political parties and student organisations.

The hike by the University of Malawi, the country's biggest, oldest and premier institution of higher learning, threatened to push university costs beyond the reach of many in the poor African country, where access to tertiary institutions is low mainly due to limited places and resources.

University authorities announced the proposed hike, forcing the president to intervene eight days later last week in the face of sustained pressure.

In a press statement, wa Mutharika said government would set up a committee to consult and make recommendations based on university needs and the ability of parents and students to pay university fees.

"The president has directed that such a review should only occur after adequate consultations to determine the appropriate levels of fees," read part of the government press release.

The latest fee hike had been heavily criticised by student leaders, political parties and civic society. The opposition Malawi Congress Party, which welcomed the president's intervention, had earlier said the fee increase spelled doom for the majority and did not promote equitable access to university education.

Even newspapers joined the fray and attacked the decision to increase fees.
One of the newspapers, the Daily Times, in an editorial titled 'What happened to consultations?' published on 8 October noted that besides failing to consult parents on the matter, university authorities had also failed to consult the president - even though he was the university's chancellor.

The editorial blamed the fiasco on incompetence and added that it gives the embarrassing impression to the outside world that the executive running Malawi is not firmly in control of its domestic affairs.

"How the University of Malawi devoted copious amount of resources to developing a new fee structure, how they agreed on it and at great expense went on to publicise it, only for the head of state to annul the move surely tells a story of administrative chaos and, or, incompetence," read part of the editorial. "We are at pains to fathom that the University of Malawi deans, college principals, the senate, the board - all of them - have [such] contemptuous disregard for the authority of the president that they failed to inform him that the university of which he is chancellor was making such a move."

University issues in Malawi are emotive due to limited academic places and failure by poor parents to raise fees.

A report released last year by the Malawian government, the education country status report (CSR), said that the country's public university unit cost stands at 2,147% while at primary and secondary school levels it is pegged at 8% and 83% respectively.

As previously reported late last year the country was rocked by divisions threatening to assume a tribal dimension following government's intention to introduce a controversial quota system guaranteeing university entry according to place of origin rather than merit. The system went against previous court orders, before the court orders were finally endorsed by the country's High Court.

The tensions were partially diffused in May when government announced plans to build five universities in a decade. Wa Mutharika told parliament in May this year that the Chinese government has already approved plans to fund the building of a science university in Malawi.