MALAWI: Chinese loan to fund new science university

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has signed legislation authorising the government to borrow US$80 million from China to build a new science university in Thyolo, in the country's southern region.

The president's assent earlier this month for the Malawi Science and Technology Bill came five months after he told parliament that the Chinese government had already agreed to provide funds for building a new higher education institution.

The bill was passed by parliament in July. However, at the time of announcing the deal Mutharika did not indicate that it was a loan facility.

He said the new institution would offer programmes in health and medical sciences, applied engineering and technology, earth and climate-change sciences and cancer research, among other disciplines.

During the same parliamentary speech Mutharika said that besides the science university the government also planned to build four more universities to ease a shortage of higher education places.

Among the other new institutions to be spread across Malawi's districts will be the University of Bangula, to be constructed in the south and devoted to cotton research and water resources management, and the University of Marine Biology in the western district of Mangochi, to advance Mutharika's personal initiative on aquaculture.

It was lack of higher education places that prompted the government to introduce a controversial quota system for students in January, a move that polarised the nation and fuelled tribal tensions.

The quota system based admission to Malawi's two public universities on students' place of origin and not on merit, prompting some disgruntled students to take the issue to court on the grounds of discrimination. In a surprising judgement earlier this year, the High Court approved the system. But students appealed and the matter is currently before the Supreme Court.

Despite championing the quota system, Mutharika appeared to soften under pressure by acknowledging for the first time, while announcing plans to build five new universities, that having more institutions was the optimal solution to the shortage of university places.

During parliamentary debates on the Chinese loan facility, Finance Minister Ken Kandodo told legislators that while the country's two state institutions, the University of Malawi and Mzuzu University, have a combined intake of just over 1,200 students, more than 5,000 students require places each year.

He blamed the shortage on the government's concentration on primary and secondary education, to the detriment of higher education. The minister added that the science university would have an intake of 1,000 students and would be built on 215,000 square metres of land.

Kandodo said China's Export and Import bank would provide the US$80 million loan facility, and that Malawi's external debt currently stands at US$700 million. The loan has a repayment period of 20 years and a grace period of five years.