MALAWI: Nursing gains undermined by funds freeze

In defying a court order directing it to allow 100 nursing students affected by a state withdrawal of funding to attend lectures, Malawi's state-run Mzuzu University is threatening the country's recent success in halting the brain drain in the sector. The devastating effects of the scholarship withdrawal can already be seen in vastly reduced nursing student numbers.

The 100 students were granted an injuction in October by the Mzuzu high court after Mzuzu University (Mzuni) wrote them letters saying they would only be registered after paying fees in line with the university student handbook regulation number 1.1.4.

The letter told the students to go for an early five weeks' holiday, during which time "you could also have an opportunity to organise your fees".

After the court order, the university backtracked on sending the students home, giving them food and accommodation but not allowing them to attend classes. It said there were no funds to support the students' studies.

Last week Malawi's Nation newspaper quoted the students' lawyer, Christon Ghamdi, as saying the university authorities were in contempt of court and he would be back in court on 14 December to deal with the matter.

"An injunction means total restoration of the status quo. If the students are not learning, it means they [Mzuni] are violating the law," the lawyer said.

The Mzuni students are not the only ones affected by the government's funding freeze. Last year the country's health ministry announced that - also due to financial constraints - it would no longer offer scholarships to students studying in Christian Health Association of Malawi colleges spread across the country.

The funding crunch highlights the problems that poor African nations face on the withdrawal of foreign aid.

In Malawi's case, the upheaval in the sector happened after the country had managed to reverse a nursing brain drain that saw the number of registered nurses leaving the country falling in 2001 from 111 - the equivalent of two years of Malawi's entire nursing graduates at that time - to just six in the first half of 2008, with enrolment at Malawi's nursing schools increasing by 50%.

The success was due to US$160 million in funding for a six-year initiative, from the UK's Department for International Development, to improve the welfare of nurses, mainly through targeting improved salaries.

The drying up of the donor funding to government, and government's subsequent withdrawal of support to students, now threatens to undermine the hard-won improvements in the nursing sector. And the latest development has caused a furore among student unions, nurse training organisations and human rights watchdogs.

The National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi, the Malawi Health Equity Network and the Civil Liberties Committee have petitioned the government, arguing:

"Human resources for the health crisis can comprehensively be addressed in a three-pronged treat, train and retain strategy. However, recent developments on the introduction of fees for nurses-midwives training pose a threat to addressing the human resources for health crisis."

The devastating effects of the government's funding withdrawal were already manifesting in student statistics by October last year; of 469 students selected to study various courses at six mission schools, only about 120 had reported for classes by mid-October.

At Malamulo College of Health Sciences, which selected 135 clinical officers and students to pursue nursing and midwifery, only 30 reported for classes. St John's College of Nursing had selected 60 candidates for nursing courses, of whom only 28 reported for classes. Nkhoma College of Nursing and Malawi College of Health Sciences had enrolled 50 and 110 students respectively, none of whom reported for classes.