MALAWI: Development of new universities underway

Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika has set up a 17-member university committee composed of experts to spearhead the country's plans to construct five news institutions of higher learning within a decade.

Ron Mkomba has been made chair of the Public Universities Working Committee, which will oversee plans first announced by the head of state in parliament in May 2010. But Mutharika has come under heavy criticism for the fact that the committee, appointed on 27 December, does not include a single woman.

Construction of one of the institutions, the University of Science and Technology, is expected to start later this month, thanks to a loan provided by the Chinese government, as previously reported in University World News.

The Malawian president has said the five universities will enable Malawi to abolish a controversial quota system that allocates entry into higher education institutions not on merit but on one's place of origin - a contentious issue currently before the country's highest court, the Supreme Court.

The government said the five universities will be spread across the country's districts, and in addition to the University of Science and Technology - to be located in Malawi's southern district of Thyolo - there will be the University of Bangula (also in the south), 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.

The need to build more universities arises from the country's low access levels to higher education. Statistics indicate that before 2010 the public University of Malawi admitted 1,000 students out of 5,000 who needed places.

And data from last year indicate that 68,642 Malawians sat for final secondary school public examinations, with 36,621 of them passing, potentially raising the number of those who want to go to university amid limited places - hence the latest plans.

But in Malawi, sceptics doubt that the government will be able to construct the five institutions within a decade, creating a raging debate in the country's media.

In one such contribution to the Nyasa Times, Malawian Steven Sharra said the only way of making the five universities a reality might be to elevate the country's five public teacher-training colleges to universities, granting bachelors degrees and higher certificates to primary school teachers and other educators.

"The second [option] would be to convert all three-year diploma programmes into four-year bachelors degree programmes. Otherwise, the proposed five universities will remain a mere drop in the ocean of lack of equitable access to higher education in Malawi," wrote Sharra.

He continued: "It is strange that many Malawian institutions of higher learning cling to the outdated three-year diploma model. Students in these diploma programmes do work that is comparable to four-year degree programmes.

"It is a huge waste of time and money for the students, their families and the nation to make people undergo a three-year diploma programme, and then a few years later bring some of them back to spend another two or more years to finish a bachelors degree. It should be possible to redesign three-year diploma programmes into bachelors degree programmes.

"We could save a lot of time, money and interrupted lives," Sharra concluded.