MALAWI: New law aims to regulate private universities

Malawi is gearing up to pass higher education legislation that will regulate the accreditation of private universities. This is in an attempt to ensure appropriate standards are maintained at these institutions, and also to make sure they do not exploit students excluded from public universities due to a government quota system.

The proposed National Council for Higher Education Bill will be tabled in Parliament soon. It contains strict regulations for private universities and colleges that could see people operating unregistered institutions jailed for up to 14 years.

The bill stipulates that: "No person other than a public higher education institution or organ of the state shall provide higher education unless that person is registered or provisionally registered as a private higher education institution."

The Bill gives powers to the Ministry of Education to shut down any private institution that fails to meet the new standards. Colleges and universities that are already registered will be given six months to apply to the council for accreditation.

A private college or university will only be accredited after obtaining a one-year provisional registration certificate - a period within which it is not allowed to make any enrolments.

If the bill is passed into law, accreditation assessment of a private university will be done every academic year, following the submission of an annual report on its activities and achievements.

Some of the bill's clauses have been slated in Malawi by civic organisations such as the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education and Link for Education Governance, as well as the media. Its critics have called for the registration criteria also to apply to state-run institutions. In addition, they have questioned whether the one-year assessment period is long enough.

An editorial in The Nation said the importance of the intended bill lies in the fact that too many private universities in Malawi fall below expected standards. Many employ unqualified tutors and are run by inexperienced managers.

It added that the situation has been exacerbated by the fact that private universities are aiming to profit from large groups of students that have been turned away from public universities. This is due to a controversial government quota system, where entry into higher education is determined by one's place of origin, rather than purely on merit.

The editorial recommended that in addition to enacting legislation, government should provide a pool of qualified lecturers from which proprietors of private universities could draw staff.

"Up to now, government has not got its act together, for example, regarding the side-effects of restrictive admissions policies at public universities, which have forced many qualifying students into private universities, where they are getting a visibly raw deal. All in all, regulating private universities is just a small part of the solution, the bigger part lies with government institutions," the editorial said.

"In some public universities, for example, there is acute shortage of books or even chairs in classrooms, leading to students standing throughout lectures. Some of the faculty members also need to upgrade their qualifications; so, too, do catering and accommodation need improvement, among other facilities.

"In brief, government must not live in denial," said the editorial.

Last year, Malawi's President Bingu wa Muthurika announced plans to build five more universities within a decade. He recently named a 17-member committee to spearhead this plan.