MALAWI: Academics call for reform amid repression

Leading Malawian professors have petitioned the government, proposing reform of the country's university system. This as academic freedom has come under severe threat, with the government firing teaching staff, freezing lecturer salaries, closing campuses and endorsing police planting of informants in university classrooms.

The professors, some of them teaching at top universities abroad, have petitioned the country's Education Minister Professor Arthur Mutharika (pictured) to set up a 16-member commission to sit for six months with the objective of bringing about higher education reform.

They include Professor Sam Mchombo of the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Lupenga Mphande of Ohio State University's Department of African American and African Studies, Dr Louis Nthenda, formerly of the University of Malawi, Dr Mpalive-Hangson Msiska of Birkbeck College, University of London, and Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics.

Malawian higher education was thrown into turmoil in January after Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhitho summoned University of Malawi political science lecturer, Dr Blessings Chinsinga, for questioning.

Chinsinga had allegedly made comments in class drawing parallels between problems encountered in Malawi and those that led to popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Lecturers demanded an apology from the police officer and the government to reassure them that it upheld academic freedom. But President Bingu wa Mutharika said there was no need for the state agent to apologise, and accused lecturers of plotting to overthrow his government through "academic anarchy".

The issue sparked a strike by professors, and students joined in the protests. Three university campuses were subsequently closed and lecturers' salaries were frozen. A Malawian court has since 'unfrozen' the salaries, weeks after the president lost another court case against the lecturers through a verdict that said his decree for them to go back to work was null and void.

The petition from the leading academics arrived as differences escalated. The professors said the commission's terms of references should include reviewing the current university law as it applies to the universities of Malawi, Mzuzu, Livingstonia, the Catholic University of Malawi and Blantyre International University.

It should recommend changes, examine the issue of academic freedom in all its ramifications, and investigate the pros and cons of establishing a University Grants Committee as a finance interface between the government, universities and management of the Endowment Fund.

In their proposal, the professors said for the past 50 years Malawian universities have operated under a one-party state, with university staff appointments, teaching materials and teaching content under the constant "threat of Big Brother".

They added that even though the one-party state was abolished nearly 15 years ago, old habits died hard. There have been attempts by the current government to influence appointments and determine teaching content and methods. They said this had reawakened in the collective academic memory the worst excesses of the 1970s and 1980s.

"As we approach the next 50 years, and with an increase in the number of universities, it is time to revisit and update the university law, especially as it pertains to academic freedom, internal administration, external relations and finding stable sources of financing," the proposal said.

The professors suggested that the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), to which the University of Malawi belongs, as a neutral body acceptable to both sides should be requested to set up a 'blue ribbon' commission of inquiry drawn from member universities. ('Blue ribbon' refers to a group comprising eminent academics.)

The commission, they said, should comprise members seconded from the ACU's UK committee as well as Southern Africa, Australian and American university leaders, Malawian members appointed by the government, and Malawians recommended by university unions, among others.

They proposed that while the commission was sitting the parties should revert to the previous status: re-instate university teaching staff, reopen closed campuses and ensure that police desist from putting informants in university classrooms.

Meanwhile, the impasse has resulted in the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or Codesria, postponing an international colloquium scheduled for Malawi in May due to "violations and abuses of academic freedom".

The colloquium, organised in conjunction with the University of Malawi and the South Africa-based Intellectual Heritage Project, has been organised to honour Malawi-born Mkandawire, one of the academics proposing the commission.

"Chinsinga's class was infiltrated by informants hired by the Malawian state police, a practice reminiscent of the worst days of the Kamuzu Banda dictatorship. No modern university can properly function, let alone develop, under close police surveillance," Codesria said in a statement.