MALAWI: Closed campuses set to reopen

Malawi's government and lecturers have been racing against time to reach an agreement on the reopening of closed campuses next week. Following an appeal by President Bingu wa Mutharika for university staff to resume lectures as originally scheduled on 4 July, lecturers indicated willingness to end their academic freedom protests, which began in February.

As previously reported, lecturers began boycotting classes after political science lecture Dr Blessings Chinsinga, of the University of Malawi's Chancellor College, was summoned by the police over a comment he made during lectures. He had drawn comparisons between political uprisings in North African countries and conditions in Malawi.

After initially accusing academics of wanting to topple his government and charging that the police were not undermining academic freedoms, Mutharika appointed a commission last month to end the impasse. The commission was in addition to talks held between academics and university authorities.

Mutharika has now backed down and taken on board a number of recommendations made to him in a petition signed by leading academics in Malawi and the diaspora. They include Professor Sam Mchombo of the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Lupenga Mphande of Ohio State University, Dr Louis Nthenda, formerly of the University of Malawi, Dr Mpalive-Hangson Msiska of Birkbeck College, University of London, and Professor Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics.

The professors asked the president to set up a commission. This he has done, despite the fact that some academic commentators dismissed the commission as a "political gimmick".

The professors also advised Mutharika to amend the University of Malawi Act, and he has consented to do so.

The president met student leaders over academic issues, and lecturers welcomed dialogue to facilitate the reopening of campuses next week. The academics responded in a statement issued by the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, or CCASU, which was widely quoted in newspapers, including the progressive Malawi Today, and the Nyasa Times.

"We specifically accept the invitation to engage with the council and management of the university and all concerned parties with a view to agreeing on the reopening of the college on 4 July 2011," the statement said.

CCASU Acting President Dr Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula did not immediately respond to further questions sent to her.

The president's handling of the academic freedom issue earlier in the year has been a stain on his remarkable efforts to make up for a battered image from his endorsement of a student admissions quota system that divided Malawi along tribal lines. The quota system championed the basing of university entry on one's place of origin rather than merit.

Under pressure last year, the president conceded that the quota system was not the solution to Malawi's low access to university education, and announced plans to build six more universities in a decade - starting with a science university, whose construction has already begun, thanks to a loan from China.

In his state of the nation address delivered in parliament in late May and titled "A promise delivered", Mutharika, who earlier this year donated his own land for the construction of the Malawi University of Science and Technology, said the China-funded institution would be completed within 20 months.

The president added that the government would draft enabling bills for the establishment of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. And he announced that this year alone 4,000 open and distance learning teachers have been recruited, with plans to establish five teacher training colleges, among other things.

In his address, Mutharika told lawmakers that the government had kept its promise and made great progress in improving human capacity development.

He said: "Government prioritised education, science and technology to develop adequate national capacity for development. The main focus of the education sector is, therefore, to ensure improved equity, quality and relevance of education as well as to expand institutions of higher learning to make more students access better education."