University quota system to be scrapped, reforms on the way

Malawian President Joyce Banda has said her government will abolish the controversial university quota system, among far-reaching higher education reforms including the abolition of draconian legislation.

The action will come as a relief to academics and students, who were at loggerheads with the late president Bingu wa Mutharika before his death in April this year.

In her state of the nation address to parliament recently, Banda said she would also prioritise development of the information and communications technology sector including free bandwidth for universities, colleges and research centres to enable them to digitise records and access and disseminate data easily.

In exchange, universities and colleges would be expected to digitise their collections and make them available online.

The new president told lawmakers that “there is urgent need in our country to change the way we do things”, and added that the new government was committed to resolving issues that had led to the suspension of donor aid during Mutharika’s last months in office.

The aid freeze affected higher education funding, and according to Banda led to other headaches such as foreign exchange shortages, a tobacco industry crisis, fuel shortages and an energy crisis. With it all came bad governance, a poor human rights record, unemployment and a diplomatic crisis.

As a first step, she said, since Mutharika’s death Malawi has normalised relations with development partners including restoring diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom and re-engaging the International Monetary Fund. She said the British government had decided to resume support to the country.

Banda said Mutharika’s controversial quota system, under which university entry was determined by one’s place or origin rather than straight merit, would be abolished.

“Government will set up a committee to review and advise on how to increase intake into public universities. Government will engage private universities in a public-private partnership arrangement as one way of increasing university intake.”

The government was implementing a programme to establish new public universities, she added. Meanwhile, the University of Malawi and Mzuzu University had increased their intake of first year students from 3,417 in 2010 to 4,463 in 2011.

Banda told parliament that in the 2012-13 fiscal year the government would start construction of four teacher training colleges and would recruit an additional 10,360 student teachers.

She said she wanted to build on some of her predecessor’s achievements in higher education.

Construction of the Malawi University of Science and Technology, through a Chinese loan, was under way and academic programmes had been developed. The university was one of Mutharika's “positive contributions to higher education, and his death came at a time when he was championing the construction of nearly 10 universities to expand access to tertiary education”.

Banda said Bunda College of Agriculture had been delinked from the University of Malawi in August 2011 to become part of the newly established Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which would be launched soon.

Further, the president said she had constituted a commission of enquiry into the death of Robert Chasowa, a student critical of Mutharika’s government who had died under suspicious circumstances, and had instituted investigations into the others who had died in police custody, as a way of ending impunity.

"Just like Martin Luther King," said Banda, “I also have a dream.”