Academics warn that new law threatens academic freedom

Malawi’s parliament risks plunging the country back into academic freedom protests if it passes a controversial law that academics charge is restrictive.

The University of Malawi Bill has long been proposed as part of wide-ranging higher education reforms, but the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika took his time. Now the reforms are taking shape under President Joyce Banda, who took over in April last year.

But what has been offered falls below lecturers’ expectations.

Among the proposals that have sparked outrage is one that says deans and heads of departments will be appointed by the university council on a four-yearly basis. Currently, faculty members elect academics to these posts.

Lecturers argue that the proposal will create a ‘boss’ mentality and will result in massive mistrust and undue surveillance of the kind undertaken by the Police Service Special Branch.

That surveillance precipitated a nearly year-long academic freedom protest, after the head of the police questioned a political science lecturer over statements he had made during a lecture. Academics accused the state of planting spies in lectures.

Lecturers have also raised objections to proposed legislation relating to academic advisory boards, the composition of university councils and senates, and the erosion of academic representation and power. They also claim that there has been lack of consultation.

Garton Kamchemedze, a leading academic at the University of Malawi, was quoted in the Nyasa Times as saying: “Three simple questions can be revealing in this regard. Who is behind this bill and why? Have those behind this bill managed to capture the best interest of the university? If they have, have they chosen the right structures and processes to achieve this best interest?”

The drafting of a new law following a commission of inquiry into higher education was among a raft of proposals eminent Malawian professors based outside the country proposed to Mutharika at the height of the academic freedom protests.

The academics abroad included 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 Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics.

They proposed that a new law come into effect at the beginning of 2013 and that the commission of inquiry examine the issue of academic freedom in all its ramifications, including staff appointments, teaching materials, what to teach and how to teach, research activities and publication.

The eminent professors also wanted the commission to examine stable sources of financing for higher education, the establishment of a University Endowment Fund, the desirability or otherwise of sectoral training taxes for the fund (for instance, a mine tax for producing mining engineers, and tourism and hotel tax for producing hospitality graduates), and the pros and cons of establishing a University Grants Committee as a financial buffer between the government and universities and to manage the endowment fund.

Failure to take into consideration some of the proposals due to lack of consultation with lecturers has resulted in problems for Banda’s government. In recent months there have been signs of a widening rift between the president and academics.