Higher education council finally gets going

Malawi’s government has finally operationalised the National Council for Higher Education, or NCHE, two years after parliament approved it. Lack of action on the council has been stalling the accreditation and regulation of universities.

Parliament passed into law Bill 31 of 2010, authorising the creation of the council, in June 2011. But the government has been dragging its feet on getting the body up and running for reasons that have yet to be explained.

The council will regulate universitie, and the intention is for it to conduct periodic reviews of all accredited institutions, with those found to have inadequate provision – judged against ‘global standards’ – having their licences revoked.

The council will also have powers to rationalise degrees offered by public, private and religious-run universities, to create uniformity and reduce duplication, among other functions.

Before the establishment of the NCHE, all matters to do with the accreditation of colleges and universities were handled by a special committee falling under the office of the president and cabinet. This committee has now been dissolved.

“Civil Society Education Coalition Director Benedicto Kondowe observed that gazetting the body had taken too long, endangering the education sector’s performance in the process,” reported the Malawi News Agency this month.

The new council comes into being at a time when Malawi parliamentarians have reportedly rejected the proposed, controversial University of Malawi Bill of 2012, which is intended to replace the current University of Malawi Act.

Academics, including those in the University of Malawi’s influential Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, lobbied lawmakers to reject the bill on the grounds that they were not consulted and that the proposed law tramples on academic freedom.

The union led academic protests that lasted for nearly a year during the rule of the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika.

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

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 further claim that there has been lack of consultation.

The suggestion by the parliamentary committee that the government revisit the bill has helped avoid the country being plunged back into academic freedom protests – for now.