New association formed to advance interests of HE

Malawian universities and colleges have formed an association aimed at providing a forum for their shared interests and advancing higher education in the country. The announcement was made on Friday 29 June at the end of Malawi’s first international conference on higher education held at Sunbird Nkopola Lodge, in the lakeshore district of Mangochi.

The three-day conference was organised by Malawi’s four public universities, its private universities under their umbrella body the Association of Private Universities in Malawi, the National Council for Higher Education, the Department of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, and a group of individuals operating as Friends of Higher Education in Malawi. The theme for the conference was “Higher Education in the 21st Century”.

Chairperson of the organising committee, Bill Mvalo, announced the formation of an association of universities and colleges in Malawi. He said a steering committee had been formed, comprising representatives from public and private universities and colleges, and other stakeholders. The steering committee, to be convened by Mvalo, will be responsible for settling on a proper name for the association, and laying out plans and procedures for the association to become functional.

The ‘thread’ of employability

Giving the first of three keynote addresses at the conference, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, vice-chancellor of the Nairobi-based United States International University – Africa (USIU-A), said two megatrends that were going to determine Africa’s development trajectory in the 21st century were the continent’s youth bulge and the changing nature of work.

He said the two megatrends were connected by the issue of employability, “the thread that will weave or unravel the fabric of the continent’s future, enabling it to achieve or abort the enduring historic and humanistic project for development, democracy and self-determination”.

Zeleza observed that although universities do not simply exist for economic reasons or return on investment, employability was “at the heart of the value proposition of university education; it is its most compelling promise and unforgiving performance indicator”.

Titled “Rethinking the value proposition of higher education: the challenge of employability”, Zeleza’s address noted that the issue of employability was not a problem for African universities alone; universities, governments and employers in the developed world were also grappling with it.

In 2017 the USIU-A in Kenya conducted an employability survey, Zeleza said, which sought “to identify employability characteristics in the economy and labour market, how our graduates fare, and what can be done to improve their employability”. In addition to consulting existing research and literature locally and globally, the survey also included students, faculty, staff, alumni and employers.

Employers were asked, among other questions, what they thought would be new competencies for the future. Their list included scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership and social awareness.

The survey results also showed that 73% of USIU-A graduates go into full-time employment, 13% start their own businesses, 4% work part-time and 10% are unemployed and-or looking for jobs. Following the survey, the university is making changes to its curricula and programmes, and has strengthened existing programmes for life and soft skills training. The university is also reforming its general education programme, improving career training and job fairs, internships and community service, and creating youth boot camps.

Innovation and entrepreneurship

USIU-A is also infusing innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities by setting up an incubation and innovation centre, and introducing an assessment system for extra-curricular activities, said Zeleza.

Also giving keynote addresses at the conference were Professor John Kalenga Saka, vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi, and Professor Jonathan Makuwira, deputy vice-chancellor of the Malawi University of Science and Technology.

Saka focused on the university-community interface, arguing that universities needed to strengthen relations with each other by forming consortia with neighbouring institutions. He called upon deputy vice-chancellors responsible for research to add extension and development programmes to their activities.

Giving the third and last keynote address of the conference, Makuwira said universities needed to rethink their role and how they view the issue of development. He said the discipline of development studies was dominated by theories and knowledge developed in the Global North, treating theories and knowledge from the Global South as unimportant. He pointed out that elements of the Global South were to be found in the Global North, as elements of the Global North were also to be found in the Global South.

University unbundling concerns

In closing remarks at the end of the conference, Zeleza observed that there was one important issue that had not been addressed. He said he had noted with great concern that the University of Malawi, his alma mater, was being unbundled and its four constituent colleges were going to become new public universities.

Zeleza said as an alumnus, administrator and scholar, he was concerned about the development, which he said bucked regional and global trends which were towards consolidation rather than “dismantling”.

He said national universities in the region, which started around the same time as the University of Malawi, had grown in student numbers, and some, like the University of Nairobi, now had 80,000 students whereas the University of Malawi had 13,000 students.

Rather than unbundling, he said what Malawi needed to do was to build new universities, and increase enrolment so as to allow as many young Malawians as possible to go to university.

“We have the dubious distinction of having the lowest university enrolment rate in the world,” said Zeleza, pointing out that fewer than 1% of college-aged Malawians went to university, while the Africa average was 12%, and the global average was 33%.

Another higher education conference is being planned for 15 and 16 November this year, under the theme “Innovative Teaching and Learning for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century”. It is being organised and will be hosted by DMI St John the Baptist University, in conjunction with the Malawi Institute of Education, the Catholic University of Malawi, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and University of Malawi Chancellor College.

Steve Sharra, PhD, is senior lecturer and director of research and publications at the Catholic University of Malawi.