Wider access to higher education needs a mindset shift

At Malawi’s first international conference on higher education last month, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, vice-chancellor of the Nairobi-based United States International University – Africa, suggested there was need for caution in the Malawian government’s decision to “unbundle” the University of Malawi and turn its four constituent colleges into stand-alone universities.

Zeleza said the move went against global trends: universities the world over are consolidating their institutions, growing their enrolment numbers, and expanding their reach. The decision to “dismantle” the University of Malawi, as he saw it, went in the opposite direction.

Zeleza said Malawi had the “dubious distinction of having the lowest university enrolment rate in the world,” with less than 1% of college-age Malawians attending university. The African average was 12%, while the global average was 33%. He added, in a personal conversation later, that in developed countries university enrolment rates were above 60%.

It is instructive to examine the factors that have given Malawi this unenviable distinction.

It is a legacy of missionary education from the 1870s, of colonialism from the 1890s, and of one-party dictatorship from 1964 to 1994. When Malawi won its independence from British rule in 1964, there was no university in the country, save for a few missionary teacher training and technical colleges. Secondary school education did not start in Malawi until 1941 when the colonial government opened Blantyre Secondary School. By the time of independence in 1964, there were only four full secondary schools in the country.

Slow pace of development

The pace of development in post-independence Malawi was rapid, but looking back from a 21st century perspective, it was not rapid enough. The University of Malawi was established in October 1964, three months after independence. It remained the only university in the country for the next quarter of a century, when the African Bible College opened in 1988. The second public university, Mzuzu, would not have its first intake until 1999.

Currently Malawi has four public universities, whose total student population is about 20,000. The University of Malawi, the jewel of higher education in Malawi in the words of Zeleza, has about 13,000 students. Compare that to a similar flagship university which opened around the same time in the region, the University of Nairobi. It has 80,000 students. There are now just over 28 recognised and registered private universities in Malawi, with a new one opening up every so often.

University enrolment data is not readily available in Malawi, in the absence of a system to collect statistics, but the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) reported at last month’s conference that it is developing one, to be launched by December 2018. However the total student population in Malawian public and private universities can anecdotally be estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000.

Malawi’s population was estimated to be 17.2 million in 2017, and 73% of Malawians are under 35 years of age, according to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III (MGDS III), launched in March this year. In its Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2015-16, the National Statistical Office reported that 69% of Malawians aged 18 and above did not have a secondary school education.

It was remarkable that Malawi’s founding president, the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, established a national flagship university three months after independence. He constructed a secondary school in each of the country’s erstwhile 24 districts within the first 10 years. Remarkable as these rapid developments were, it is also observed that Banda was not keen on too many Malawians attaining a secondary school, let alone university, education (Guy Mhone, [ed], 1992, Malawi at the crossroads: the post-colonial political economy).

Agriculture at the centre

The reasons Banda wanted the numbers of educated Malawians controlled are said to have been both political and economic.

A cabinet crisis erupted weeks after Malawi attained independence in July 1964, and Banda set about consolidating his grip on the country. The development policies of the early post-independent years put agriculture at the centre, and a common understanding was that the sector did not need highly educated farm workers. The World Bank complicated matters when it declared that developing countries needed basic education more than they needed higher education, leading to cuts in funding to post-secondary education, as Zeleza told the conference.

By the time Banda left office in 1994, the secondary school enrolment rate for 14-17 year olds was 1.5%, according to Harvey Sindima’s book Malawi’s first republic: an economic and political analysis (2002). Today the transition rate from primary to secondary school is 16% and the tertiary enrolment rate is at 0.8% (MGDS III, 2018). In 2017, the four public universities enrolled just over 4,700 students out of about 18,000 qualified applicants, according to figures from NCHE.

That number of 18,000 applicants needs scrutiny. It creates impressions about the academic performance of Malawians at secondary school level, and about those Malawians who go on to tertiary education and who do not. In 2017, just over 136,000 sat the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination that marks completion of secondary school education. Of these, about 84,000 passed, representing 61%.

The NCHE stipulates that only those students scoring a minimum of six credit passes qualify for selection to university. What constitutes a credit pass differs from institution to institution, but at my institution a credit is 65-74%. The Malawi National Examinations Board does not release its rubric, so Malawians never know what scores merit a fail, pass, credit pass or distinction in any given year. The 18,000 who were qualified to go to university, based on NCHE’s criteria, represent 13% of the number that sat the exam, and 21% of the number that passed.

Selection criteria

What is clear is that scoring a mere pass is not good enough for selection into a Malawian university. That raises questions as to why one needs six credit passes to qualify for university in Malawi. Is it because anything less means one is not capable of studying at a university? Or is it because the number of spaces available in public universities determines what grades qualify one for a public university?

It may not be about space per se, as the NCHE also stipulates the same limits for private universities, whose selection and admission decisions are in the hands of the institutions themselves. And what should Malawians make of the 2017 numbers in which, out of 136,000 who sat the MSCE, only 18,000 qualified for university? What does that say about the quality of Malawi’s secondary education system and a national examination that judges the results of one’s school career and determines the fate of so many in just a few days?

For the decades that the University of Malawi was the only university in the country, the limited number of spaces, which remained below 1,000 for most of that time, created in the public imagination the unintended impression that anybody who failed to make it was not bright enough. Many Malawians, including professors, still state this publicly.

Even colleges that do not follow a university curriculum are beginning to adopt this cut-off point. Starting a few years ago, one now needs a minimum of four credit passes to qualify for entry into a teacher training college to study for a teacher’s certificate. Students with less than four credits do not qualify. There are secondary school teachers who were able to study for a diploma in education on the basis of five or less credits, but cannot proceed to upgrade to a degree because they do not posses six credits.

Some teachers have opted to go back to resit the MSCE to obtain better scores and enrol in university programmes. For teachers, there is no doubt that the more educated the teacher, the better the quality of the education system. However, the primary school teaching profession in Malawi has always been the preserve of those who did not qualify for university entry. Even those who pursue secondary education programmes in the universities only do so because they did not qualify for elite programmes such as medicine, engineering, law, etc.

The unavailability of places in Malawi’s higher education institutions has not only led to these epic low enrolment rates, it has also distorted the image of academic performance. Merely passing the MSCE is not seen as good enough. Even as the number of both public and private universities keeps increasing, the idea of who qualifies to go to university is stuck in the past. The availability of space has not kept pace with the increase in the number of students seeking a university education, such that more and more students performing exceptionally well are still being left out. But the mindset persists.

In search of a growth mindset

The idea that only a few are capable of university education continues to be sustained by a belief that intelligence is in-born and innate; that we all have, to use the terms of Carol Dweck, a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset” (2006). That idea is still very much alive in Malawian classrooms from primary school to university.

At last month’s conference, a number of presentations, including mine, discussed the role of higher education institutions in the era of sustainable development goals, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III, Malawi’s national development strategy. As Dr Roger Chao Jr argued in a recent University World News article, higher education is about sustainable development nationally and globally. In other words, global, continental and national development goals will not be achieved without widening access to higher education.

As the new association for Malawi’s universities and colleges – announced at last month’s conference – starts functioning, the issue of low enrolments in the country’s higher education system will be one of its urgent tasks. Tackling that problem will not be possible without addressing the history that created the problem, and the underlying mindsets that have sustained it. As Zeleza put it, the challenge for Malawi’s higher education system is how to consolidate and grow existing institutions, and build new ones, while increasing enrolment rates.

Steve Sharra, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education and director of research and publications at the Catholic University of Malawi. He writes in his personal capacity.