Students pin hopes on successful university unbundling
Residing in Chiwembe, Blantyre, some 30 kilometres from the Polytechnic – a constituent college of UNIMA – because of a lack of campus accommodation, Kamwendo must wake before 5am to make it to the main lecture theatre by 7am.
She rents a small unhygienic room in a township house. Electricity outages are common and security is poor, putting her and her six other roommates at high risk of attacks by thugs. After her last lecture, while other students think of night sessions at the library, she has to rush back to her room because she cannot risk travelling at night.
When she thinks back to her high school days at Kamuzu Academy, her dormitory at grammar school looks like a five-star hotel when compared to her current dilapidated room.
Simply being able to begin her studies at the Polytechnic was a struggle, she said.
“I was admitted in 2015 but only started my first year in 2016 because there was another intake waiting to start their first year. The two intakes clashed because for six months the college was closed, due to a lecturers’ strike over perks,” she said.
In the two years at Polytechnic, she has seen it all, but she is still determined to stick it out.
Kamwendo’s challenges are faced by many of the 6,257 students at the University of Malawi’s other colleges – Chancellor College, Kamuzu College of Nursing, and the College of Medicine – and are what have led to plans to delink the constituent colleges at the country’s oldest university established in 1965.
The idea of “unbundling” UNIMA so that its colleges become standalone universities dates back to 2009 when former chancellor, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, first pitched the idea to the UNIMA council.
He succeeded in delinking Bunda College in 2011 which is now Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).
After his death in 2012, his successor, Joyce Banda – also chancellor of the university – abandoned the idea but her successor, Peter Mutharika, reignited it.
This time, principals of all the colleges and other academicians welcomed the idea, saying decentralisation would improve administration of the colleges.
Enhanced competition and growth
Director of the Civil Society Education Coalition Benedicto Kondowe argues that unbundling of UNIMA would help to bring sanity and enhance competition in higher education and growth of the institutions.
Professor George Kanyama Phiri, former LUANAR vice-chancellor, agreed, arguing that the experience of Bunda College is a case study that other colleges can follow.
Phiri said the Polytechnic and College of Medicine have great potential and capacity to become stand-alone universities.
“I see at least three with the capacity to stand alone. The first ones in the forefront of becoming independent are the College of Medicine and the Polytechnic, leaving Chancellor College to remain as the major campus of UNIMA.”
But those against the move have said the unbundling is not a solution to funding problems and will make the running of universities more expensive because each of colleges will need its own funding.
With other public universities such as Mzuzu University, Malawi University of Science and Technology, and LUANAR struggling financially, Macnovance Potani, headteacher at Blantyre Baptist Academy, believes it is folly to unbundle.
“Once the unbundling of UNIMA gets finalised, we will end up having eight public universities and three new vice-chancellors. I hope funding, which is far from satisfactory for our four public universities now, will improve for our planned extra four universities after unbundling,” he said.
He said instead of unbundling, Malawi needed to merge colleges.
“When other countries are in the process of merging colleges for efficiency, we have a different strategy. In 2007 Northern Island merged 16 colleges to six; Scotland reduced 37 colleges to 20 between 2011 and 2014; Wales reduced colleges from 25 to 13,” explained Potani.
He said he also doubted the unbundling would herald the efficiency predicted by Kondowe.
“Some of the reasons, which are fallacies, for the unbundling of UNIMA are that it is too big and, hence, too bureaucratic to govern. To all the proponents for the unbundling of UNIMA, I have this to share: UNIMA has four constituent colleges. University of Nairobi has 11 colleges and over 40,000 students; Moi University has eight colleges and Kenyatta University nine colleges; University of London has 18 colleges and over 161,270 on-campus students and over 50,000 open distance learning (ODL) students; University of Cambridge has 31 constituent colleges and it was founded in 1209; Oxford University has 38 colleges and Harvard University has 13 colleges. Who needs unbundling?” said Potani.
Mutharika has appointed an eight-person high-profile committee, chaired by Dr Macphail Magwira, ministerial secretary for health and former principal of the College of Medicine, to oversee the delinking.
Magwira said the delinking of UNIMA is at an advanced stage. He said his committee will soon be submitting draft bills to the ministry of education, which will then be submitted to the ministry of justice for presentation to the cabinet committee on legal affairs.
“Once cabinet approves the draft bills, they will go to parliament. Our expectation is that the draft bills should be ready before the next sitting of parliament,” he said.
But passing of the bill is just the first step of thedelinking process, according to Magwira.
“After all this is done, there will be a transitional period because there will be a need for councils to do recruitment, capacity building and to make sure that all necessary structures for a new university are in place. This might take some years,” he said.
For such structures to be in place, government will need to identify funds for the process – which highlights the question of funding.
For students like Kamwendo, anything that offers hope is welcome.
“If unbundling will help improve efficiency in the running of the colleges, then we have no choice but to go for it because something needs to be done urgently,” she said.