Lecturers refuse to teach after student protests, threats

Seven students have been arrested and 14 others suspended from Malawi’s state-run Mzuzu University following violent protests that saw lecturers refusing to teach out of fear of being attacked with petrol bombs.

The students have a number of grievances that include the introduction of a new system requiring full payment of fees as a condition to access results, supplementary examinations systems, and the alleged failure on the part of the university to offer open, distance and e-learning.

During protests, students blocked roads leading to the campus and burnt tyres on the streets. One university staff member was injured while threats have been made against other staff.

Anti-riot police were called to the university to restore order but were pelted with stones, leading them to use tear gas against the students, whom the university said were engaging in an “illegal” demonstration.

A memo issued on 2 November by University Registrar Yonamu Ngwira, and quoted by various Malawi media outlets including Nyasa Times, said the suspended students would appear before a disciplinary hearing within 21 days.

“The decision for the suspension, pending a hearing, has been necessitated by the need to restore order and assure safety and security on campus, following the illegal violent protests in which the suspended students are alleged to have played a role. There is also alleged to have been continued threats to ‘deal with’ individual staff members and petrol-bomb others, despite the fact that a staff member was already injured by students who stoned him,” reads part of the memo.

“Entry into the university campus or into any of the university buildings existing outside campus is prohibited, unless invited or unless prior permission is obtained.”

Chairperson for the Mzuzu University Academic Staff Union Dr Angel Nyirenda was also quoted by Nyasa Times as saying lecturers and all staff members feel their security is at risk following the students' conduct during demonstrations last week.

Disturbances at Mzuzu University come less than three months after its vice-chancellor, Professor John Kalenga Saka, said during the university’s 20th graduation ceremony in July this year that he would prioritise plans to ensure that the institution was among the top 100 renowned world universities.

Saka said Mzuzu University, established in 1997, must hasten linkages with both international and local universities to tap skills as part of the journey to improve in the rankings.

“It is a challenge for all of us working in this institution and other relevant stakeholders to push the university to attain the top 100 membership in the world, but I strongly feel through shared responsibilities and dedication, we can achieve this,” said Saka.

Malawi’s universities have been plagued by frequent protests over student fees.

In 2016, Malawi’s president, Peter Mutharika, bowed to pressure and slashed university fees following nationwide student protests that resulted in the arrest of more than 30 students.

During the demonstrations, Chancellor College in Zomba – a constituent college of the University of Malawi – was closed after students obstructed a convoy in which Dr Jill Biden, wife of the then United States vice-president, was travelling.

During last year’s graduation ceremony Mutharika told students that they must not expect free education.

“What we pay to universities through subvention is what the public contributes to education. Money paid from treasury is taxpayers’ money paid by Malawians, including those who did not get university education themselves.

"Therefore, parents, guardians and students who have resources must always remember that it is primarily your responsibility to pay for your university education. The public funds are there only to support you, or to supplement you,” he said.