Is the university quota system discriminatory?

Malawi’s policy of enrolling students into public universities based on a controversial quota system has divided the country, raising accusations of the suppression of minorities and prompting promises of a debate in parliament.

The quota system, which is based on students’ district of origin, rather than merit alone, has been used for nearly a decade now and acts as a form of affirmative action for students from the country’s central and southern regions due to their perceived regional underrepresentation at universities.

However, some academics, clergymen and political activists have said it is discriminatory against northerners where the minority Tumbuka are based.

Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Banda introduced the quota system in the 1960s to address what the government perceived was a disproportionately high number of admissions of students from the northern area of the country.

Malawians from the north are seen as advantaged due to the establishment by missionaries of good schools such as the the Livingstonia Mission named after Scottish explorer David Livingstone.

‘Political scores’

However, those opposed to the policy say Banda introduced it to settle political scores as most of his political opponents came from that region.

In 2008, University World News reported that in 1993 the High Court of Malawi reversed the government’s decision to implement the policy and the courts upheld the decision in 2008 following an appeal. The court argued that the policy “was discriminatory and in violation of the fundamental right of Malawian citizens”.

In 2009, the government of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika reintroduced what it termed the 'Equitable Access to Higher Education' policy, also based on regional quotas. His brother who is the incumbent president, Peter Mutharika, is still enforcing it.

In terms of the official selection system, “the top 10 qualified candidates from each district are offered places and thereafter, the rest are selected based on merit and the size of the population of the districts they originate from”.

Malawi has only four public universities – the University of Malawi, Mzuzu University, Malawi University of Science and Technology and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources – serving a population of approximately 18 million people.

An ‘evil’ system?

In an indication of how contested the policy is, the country’s former vice president, Saulos Chilima, who was a losing candidate in this year’s disputed May elections, went so far as to describe the quota system as “evil” and promised to scrap it should he win the election.

Last month, the Minister of Education, Science and Technology William Banda said there was a lot of misconception about the quota system and that government needs to meet and discuss it thoroughly.

In a recent interview on YFM radio, he said the quota system was aimed at addressing the gap that exists between students from well-established secondary schools and those from community day secondary schools (former distance learning centres).

“The quota system has to do with equity … equity means that you must also look at the conditions in which individuals are selected to public universities,” Banda said.

“You know in Malawi we have secondary schools that are at different levels in terms of resourcing. We have Community Day Secondary Schools … most of them do not have laboratories and we have secondary schools that have almost everything that you need to study.”

However, the quota system is facing opposition.

Negative consequences

Bishop Professor Ryan of the Mzuzu Diocese of the Catholic Church told a local newspaper the quota system had negative consequences for bright students.

“I was a teacher for many years and it pains me to see a student who has done well in his or her studies failing to reach tertiary education because of the district they come from. Selection of students should be on ability and capacity,” he said.

The bishop said lack of learning opportunities were fuelling early marriages for some children.

“One of the problems in rural Malawi is early marriages but if children are left to continue with their education, it helps prepare them for life. If they get educated and find a job, they are in a better position to make sound decisions.”

In a paper published this year in the Makerere Journal of Higher Education titled “Higher Education Reforms in Malawi with Specific Reference to Equitable Access”, Beaton Galafa said some scholars have attributed the quota system to a new form of inequality where segregation is skewed towards those whose origins are districts that generally do well in secondary school national examinations.


Galafa said disparities in access to higher education in Malawi are a reality.

Based on his research he said he generally agrees with the need to maintain a quota system as a means to redress current disparities, but said there was need for a system that targets disparities based on the socio-economic status of candidates’ families, not place or region.

Galafa said a long-term solution would be having more institutions of higher learning in Malawi although resource constraints remain a limiting factor.

“The long-term solution for the system, however, rests in continuous expansion of capacity for public universities in Malawi. Government and the private sector must collaborate in expansion and construction of universities,” Galafa wrote.

“Measures have already commenced, as can be observed through the construction of the Malawi University of Science and Technology which started its operations in 2014 and Nalikule College of Education which opened in 2017, the development of Bunda College of Agriculture into a full university (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources), the upgrading of Domasi College of Education, and now the construction of Mombela University as well as the unbundling of the University of Malawi which will evolve into four full universities, creating room for further expansion in the near future.

“However, the projects are not being implemented at the necessary speed, which renders them less useful when compared to the ever-increasing demand for university education in the country.”

Low enrolment rate

According to a 2016 World Bank report, Malawi’s tertiary gross enrolment rate is 0.4%, which is among the lowest in Africa.

It said the vast majority of university students come from the wealthiest strata of the country’s population, noting that in 2006, 91.3% of students in higher education were from the fifth – or richest – quintile of households compared to just 0.7% drawn from the first quintile.

The report said the country should pursue regional cooperation opportunities available under the SADC Protocol on Education and Training in support of its objectives to increase access and improve skills development.

According to the report, the protocol enables students from SADC member countries “to enrol at institutions in other member countries while paying the equivalent of local fees”. It also aims to improve economies of scale in higher education through the establishment of centres of excellence and centres of specialisation in different member states to cater to the needs of the community as a whole, in turn reducing institutions of specialisation across member states.