US invests US$10 million in improving local university access

The United States is implementing a four-year US$10 million university project in Malawi that is expected to improve overall access to higher education, ensure that more women study sciences and bridge the gap between university education and the labour market through the offering of high-demand employment subjects and training programmes.

Four Malawian universities – the University of Malawi, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi University of Science and Technology and Mzuzu University – are collaborating on the project known as Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (SHEAMA) and funded by USAID.

In addition to enhancing the link between university education and the labour market, the project aims to develop a new model for open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) centres that will be established in six districts and administer a financial assistance programme that will provide long- and short-term tuition scholarships for vulnerable groups, especially adolescent girls and young women.

The four universities signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) last year in August to pave way for the implementation of the project. At the time, USAID said the initiative would make it possible for universities to co-design and offer joint academic programmes on shared campuses (ODeL centres), thereby increasing spaces for students to enrol and driving down the cost of attaining university qualifications in Malawi.

“The MoU further creates the mechanism to co-design courses and programmes with industry in order to ensure that university offerings are aligned with the needs of the market. SHEAMA will support the four Malawian public university partners to strengthen and expand their ODeL programmes; provide targeted scholarships to 1,188 vulnerable students, particularly those graduating from rural community day secondary schools; and strengthen the linkages between industry and universities through internships and engagement of industry,” it added.

Last December, USAID Lilongwe requested input from United States and Malawian based universities, industries and other stakeholders on issues such as which academic disciplines were critical for Malawi’s socio-economic transformation and improved service delivery, the barriers for women in pursuing STEM-focused courses and factors that could enhance the ability of higher education institutions to contribute to national socio-economic development.

The agency also wanted to know what innovative strategies could be implemented to address barriers given the existing inequities – such as gender, wealth, geographic proximity to higher education institutions, physical capacity of higher education institutions for enrolment, technology capability, utility access – in accessing and participating in higher education in Malawi.

According to a 2016 World Bank report, Malawi’s tertiary gross enrolment ratio 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.