Students relieved at planned reopening of universities

Malawi universities are counting the cost of a COVID-19 lockdown that has been in place since 23 March, which the government has now said will end on 13 July. The closure of public and private universities across the country left tertiary institutions reeling, and students say they are happy that a resumption of their studies is now in sight.

Francis Nkhoma, the registrar of the Catholic University of Malawi, a private institution based near Limbe, Blantyre, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has impacted us heavily.”

The lockdown decree was imposed quickly, leaving little time to prepare. In the meantime, institutional finances have suffered.

“Some students have not paid their fees and some have only made part payment. As an institution that depends on fees to run the university, we have lost out,” said Nkhoma.

One reason for this has been the impact of the lockdown on the entire Malawi economy: “We have parents and guardians that have been made redundant as their employers have downsized; this has an end cost to us,” he said.

While public universities receive state funding, they have also suffered financially, being unable to earn money from teaching, learning, research, community outreach and publication, according to Lloyd Kambwiri, the registrar of Kamuzu College of Nursing, a constituent college of the University of Malawi.

“We are spending on wages at a time when there is no meaningful work taking place – this is unavoidable. There has been a slow-down of activities that bring resources to the university,” said Kambwiri.

Disruptions to the academic calendar

Meanwhile, the impact on course and study scheduling has been devastating. “The main effect is the disruption of the calendar. It means we are now off-track as far as the academic year is concerned,” he said. Most higher education classes in Malawi run from October to July, with some intakes studying from January to November. While Malawi university officials now expect all classes for 2020 to run up to December, revised academic calendars have yet to be released.

Even when universities and colleges reopen, they will need to comply with social distancing and health rules imposed by the government.

“It means classes and other activities can no longer be handled as usual. For instance, a class that has a capacity of 100 may have to be used for 50 students only, leading to a duplication of effort,” said Kambwiri. Also, universities will have to insist on social distancing, supply hand sanitisers, and students and lecturers will be required to wear masks.

There are concerns among students and academics that the government will not be able to focus on a smooth end to the lockdown given that the country is also in the middle of a snap election campaign, ordered on 8 May by the Malawi Supreme Court because of concerns that the 2019 election of President Peter Mutharika was marred by widespread voting irregularities. The new election is scheduled for 23 June, sparking a frenzy of political campaigning.

Official numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country remain low, with just four deaths from 481 cases on 12 June.

Students welcome the decision to return

The recommendation from the presidential taskforce on COVID-19 that higher education institutions (and schools) in Malawi should reopen on 13 July has been welcomed by student leaders talking to University World News.

“Life has been so hard for many students. Some of the students were supposed to complete their studies [on the date that] coincided with the lockdown. The indefinite closure of the universities has had a negative bearing on the students,” said John Gonapamuhanya Gondwe, student union president at Mzuzu University, a public university serving northern Malawi.

“There are students who were in the final stages of their studies. I am talking about those on level four. Right now, as I am talking, they cannot conduct research because of the lockdown,” said Gondwe.

He is concerned that student morale has been damaged, with some taking time off to engage in what he calls “immoral behaviour” and others’ interest in studies declining, so “they might take time to adjust after this lengthy lay-off”.

The pandemic is ‘here to stay’

Gondwe said it is time for universities to accept that the pandemic “has come to stay, just like HIV/Aids. If it hangs on, does this mean we will have to shut down school forever?” he asked.

Rather, the authorities need to take measures to enhance student and lecturer safety, such as making masks and sanitisers available, and enforcing physical distancing between staff and students, he said.

Meanwhile, with the election campaign in full swing, Gondwe said the politicians are “busy conducting public meetings without even taking precautions”.

Frank Mwakira, student union president at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said special precautions needed to be taken to protect lecturers after reopening because some are elderly and so are at special risk from COVID-19 which can cause serious health problems in older people.

“We have some elderly lecturers and they should not have to work in an environment that will be a risk to their life,” he told University World News, saying that all health precautions associated with the disease needed to be organised before classes resume.

The future of online learning

One concern is that despite President Mutharika invoking a state of national disaster under the Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act to justify the lockdown, which was followed by a declaration of the coronavirus as a “formidable disease” under the Public Health Act, enabling the health minister to release the Public Health (Corona Virus Prevention, Containment and Management) Rules, 2020, higher education institutions were slow to provide online learning alternatives.

Nkhoma said Malawi’s tertiary education sector needs to do more to develop remote teaching and coordination to ease problems caused by COVID-19 and prepare for the future, even though his institution did offer some online lectures and lessons during the lockdown.

Patrick Botha, a final-year bachelor student in communication studies at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, who had expected to wind up his studies in May, agreed.

“COVID-19 has brought us serious lessons. We need to fully integrate our learning system into online platforms, which we have not been putting to use. We need to invest in this system so that future generations should not face the similar burden we are facing today,” he said.

In this regard, a helpful sign has come from Auburn University, based in Alabama in the United States, which has long standing partnerships with Malawi universities such as Mzuzu University, Malawi University of Science and Technology and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Auburn University’s Dr Overtoun Jenda, assistant provost, said the US partner was ready to train Malawi staff and faculty in teaching courses online “so that universities can develop a schedule to recover academic loss for their students”.

“For this to work, we will also work with our partners on finding ways to lower the costs of connectivity for students so that online education becomes affordable for all,” he said.