The government should open universities with immediate effect

In this article I offer five common sense facts which defend my opinion that the government in Malawi should reopen universities with immediate effect.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most African countries including Malawi did what China did: close borders and institutions, and restrict the movement of people. The key strategy used to stop the spread of COVID-19 was deemed simple: close, close, close. But it is clear that the strategy for dealing with COVID-19 is context specific and should be: open, open, open.

Here is why.

First, what China did in closing institutions was erroneously regarded as a bracketed strategy that would work everywhere. But every country and institution is different. Therefore, individual institutions need to develop their own ways to deal with the pandemic. They can only do this when they are open and fully operational.


Second, whatever national plans the government develops will require financial support to carry them out. Malawi as a country already has limited financial power. While public universities in the country might have a strategy for accessing support to deal with reopening, the private institutions are less likely to have access to such funds. This, therefore, means that private universities are better off if they are able to reopen and create their own strategies for bringing in the much-needed revenue flow.

Third, to date, a ministerial team has been constituted to plan for the reopening of universities in Malawi. Suffice to say that this was under the previous administration that has since changed at the end of last month due to the election that ushered in a coalition government among opposition parties in Malawi.

It is not clear who is included in this team and what they have developed as a strategy for reopening universities. This shows one thing: the actual lack of planning ability. Couple this with the fact that we have a new government in office that might decide to completely change the entire strategy for higher education development in Malawi as proposed in the political manifestos.

What is obvious is that even though Malawi held re-run elections during COVID-19, there was no adherence to social distancing or closure of political institutions. Yet universities were and are fully closed.

No strategy

A quick glance at the current manifesto of the governing parties such as the Malawi Congress Party whose president was duly elected into office reveals that there is no strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This tell us that the government will have to build plans while they fly the plane. That being the fact, it makes sense to open the universities now and have government, civil society and industry keep building strategies for dealing with the pandemic while institutions are fully operational. Staying closed into a plan, just like wishing the pandemic away, is not a policy.

Fourth, universities are hubs for research, learning and engagement. They are the link that contributes to knowledge generation and creates the much-needed skills for workforce development in all fields that can forge a strong frontline for fighting all sorts of ills in society.

While learning takes many forms, including the various technology-driven strategies, it is an open fact that this is financially and technically not feasible for Malawi where the majority of students have no access to the internet.

Expensive internet

Moreover, Malawi is one of the countries with the most expensive internet data prices on the continent. This means that face-to-face learning will remain the most dependable form of learning in Malawian universities. This calls for only one strategy: universities should open without delay.

Fifth and final, Malawi continues to lag behind the world in economic, social and other aspects of development. Access to universities is one of them. Any time wasted waiting for an end that is never coming without any strategy is like waiting for a time when the sun will stop shining.

It is not only cowardly and imprudent but also a huge injustice to the lifelong learners who see the university as a window to better their lives. The longer we wait to open the universities, the deeper we entrench inequalities.

These facts are by no means meant to undermine the severity and dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization have outlined clear measures that individuals and institutions can follow in fighting against COVID-19.

Universities and individual stakeholders need to follow these guidelines and make learning possible. The most dangerous virus that will continue to kill humans is lack of knowledge and skills to survive. Universities are key to ending this knowledge gap and they can only do that if they are fully open.

Nelson Masanche Nkhoma is global citizen with deep roots in Malawi. He researches the comparative interface of the political economy of universities and development. He is a Carnegie Corporation of New York research fellow in the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.