Government crackdown on unregistered private institutions

The Malawian government has cracked down on 20 private universities and tertiary education colleges it says lack formal permission to operate, ordering that they close with immediate effect.

Formal applications must be made to the Malawi National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) for operational licences should any of the blacklisted institutions wish to resume operations.

In the meantime, the Malawi Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) office, acting on advice from Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda, has asked Malawi Police Service Inspector General Merlyne Yolamu to proceed with criminal investigations into the leaders of these universities and colleges.

In a letter to Yolamu, DPP Steven Kayuni wrote: “Madam Inspector General, it has to be highlighted that it is fraudulent for an institution to purport to provide higher education facilities and, worse still, offer bogus higher education qualifications without being registered or authorised by the NCHE.”

In a follow-up interview with Malawi media, Kayuni said: “The bogus papers charade is getting out of hand.”

Which institutions are on the list?

The flagged universities, as listed on a NCHE statement seen by University World News, include the Jerusalem University; the Accountancy Tuition College; Azteca University; the Bandawe Research Consultancy; Cypress International Institute University and the Hands on Africa Theological College.

They are accused of “operating illegally by offering or pretending to offer higher education in Malawi”, being added to a list on a statement entitled ‘Offering of higher education and awarding of qualifications in Malawi by unregistered institutions’.

Others listed included the Malawi University of Veterinary Sciences; Sola Scriptura Bible College; Techno-Brain Institute; the Central African Preaching Academy; the Domasi Management College; the Domasi Institute of Management and Technology; the United Christian University; Shire University; METI University; the Central Christian University; the Christian Leadership University; the TERe School of Public Health and the Ticia Counselling Centre.

The NCHE statement said: “The council is ordering that these institutions should stop operating forthwith.” If that does not happen, the NCHE said it would “commence legal proceedings” against the listed bodies and “individuals facilitating the operation of these institutions ...”

The closures are the most significant taken by the NCHE, which has, in the past, been accused of inaction regarding unlicensed institutions, some accused of offering inferior quality education that does not meet official Malawi standards.

However, it is not the first time some of these institutions have been ordered to close by the NCHE, with 12 being ordered to shut down in 2019.

But some relisted this year (2022) appear to have continued operations, while others satisfied the NCHE and are absent from this year’s list.

Qualifications will be invalid

The re-listings followed criticism from students, parents and education activists led by the Civil Society Education Coalition (CSECMW), which has argued that the NCHE (launched in 2011) needs to boost its performance and has been particularly weak in enforcing standards on private universities that operate in Malawi.

But its hand seems to have been forced by the attorney general who has formally directed the DPP and Malawi Police to institute proceedings against the unlicensed private universities in a legal opinion reference Number MJCA/AG/108 which he told University World News he has addressed to the NCHE – although a copy was not provided.

Now, not only has the council ordered that these named institutions be closed, it has ordered qualifications issued to its students be deemed invalid in Malawi.

NCHE acting CEO Dr Ambumulire Phiri said in a press statement of August 27: “The NCHE Act 5 of 2011 provides in section 15 that: ‘No person other than a public higher education institution or an organ of state shall provide higher education unless the person is registered as a private higher education institution’.

Therefore, legally and for practical purposes, the mandate to offer higher education and to award higher education qualifications in Malawi is delegated to public higher education institutions through Acts of Parliament or to private higher education institutions through a process of registration with the NCHE.

“For this reason, the NCHE Act gives the mandate to register private higher education institutions solely to the NCHE. The same act makes provision for quality assurance of higher education through regular assessments and accreditation.

“Hence, the NCHE has powers to register and de-register private higher education institutions and programmes (Sections 19-20) and to accredit or withdraw accreditation (Sections 27-29).”

The NCHE said that, as of June, Malawi had 52 registered institutions of higher learning – 21 public and 31 private.

NCHE mandate questioned

Some of the targeted institutions of higher learning have told University World News that they will comply with the NCHE’s directive by halting operations and applying for registration to avoid prosecution.

Henry Chirwa, spokesperson for the Blantyre-based Shire University, said his institution had already started the process of getting registered by the NCHE.

“The process is already under way. We expect that, by the end of the year, the NCHE will register us,” he explained.

But some other institutions have questioned the NCHE’s mandate, arguing that they operate under licences from the Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training Authority (TEVET) which is mandated to regulate, promote and facilitate sustainable provision of quality technical, entrepreneurial and vocational education and training in Malawi.

Dastan Kaudzu, a spokesperson for the Domasi Institute of Management and Technology, which is based in Malawi’s old capital city, Zomba, said his institution should not have to be registered and accredited by NCHE as well as TEVET.

“We are a community college, offering vocational training. All community colleges are under the registration and supervision of the TEVET and not the NCHE,” said Kaudzu, insisting that his institution will not close as directed by NCHE.

A spokesperson for the Techno Brain institute, which also offers technical and vocational training, also disputed that this institution fell under the authority of the NCHE.

“This is not the first time that the NCHE has blacklisted us. They also did this in 2018 and 2019. But we explained to them that we fall under TEVET. We are surprised that they have again decided to target us in the latest communication,” said the spokesperson.

“We have, once again, written to them to remind them that we do not need to register with them, but rather the TEVET,” the institution’s deputy manager Tiwonge Chipeta explained to University World News.

Quality concerns

However, William Mvalo, the executive director of the Universities and Colleges Association of Malawi (UCAM), said the NCHE Act 5 of 2011 is clear regarding the registration of institutions of higher learning and the consequences of operating without the NCHE’s registration.

“The NCHE Act 5 of 2011 specifies very clearly that all institutions that operate without due authority from the NCHE can be prosecuted. As an association for universities and colleges in Malawi, we work very closely with the NCHE to ensure that quality education is delivered in institutions of higher learning. We share information on which institutions are registered or accredited to ensure quality,” he told University World News.

“As an association, we only recognise those institutions that are recognised by the NCHE, either by registration or accreditation.”

For his part, education activist, Dr Steve Sharra, who is also Associate Professor at the NCHE-accredited Unicaf University, in the Malawi capital, Lilongwe, observed that the Attorney General’s action was long overdue, and would raise standards in a higher education sector struggling with high demand for enrolments, but few tertiary education places for students leaving high school.

“Our institutions of higher learning and their gatekeepers have, for a long time, held archaic views of human intelligence and capabilities, and have looked at individuals from a fixed mindset, as opposed to a growth mindset.

“That fixed mindset has prevented our institutions from growing exponentially to keep up with population growth rates and rising numbers of young people who need to be educated beyond secondary school,” he said.

While not identifying which of the blacklisted universities have been closed because of procedural issues rather than quality problems, he added: “That is what has created room for tricksters to come in and dupe thousands of desperate people.”

Sharra added that, following the closure of illegal universities, the government should ensure there is an increased access to legitimate quality higher education in Malawi, “otherwise, more and more people will continue falling victim to these criminal elements”.

Chikondi Chimala, a spokesperson for Malawi’s Ministry of Education, told University World News that the ministry is already implementing programmes aimed at ensuring more people have access to higher education.

He said one such project, called Skills for a Vibrant Economy Project (SAVE), with support from the World Bank, will ensure the ministry increases equitable access to market-relevant skills, especially for unemployed youths.

The project, launched in 2021 to run up to 2026 through a US$100 million grant from the International Development Association, will support increased access to higher education institutions through improved infrastructure, vocational education materials, lecturer training and student grants.