HE demand mounts, but new university build languishes

The Commonwealth Students’ Association (CSA) country representative for Malawi has bemoaned the delays in completion of the new Mombera University, the construction of which is the focus of an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) investigation into misappropriation of funds lodged in December 2020.

The ACB in Malawi is investigating misappropriation of money meant for the building of Mombera University in the country’s northern region, according to local news reports.

Former Malawian president Peter Mutharika laid a foundation stone at the start of construction of the university in 2015 but, up to now, not much progress has been made. According to local media, the future university’s most visible structures comprise a tarred road, an incomplete entrance and some walls stretching out for a few metres.

A National Audit Office report for the year ending 2020 reportedly showed that the Ministry of Education failed to account for MWK1.2 billion (roughly US$1 million) Mombera University funds. The funds allegedly went missing during the tenure of Malawi’s previous government.

Low enrolments

Speaking to University World News, CSA country representative for Malawi, Japhet Nthala, said the delay to the construction of the university was stalling the improvement of university enrolment in the country.

Malawi is one of the countries with the lowest university enrolment in Southern Africa, according to a 2021 academic article titled ‘Crisis for Higher Education Enrolment in Malawi’ by Albert Kayange.

“Malawi is currently facing a crisis of higher education enrolment,” reads part of the article. “Malawi’s tertiary gross enrolment rate is 0.4% as compared to 8.2% of Sub-Saharan countries’ average enrolment.”

In the article, Kayange notes that Malawi is not able to enrol all deserving individuals in its universities. He quotes a Commonwealth of Learning report on the matter.

Speaking to University World News, Nthala echoed Kayange’s sentiments and blamed poor university enrolment in Malawi on failure to follow through with public university projects by the government, and corruption.

“When there was the mention of Mombera University,” said Nthala, “we were hopeful that public universities would begin to increase their intake. But we have lost out in this case because there are students who would have found spaces in college had Mombera University been completed.”

Nthala said good academic performers from all across the country were failing to find places in universities because public colleges in Malawi were simply not enough. Said Nthala: “We have students with good points, good grades but they are failing to get into university, not because they are not qualifying, but because there are no spaces to accommodate everybody that performs well.”

Nthala said the enrolment situation would improve drastically if another public higher learning institution like Mombera University were to be built in the country.

Malawi has a total of six public universities, according to the website of Malawi’s Ministry of Education. Of those six, however, only one, Mzuzu University, is located in the northern region, according to Nthala.

Neglect of the north

He said this is a big problem because the majority of Malawi’s top academic performers come from the north and ought to have more public university options within the region.

“Most public universities are in the central and south [regions],” said Nthala. “As things stand right now, a lot of people that make it into public colleges are people from the north. Having a university in the north would be good because it would cost students from the north less in comparison to attending university in some other region.”

Nthala said having a university in the north would encourage more people in that region to get a university education. “Having Mombera University in the north would motivate secondary students in the area to get a college education.”

But some see the stall in the building of Mombera University as part of a broader national sidelining of the northern region. Earlier this year, former Malawian vice-president Khumbo Kachali included the matter of the delayed building of Mombera University and neglect of the north in an article in local media.

A fully functional Mombera University would drive national economic development, Nthala told University World News. “Education is an important aspect of development,” he said. “I don’t know of a nation that developed without quality education.”

Nthala said Mombera University would aid the country’s push for a more qualified workforce. “Once Mombera University is fully operational, the country will have more people that are able to meet industrial demands and drive the economy in different sectors … There will be more qualified human resources to run the affairs of the country and foster development.

“The rather unfortunate part is that Mombera University is a project that politicians have been using to give people hope but without anything actually materialising so, at the end of the day, people get frustrated,” he said.

Development hub

In addition to bringing more opportunities for higher education to citizens in the north, Mombera University should bring other forms of development in a region widely believed to be negatively affected by years of central government neglect.

“When there is a new university, a lot of changes take place in surrounding areas,” said Nthala. “Mombera University will develop the area in which it will be situated. There will be more businesses, private hostels and malls around the university, among other things. The road network is definitely going to improve.”

Nthala said people surrounding the university will have their livelihood improved because they will have opportunities to do business.

After his election to office over three years ago, current Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera vowed to complete Mombera University, a project started by the previous administration]of Mutharika. Chakwera said he would rename the university Inkosi M’mbelwa University.

Nthala welcomed the commitment by Chakwera’s administration to continue building Mombera University.

“I believe the current government will turn into reality the rhetorical talks that have been going around the country in relation to Mombera University,” said Nthala. “I am sure the government has sourced enough funds …”

In 2022, Inkosi M’mbelwa, a chief in the northern region, reminded the president of his promise to build the university. He is quoted in a media report saying: “up to this day, there is no university. There is no activity at the project site”. The chief advised Chakwera to give an ultimatum to officials in his government to push them to deliver promised projects.