Steadying the edifice: Rebuilding Malawi’s education sector

The Education Sector Performance Review (ESPR), commonly referred to as the Joint Sector Review (JSR), is a grand, much-anticipated annual event in Malawi. It is where stakeholders in the education sector take stock of progress over the past year, and agree on priorities and targets for the next year, in the broader context of mid- and long-term policy goals.

The 2023 review, held recently in Lilongwe, included a keynote address by Esme Kadzamira, a senior research fellow at the University of Malawi Centre for Educational Research and Training. Kadzamira is Malawi’s foremost educational researcher.

Her keynote address was titled ‘Transforming Education: Investing in foundational learning and skills development for a wealthy, self-reliant and resilient nation’. It provided an overview of the education sector, from early childhood education to tertiary education.

Kadzamira argued about how poor learning outcomes at the foundational level are having serious repercussions across the education system, including for the tertiary education sector.

Some of the most important takeaways from this year’s JSR point to where the system is bleeding, but also offer fascinating prospects on what is being done to achieve transformation towards 2030 goals and beyond.

Schools as building blocks for tertiary education

Using rounded-up figures, the Annual School Census for 2023 shows that 1.3 million primary school learners are repeating a class in 2023. Given a current enrolment of 5.3 million primary school learners, the number of repeaters represents 26% of the student population.

The problem of repetition is less pronounced at the secondary school level. The 2023 Education Management Information System shows that there are currently 12,874 secondary school students repeating.

There are internal and external factors responsible for these problems. Many primary school classes, especially in the early grades, are larger than the average national teacher-pupil ratio of 1:62.

The ESPR also shows that there are serious textbook shortages in primary schools, with up to 11 learners sharing one textbook, for subjects including English, Chichewa and mathematics, in the middle classes.

When learners have no textbooks, very little learning happens, and intrinsic motivation dwindles. School infrastructure in the public system is dilapidated, with many dysfunctional toilets and classrooms that are not fit for purpose.

Externally, widespread economic hardship makes it difficult for households to support their children for education success. All these conditions collude to make schooling difficult and inefficient, with many learners failing to succeed, leading to repetitions and dropouts.

Secondary school is very selective

In her keynote address, Kadzamira pointed out that, given how selective the secondary school system is, its performance is “unsatisfactory”. In the 2023 Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination results, only 54% of the students passed.

Several factors make secondary education inefficient and, as the ESPR makes clear, funding is one of them. But of greater concern are shortages of qualified teachers in particular subjects.

The government aims to strengthen the teaching of technical and vocational subjects in secondary schools, as one means of developing human capital and driving the three Malawi 2063 pillars of agricultural production and commercialisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation.

A Skills Needs Assessment Report released in March 2023 by the Skills for a Vibrant Economy project found skills gaps in the key areas of the Malawi 2063 agenda, including agriculture, education, health, energy, industry and ICT.

It is imperative for teacher education institutions to introduce more technical, vocational and creative arts subjects, and to produce more qualified teachers in the sciences and in computer studies.

University education

In July 2023, the ministry of education released selection results for public universities. A total of 8,552 students were selected into the country’s six public universities. Out of these, 1,320 were from Community Daycare Secondary Schools, or CDSSs (schools in rural areas, often built by communities) representing 15.9%, as reported by Feston Malekezo of The Times.

Considering that CDSS students made up half of the candidates who wrote the MSCE, a lot of the public commentary that followed highlighted how the quality of education offered to the majority of students in the country was an issue to worry about.

The 8,552 students selected to public universities represented 5.5% of the total number of students who sat the MSCE in 2022, and 10% of those who passed.

Figures on first-year enrolment into private universities are not available, but the 2023 Education Sector Performance Review reports that there are currently 63,533 students studying in all of the country’s higher education institutions, public and private. (The 2023 Annual School Census reports a different figure of 74,200 undergraduates, and 6,794 postgraduate students, totalling 80,994 students.)

The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), which coordinates selection into public universities, reported receiving 19,760 applications. Out of these, 18,471 were deemed eligible for selection into university.

To be eligible, a student must have six credit passes, which should include English. Malawian universities are relatively small, which means that they are able to admit only the highest-scoring students, cutting off at around 22 MSCE points for most of them.

Programmes deemed more prestigious cut off at around 15 points. While NCHE’s eligibility criteria of six credit passes allows students with up to 36 points to be admitted into degree programmes, the cut-off points in the public universities mean that students scoring between 23 and 36 points do not even attempt to apply for selection. The number of students whose points lie between 23 and 36 is unknown.

Private universities face the opposite problem, as most of them are under-enrolled. Government subsidises fees in public universities, at about MWK4 million (about US$3,500) per student.

Private universities are not subsidised, which makes their fees higher than in public universities. The Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board disburses loans to eligible students in both public and private universities, but the amounts are capped, based on fees in public universities.

Thus, private universities are beyond the reach of many Malawians. Even with government loans, many students in both public and private universities still struggle, and some drop out altogether.

In July 2023, several public universities announced rises in tuition fees. In one university, fees went up from MWK350,000 (about US$569) to MWK650,000.

Since then, students have been protesting these fee increases. One public university was closed after protests turned violent. Given major financial problems in the universities in the face of dwindling government funding, the universities had very little choice but to raise the fees.

Rather than asking universities to bring the fees down, as the students are (understandably) suggesting, the government needs to increase funding to the universities, including increasing the allocation given to the loans board.

This is the only realistic course of action to ensure that students who need financial aid receive it, and that universities are able to raise the funds they need to operate.

The loans board supports students pursuing undergraduate degree programmes only, but not postgraduate students. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The 6,794 postgraduate students as reported in the 2023 Annual School Census shows that postgraduate education and research in Malawi is hugely underdeveloped.

In previous years, the National Commission for Science and Technology has supported a small number of postgraduate students, but the fact remains that most postgraduate students in the country are self-funded.

The road to 2030 and beyond

The Malawi government needs to continue prioritising education, and should ensure that the sector gets at least 20% of the national budget.

The country needs to look at the education sector in a holistic way. The economic hardships that many families are experiencing need to be addressed. That will ensure that households are able to support the schooling needs of their children, and that entire communities are able to support the education ecosystem.

The ministry of education is developing a national strategy for open distance and e-learning, which it hopes will revolutionise access to education at all levels. The strategy has the potential to provide secondary and tertiary education to a far bigger number of Malawians than the brick and mortar system can manage.

Enrolment targets for 2030, therefore, need to be revised to more ambitious numbers, especially at tertiary level. The Malawi Open University, first mooted in 2014, should be made an urgent priority. The long-term national vision, the Malawi 2063, aims for every Malawian to access education from early childhood and to complete secondary education.

The target for higher education is set at 85,000, but that is too low, considering the projected number of Malawians who will be of college age by 2030. The National Statistics Office projects that, by 2030, there will be 4.8 million Malawians in the age category of 15-24.

A target of 85,000 computes to 1.7%, lower than the current tertiary enrolment rate of 3%. Malawi aims to become a Lower Middle Income Country, or LMIC, by 2030, a category whose tertiary enrolment rate is 25%.

For Malawi to achieve that rate, it will need to have 1.2 million people in the 18-24 age cohort studying in higher education institutions. The 2018 Population and Housing Census revealed that 92.9% of adult Malawians do not have a secondary school education, and that 70.1% do not have any school qualification.

What this means is that the numbers of people craving for education broadly, and higher education, in particular, are much higher. The country needs to devise innovative ways of widening access to higher education of good quality.

Making higher education available to millions of Malawians will mean increasing the budget for the Loans Board so that it can fully support as many students needing financial aid as possible.

The private sector, which reaps massive profits from the public education system, needs to embrace a public mission and invest in human capital development at a magnitude much bigger than the current corporate social responsibility efforts.

We need to have a national discussion on shareholder responsibilities to public purpose around investing in the education system. The country needs to set new, more ambitious, targets for postgraduate education, especially doctoral and post-doctoral research.

Currently, there are no such targets at the national level. Specific emphasis needs to be put on funding postgraduate research in science, technology and innovation, which should include engineering, the arts and the humanities, and mathematics.

The advent of artificial intelligence has put the world on the cusp of rapid, unprecedented technological transformation, which can be harnessed for positive outcomes, or can be hijacked for nasty eventualities.

Forward movement

Given the country’s perennial social and economic challenges, there is an imperative to multiply the creative and innovative potential of young Malawians. The Malawi University of Science and Technology has established the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and STEAM, or CAIST, taking the lead on that front.

A new collaborative initiative between the Malawi government and development partners, called Building Education Foundations through Innovation and Technology, or BEFIT, promises unprecedented potential to utilise educational technology and increase efficiency in the education system.

The government’s goal is for every learner in standards 1 to 4 (the first four years of schooling) to have access to a tablet, and for all primary school teachers to be trained in how to use the technology, by 2029. In schools that have already started benefiting from the initiative, enrolment and retention are reported to have already improved.

The creative potential that can arise out of this combination can offer an education transformation of immense proportions. In 2022, the National Planning Commission published a book titled Malawi Priorities: A Benefit-Cost Analysis for Policy Prioritisation, in which technology-assisted learning was recommended to be among the important strategies to transform primary education in Malawi.

The current 10-year education plan, the National Education Sector Investment Plan 2020-30 needs to be seen as a dynamic, flexible policy recommendation that can be adjusted and improved along the way.

Completed in 2020, there have been major developments since then that need to become part of the education policy and implementation response.

Future Joint Sector Reviews need to widen stakeholder participation and should include the National Planning Commission and the National Commission for Science and Technology. The JSRs should also bring on board sectors that have a strong role in developing human capital.

Students need to be part of the JSR. Ministries responsible for health, finance and economic planning, agriculture, and local government need to be present at the JSR, so that they are part of the discussion to transform Malawi’s education system.

Dr Steve Sharra is an associate professor of education and dean of the school of education, social sciences and technology at Unicaf University in Malawi. This commentary is an edited and shortened version of a blog post titled ‘Steadying the edifice: Rebuilding Malawi’s education sector from foundational learning to higher education’.