By Dr. Daniel Dube
After the euphoria and the excitement of the selection of the University entrance lottery to the Malawi University system, I feel safe to inject my thoughts into the debate on Malawi Education. It is a long article but mostly meant for people who have a serious vision for our country and are willing to take strong critical overview in order to move our country forward.
It has been my observation that as a country we have developed two powerful defense systems that protect our dysfunctionality and weaknesses. On one front, we adeptly use politics or personalize complex national problems. The net effect is to stifle debate and relieve ourselves from the stress of having to think about broader issues affecting our community. This is the cement of our underdevelopment. It is also a root of our economic stagnation.
There is a myth that in the mid 1980s Dr. David Kimble, the last European Vice Chancellor of the University was a participant in a meeting where the subject was the introduction of fees in the University of Malawi. It has been said Dr. Kimble cried during the meeting. He was the most vociferous opponent of the idea. The arguments were simple. In 1970s and 1980s almost 90% or more of the university participants at UNIMA could not afford university tuition fees, maintenance fees and other pertinent expenses. It also did not take a genius to argue that the snail pace of our economic growth would take a couple of centuries for 85% of the nation who depend on rain and tilling the land using hoes to advance their net income to the requisite amount necessary to pay the fees of their children. History has born witness to the wisdom in the protests of the white man in defense of the poor Malawian. Education problems in Malawi are not about the bright poor students being held back by less bright poor people propelled by affirmative action. The poor student with or without affirmative action has less chance of making it in the Universities of Malawi!
Then there was quota system. The absurdity of the defense of the abolition of quota is in itself a failure of our lack of diverse critical think tanks to explore issues beyond the concrete. The abolition of the quota system had more to do with politics than national imperatives. Arguments against the quota system are cheap and appeal to simple logic. In Malawi, more than 50% of the female students fail the MSCE exams. This aspect of our education system never received political attention during the quota debate. Powerful women towed the convenient male Darwinist Idea at the expense of themselves. Young Malawian girls start tending to their families while very young and have huge social pressures that prevent success in our secondary schools. A serious national policy can not argue for getting the best of these girls as a model of education advancement. A meaningful education vision would have a comprehensive redress of the social issues affecting all girls from the North to the South. That would be a drive towards equity in education in Malawi. The arguments completely ignored the disabled.
It is difficult to believe that the entire body politic, education literati in Malawi do not know that the environment influences education. My former school , Bwaila boasts a national football coach, national football players, a Bishop, innumerable businessmen, teachers and at one time boasted the highest number of doctors, engineers, architects. In my time we boasted the best Drama club. Why? It is because we were in Lilongwe! We had the nations best public libraries and the best teachers and social exposure. It baffles me that it is acceptable that children from Nsanje can compete with children from Lilongwe. How is that equity in education?
Today, a child at Phoenix will go through pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and then start grade 1 taught by white people and middle class Malawians and will be speaking and thinking in English by the time they are in Grade 1! Then the finest of Malawian thinkers are telling me that that child who is using the finest resources comparable to the first world should rise up 10 years from now and compete with a child from Ntchisi or Matchinga who can not spell a single English word for a university place in UNIMA. Even if we exclude the top private schools, we now have an education Caste system. The quality of each private school and its success in the national High school examination is linked with the ability to pay. That is a reverse quota system.
An economic analysis of Malawian poverty ranks (1) lack of skilled work force, (2) corruption (3) inconsistent policies as highest among many factors that are considered barriers to development in our country. We as a people are failing to think as a unit. More importantly, our planners can not link the disparate disciplines to achieve the national economic goals. Take healthcare, we had poorly conceived vision to produce 1000 doctors a year, that would have to be matched with 10,000 nurses a year and probably 20,000 ancillary healthcare workers a year. That is healthcare alone! Lets do the same mathematics for Agriculture, How many Agriculturalists, technicians and specialists in farming, veterinarians do we need to activate the Green Belt. These are just two examples. We have not discussed a milliard of disciplines such as ICT or even education itself. It is this lack of oversight of longitudinal planning that is making us celebrate our success for the abolition of “quota ” as a national triumph. This is not moving a needle in our development journey.
Our economic models and visions of development need to be rethought. The infrastructure of Chancellor College is clocking 50 years. It is structurally unsound! This is the same as Dr. Bandas polytechnic. We need more than name change to improve our education system. Borrow money from Malawi society and bring to Chancellor College 30,000 students. That should be associated with liberal lending and supervised development for accommodation mortgage instruments for the people of Zomba so that they can build student accommodation.
If I can reminisce of the Chancellor College that I graced. We ate four deep fried Chambos every week. 4 meat stews a week, and delicacies of roasted potatoes and eggs. Bring me 30, 000 students and that will translate into tens of millions of dollars in the local economy to service the education complex. If the visions are big enough, we need several universities, serious community colleges and technical schools in Malawi. Our visions are too small to lift us out of our poverty.
My cynical assessment is that our overall planning of our education has no room for the poor. What we have is adequate for the civil service jobs and the tightly managed economy for the few. Creating the illusion that the poor have a chance in the current education system will win votes but will not lift all of us as a people.
Is it possible to rethink a Malawian education system that includes the poor?