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The Mortarboard is A Costly Affair, Not the Product of Sheer Altruism

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

A college graduate from Malawi leaves the halls of academic excellence with the excessive pride of having passed examinations, and rarely with the fulfillment of having earned an education. It is so normalized that many graduating students today will seldom realize their learned minds leave a lot to be desired.

If they went through the public system, they were likely to have undergone a dwindling primary education curriculum, onto a secondary school with limited supplies across all imaginable spectrums, and finally to a University college that is growing more ignorant of the desperate dearth of its freshmen’s college preparation by the country's secondary schools. The fortunate who have gone through private schools are more likely to have been prepared by schools more inclined to profit-making than quality, and those that will have escaped the watchful eye of a Ministry of Education that validates its ineptitude at living up to the regulatory task.

In 2009, the World Bank and UNICEF co-authored their admission of the careless nature of restructuring the education sectors in many developing countries, which they supported through the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the eighties and early nineties. The publication, titled Abolishing School Fees in Africa: Lessons from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique, is quite telling. The effects of the SAPs continue to be felt today as our academic systems at all three levels continue to freefall to a looming crash. The resulting incomparability of the child coming out of a curriculum in a developed country school and the Malawian child whose country was pressured into adjustment is a staggering outcome of why it is sometimes critical to say ‘no.’

We still reminisce a time in our distant memory when the Government of Malawi afforded to supply all children in primary, secondary and tertiary education with amenities that were adequate for a proper and decent education. No primary school teacher just carried a JCE Certificate, and no professor had not delivered an inaugural lecture. Many of us had no idea what an honorary PhD was - it is a surprise that, Mr. John Z.U. Tembo, a champion of this very era, allowed to be decorated with one. But, with Standard 4 education, most of us could effortlessly read the abridged version of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. To promote inclusiveness, the public budget supported secondary and tertiary education students with subsidies that allowed them to travel on public transportation for a fraction, if not free of charge, to and from boarding school and university, respectively. At all higher levels of education, year after year, merit was a firm rule.

The SAPs brought with them many things. Universal free primary education that immediately shot up the demand for teachers meant Mr. Bakili Muluzi a lot of cutting corners to do, including to lower standards for qualifying teachers, if he was to continue receiving handouts from the West, which self-earned him the chief beggar title he was not supposed to be so proud of as he went to bed at night. For those that had the fortune to continue to secondary school, the pressure ushered in teachers less qualified to do the job, reducing the standard from university-trained instructors to diplomates and anyone who could flash an MSCE Certificate in front of the Ministry of Education office. The icing on the top was the ushering in of the for-profit private education sector, which not only drove the exodus of trained teachers out of state-funded schools in pursuit of better pay, but also introduced incentives for public sector manipulation by private education entities.

In later years, these effects have been perfected in the proliferation of private universities and colleges offering even higher measures of sensation than enlightenment. Malawians can now earn Master's and Doctorate Degrees with limited foundational preparation, and some of those who have gone ego-shopping at these institutions have frequently found themselves crippled to parade their contributions to the body of knowledge in the wider public space. The politicians whose tutelage has once been put under the public microscope have grasped the saving grace of the growing abundance of unmerited education alongside other blind-folded aspirants. No wonder the political space is filled with gibberish, and our institutions are growing weaker by the day. The senior educated population is justified when it worries about the ‘youth of tomorrow’, particularly if the faculties of this offspring taste of local education. It is unsurprising that our ‘educated’ youth continue to nurture the gut that perpetuates ethnic divides as a good use of one's time, are contented with so little, and associate vaguely with quality.

The losses in the value of our education raise a few questions about Malawi’s future as a country. It is lucid that the altruistic nature of the current education system challenges the very notion of education-for-all that it was meant to achieve. And it should be consoling to Malawians that the highest public office is filled by a weathered academician who should be able to see the education iceberg in the distance. He should obviously be aware that the dynamics in the sector, since the SAPs came into effect, too many to mention, have made access to education an impossible and exclusive endeavor in the presence of the universality being preached.

However, all is not lost to regain our pride of the seventies and eighties for having one of the most enviable education systems in Africa, and a cozy spot world rankings. But it calls for drastic policy measures to be made.

Our Suggested Four Steps to Glory

If our education is going to be meaningful, accessible and equitable, we will have to swallow the bitter pill of going back to the basics. We offer not the only solution, but we offer a sensible solution nevertheless. The first of this process would ideally be the gradual riddance of the failed private school system, perhaps with the exception of a selection of international schools. The moment all children – rich and poor – are to share the same classrooms, Malawians will be able to demand improved standards of teaching while those without a voice will freeride on the benefits. We are persuaded to believe this type of freeriding is a good thing. The public sector will be obliged, once again, to seek to remunerate well the teachers who will be in the business of imparting education as a way of life, the way it should be. Education facilities will once again be in the purview of government as a priority to pay attention to, as policy makers will want their children to be articulate English speakers the same way Karibu Academy would have taught them to. The good old days will be back, and all categorical teachers will be back in school first if they will stay on the payroll.

The second is, although we strongly believe education is the duty of the government, a sensible level of cost-sharing should be instituted, without using politics' massaging tricks of branding such strategy a counter to pro-poor growth. Even a symbolic level of fees will go a long way in pushing government to provide better standards, but will also keep parents on their toes by engaging in innovative ways to support their children with attaining an education. There is never a better time to do this than now, while much of the external influence on national planning is self-curtailed by the budget support freeze.

The third is that the quality of facilities should be made uniform for both urban and rural areas, only with a better mix of work incentives for teachers in rural areas to keep them glued to their calling. While it is costlier to do this, it will allow (mostly poor) rural people to engage again in livelihoods activities that will see the development of rural areas. It will help contain the misguided outflux of rural populations into urban areas. It will also enable rural areas to, again, effortlessly send their children to good secondary schools and earn them a shot at receiving a university education. We reckon the impact that other efforts such as food security and healthcare will have on making this a success.

The final, although not least, change is the opening of our education to the larger world. The same international reputation our universities had in the glory years brought to Malawi some international students whose countries realized the worth of the university certificate from Malawi. A country whose foreign exchange kitty is as empty as its people's stomachs needs to think outside the box and realize that, when commodity trade is more complicated an affair than imagined, we can also export services in producing marketable excellence in education at home. With good capacity, our universities need to very well aspire to finance themselves through international admissions while according the local student an affordable fee. Of course, we do not want this to be coupled with electricity load-shedding half the time, as it could send those forex-endowed visitors packing. So, changes in basic services need to tilt in a positive direction.

While University education is not a given for all of us, well-trained secondary school graduates should be empowered to learn vocational skills that will support livelihoods in many important ways.

Our future generations will be speaking, counting and writing better while at it, and more importantly will be able to crunch complexities of the world awaiting in our future with a little more ease than we currently see.

The country’s education apparatus will have regained its spot at the global platform.


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