Dr. Mathilda Chithila-Munthali is the outgoing chief executive officer for the National Council for Higher Education (Nche), an organisation that among other things looks at issues of college accreditations. There have been issues under contention during her reign. She speaks with our contributor WISDOM CHINGWEDE in this interview about her tenure and educational background.
First, take us through your childhood?
I was born before the advent of “Banja la Mtsogolo”, so I come from a large family of six children and I took the last slot. Growing up with my older siblings was a lot of fun because we shared chores equally. My family moved places quite a lot with my father being transferred through various district hospitals. I was born in Nkhota-kota.
I loved sports. I attended a number of schools, including Mdyaka Primary School, Catholic Institute Primary School, and Gambula Primary School in Muloza. At Gambula Primary school, I was the only child in my year to be selected to secondary school.
Are you married?
I am married to a wonderful soul, my dear long suffering husband Charles Chithila. We met while we were both students in the UK. He is one of the old guards who went to study medicine in the UK before our own medical school started here. He is a private man.
Would you please walk us through your academic journey
I was selected to university from Malosa Secondary School. While at Malosa, I developed further my sports habits, including going on excursion walks to Chingwe hole on Zomba Plateau and walking to Zomba Mountain. It was great fun. This was followed by my studies at Bunda College, Bath University and finally at Birmingham University. Thereafter, it was a matter of taking postgraduate studies to consolidate my all-round aptitude to pursue and perform in the professional path I chose. I believe one should not stop learning, if not for a qualification then to satisfy one’s curiosity. In school, I was good in science subjects, but I was equally passionate about non-science subjects, although I failed to embrace History and French.
How do you juggle family and professional life?
I am a master at multitasking. Anything less I find too pedantic and boring. I am able to achieve the goals I set for myself within a short period of time through multitasking. I believe this is possible for everyone to do with a few ingredients in place; planning, reviewing, adjusting and continuous learning. A day begins with a list for me, thanks to modern day IPad. In the old days, it was countless small pieces of papers. Throughout the day, the list is my companion, checking progress, adjusting, crossing out those that have been done and transferring the remaining items to the following day and so on.
What was your first assignment when you returned from overseas?
Upon my return in 2010, my first appointment was as a programme manager for an initiative on capacity building in health research hosted at the National Commission for Science and Technology. Apart from supporting the development of the national health research agenda (NHRA) designed to set priorities in health research, the programme was also awarding grants through request for applications and managing a technical committee through the process of awarding competitive grants. I see a lot of grantees that benefited from this programme and are doing well in their respective jobs. That is pleasing to see.
How did you find yourself as Nche’s chief executive officer?
I applied after the job was advertised in the local press and got it through competition. I had a lot of prior preparations for such an office. Starting my life as what I call a bench scientist. For most bench scientists, issues of coordination, administration, financial management or reporting in general are not among their repertoire of skills. I sought proper training in these areas to add to my teaching and scientific work. Therefore, experience and knowledge of management and administration in scientific research and in the high education subsector made me stand out in this competition. Often, organisations go by who you know in appointment. Merit is the only proven way to achieve good selection.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
Some stakeholders are reluctant to embrace the mandate of Nche, but they are on borrowed time and the curtains will soon come down on them. Some may well pay heavily for dithering and dragging their feet, the law is supreme.
Challenges were many; among others, lack of a unified higher education Act in the higher education sector was one. As a result, some of the efforts to exercise Nche mandate met with resistance with each of the public universities having its own statutes. That took some navigation to be had.
Additionally, lack of capacity in our higher education institutions (HEIs) poses a big challenge, mainly because there is limited physical capacity in the existing HEIs, inadequate qualified staff and other support services to make possible increased intake. This lack of capacity drives the existence of low grade HEIs and Nche spending much effort and funds tracking them.
Further, historic shortfalls have impacted on the integrity of our work. Previously, there were some HEIs which rolled out academic programmes without consent of the then regulatory functions such as the Credentials and Evaluation Committee (CEC). As such there are many graduates on the labour market that either attained poor quality degrees or the quality of their degrees cannot be ascertained.
To many, Nche is about closing down institutions. What is your take?
Nche is a regulator that ensures HEIs meet the minimum standards and are fit to provide services suitable for higher education learning. It ensures HEIs have the appropriate infrastructure, employ qualified personnel and use the correct curricula for each level of academic qualification; and that associated assessments are appropriate. Anything less is not acceptable and it is not in the interest of Malawians and the country.
How should people look at Nche in its quest for quality in HEIs?
People should view Nche as an organ facilitating for the greater good for the higher education sub-sector. The facilitation is through a peer review process, using best and proven practices. This will ensure that HEIs in Malawi are competitive on the global labour market because their qualifications are worthy far more than the paper they are printed on.
How do you want to be remembered?
Nche started as a new institution three years ago and within this short period, it is on the map in the country. The seeds that set the tone and direction of the organisation have already started to see benefits with the first announcements of accredited institutions in the country. It has also set itself up on a footing to be adequately self sufficient with the procurement of the Nche House as a permanent home; a lasting legacy for sure. This puts Nche on the path to being a functioning and vibrant organisation.