Malawi, in a quest to bridge the poles-part world of rural and urban learners is signatory to a number of international policy frameworks.
Two of such are Education for All goals (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000.
The two frameworks, in their varying yet collective wisdom, puts pressure on signatory countries such as Malawi to ensure equity and address disparities or inequalities in the education system by 2015.
On the policy level, as expected, there has been great and adorable response. The National Education sector Plan (2008-2017), for example, has objectives aimed at addressing inequalities at all levels of education.
To put the wheels of the plan into action, Malawians have, over the years, seen a number of interventions in the education sector. We have seen the scraping off of tuition fees in primary schools.
We have seen girls being re-admitted into secondary schools after being dropped off due to unplanned pregnancies. We have seen teachers being trained in special needs education. We have seen benchmarking in education financing. We have seen the reintroduction of the quota system. And the list is endless.
However, according to acting regional coordinator who is also policy and advocacy manager for Africa Network Campaign on Education for All (Ancefa) Limbani Nsapato, not much has been achieved, especially in post primary levels of education.
“Some groups are underrepresented in such subsectors as secondary education, technical vocational education, and university education. In most cases, girls and children with disabilities and also children from rural and poor households or schools miss out,” he said.
In fact, 2015 and 2017, the years of benchmarks, are only a stone’s away, yet researchers Stella Kaabwe and Lillian Kamtengeni tells us today that 91 percent of students in Malawian universities come from wealthy families, while less than one percent (0.7 percent) come from poor families.
This, unarguably, is a story of a great disconnection between policy and implementation.
“We have very good policies on paper yet there is just too little being implemented,” says Benedicto Kondowe, executive director of Civil Society Coalition for Quality Education
But what brings the disconnection?
Educationist Dr Steve Sharra sees the disconnection from the lens of the country’s policies which have always promoted elitist structures at the expense of disadvantaged people, even when reforms are attempted.
“When we had tuition fees in primary school, the enrolment was so low, as a result, many Malawians failed to attend. When we introduced free primary education, we failed to recruit enough teachers and to provide adequate educational resources we ended up with a system whose standards worsened than before,” he says.
Sharra adds: “We have always had tuition fees for secondary school, with the consequence that more than 72 percent of Malawians have never attained a secondary school education, according to the National Statistics Office’s Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010. According to that survey, only 18 percent of Malawian men and 11 percent of Malawian women have attained a full secondary school education.”
Sharra, unwaveringly, advances that government policies and their emphasis on elitist entitlements have made inequality even worse.
“This year’s university students’ strikes for an increase in allowances have uncovered the revelation that Malawi is the only country in the world where government-sponsored students in public universities are paid an upkeep allowance.
“Our expenditure per student in higher education is seven times that of the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) average. Meanwhile, we have more than 70 percent of the population who have never had the chance of attaining a secondary school education that could have significantly increased their earning potential, thereby reducing the inequality we are lamenting,” Sharra says.
Nsapato, however, sees the disconnection, generally, as a product of lack of political will from those in decision making.
“We have, over the years, experienced poor financing of the education system which, in the process, has undermined affirmative action policies. For instance, Malawi still fails to allocate at least 20 percent of the total national budget or six percent of GDP [gross domestic product] to education; and post primary education levels are not well funded; while programmes for girls and children with disabilities continue to suffer underfunding,” he says.
Nsapato further notes that there has been disheartening poor targeting and inequitable distribution of resources to schools across the country.
“For instance, studies show that Northern Division and Central Division schools are better financed while the other four education divisions—Shire Highlands, South East, South West are poorly financed. Towns have more teachers than rural districts where there are more children who need quality teachers.
“This inequitable distributing of resources has led to difference in unit cost per student to be in favour of the school, districts or regions that are getter resourced. This could be heightened by lack of proper planning or use of education statistics in financing, as well as favouritism by those in control of resource distribution,” he explains.
Building from Nsapato’s lack of political will argument; Kondowe argues that the disconnection is more a product of the country’s dysfunctional politics.
“Malawi has very good policies on papers yet there is just too little being implemented. Politics take centre stage in education where good policies are at times abandoned for the sake of ones that may sound politically correct yet not helping much in advancing deeper challenges in education. Sometimes good policies are not even known by stakeholders thereby rendering them ineffective,” he says.