Unima wants varsity ombudsman

The central office of the University of Malawi (Unima) has proposed to Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to help it with the establishment of a higher education ombudsman for speedy resolution of disputes, Nation on Sunday has learnt.

The proposal was made after observing that university dispute stake long in conventional courts, and in the process disrupt academic calendars in situations where a college is shut down over a dispute.

Chancellor College staff in a gesture of unity in one of the previous strikes

Unima registrar Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga, in a response to a questionnaire, confirmed that the central office asked Ministry of Justice to help because academic calendars do not wait for anyone when there is a dispute.

“Indeed, Unima proposed that Malawi should have a higher education ombudsman to expedite the hearing of university cases which normally require speedy action which at the moment is lacking,” said Malunga.

According to Internet research, internal university ombudsmen typically spend a quarter to a third of their time as internal management consultants, trainers, and change agents.

Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (Ccasu), which recently staged a strike that lasted seven months, supported the proposal in an interview on Wednesday.

Ccasu president Anthony Gunde, in a response to a questionnaire, said the idea is positive in that it may help in resolving industrial disputes faster than through the conventional court route.

But the president said while the idea was good, it may take time to be implemented, and Unima should this time around utilise available avenues, “where in modern governance, unions, management and employers are expected to be social partners for the smooth and effective service delivery”.

“This is not the case with Unima. Academic unions and welfare committees have not been given space in the Unima governing structures and this is not in line with modern governance structures the world-over.

“You may note that students are officially represented in the council through Umsu [University of Malawi Students Union], and there is also a member from the alumni but there is no provision for the council representation from the academic unions or welfare committees,” said Gunde.

He said when one gets to any management position like dean, head or principal; it does not stop them from being union members, adding this is the only situation some union or welfare committee members have found themselves in council meetings.

“There is even a court ruling to that effect from 2011, where it was ruled that any employee regardless of position is free to be a union member,” said Gunde.

He was reacting to a statement made to Nation on Sunday by one of the members in the dissolved council that governance of Unima was problematic because union or welfare committee members found themselves in management and council and when a decision is being made, it leaks to the unions or welfare committees.

“I find that assertion regarding leakage [of information] to be archaic and belonging to the Jurassic world. You, as journalists, are aware that leaked information flows to you from even those within the inner-circle of a governing structure.

“As long as there has been inter-personal communication even in the most cocooned structures, human beings will leak sensitive information to the public sphere,” the Ccasu president said.

The University of Malawi, he said, has not regularised the involvement of unions in the governance structures.

Gunde said unions are expected to be key stakeholders on issues related to the running of the university and staff welfare, such as salary increments, perks and allowances.

He said failure to adhere to this is the genesis of the problems that have rocked Unima for years. Education expert Steve Sharra, in a response to a questionnaire, described as ‘brilliant’ the idea of the establishment of higher education ombudsman, adding: “In fact, there is need for two offices of an ombudsman, one for staff issues, and the other for student issues.”

Alternatively, he said authorities may create one office but with two departments to cater for staff and students’ issues.

“My broader opinion is that the major issue with councils of public universities is how they are appointed. By being appointed by the President, who is also Chancellor, they are political appointees.

“That already determines whose line they will toe. They have a silent understanding as to whose interests to serve, in my view. That is what will always compromise decisionmaking on major issues in our public universities,” Sharra said.

On members of unions or welfare committees taking seats in council, Sharra said that may pose conflict of interest when it comes to whose side to represent in negotiations, especially where there is a disagreement.

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