Malawi’s critical tertiary education will be crippled continually—and irreparably, eventually—if students do not embrace non-violent ways of protesting and if administrators do not move away from executive arrogance.
Two prominent education experts say these are the tough lessons to be learnt by both students and the education administrators, who need to adopt smarter strategies, if Malawians are to see less—or no other university shutdowns triggered by student violence.
Their comments come just before the Polytechnic, a Blantyre-based constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), is set to re-open tomorrow, nearly two months after government closed it “indefinitely”.
The college closure came after some students ran amok on campus and on the Chipembere Highway on August 12, over late payment of their allowances and over a new form of deductions introduced by the college on the allowances.
Some protesting students engaged riot police in running battles, with the violence later spilling over to the highway. Windscreens of several cars got bashed and the busy highway was temporarily closed at the peak of the turmoil, soon after which government ordered the college’s closure.
In a media release recently, announcing the college’s re-opening, Unima said the students need to pay fees on time and sign an undertaking expressing their willingness to resume studies and abide by the Unima rules and regulations.
“Any student who shall not sign the form shall be deemed to have declined to take his/her place of study in the University of Malawi; consequently, his/her place shall be forfeited as per University of Malawi regulations,” it stated.
Apart from stressing the need for the payment of fees on time and announcing that the (October) monthly stipend for government-sponsored students would be paid only to registered students, the release also said all continuing government-sponsored students are required to pay K1 500 as the cost of damages for property that was destroyed and related expenses during the August 12 violence.
Both Steve Sharra, a renowned Malawian educationist lecturing at the University of Botswana, and Civil Society Education Coalition executive director Benedicto Kondowe have stressed the need for the nation to reflect on the lessons to be learnt from the closure of the college due to retrogressive and regrettable actions among both the students and the education administrators.
“It is high time Malawian students nationwide were taught non-violent ways of protesting and bringing attention to issues of injustice and unfairness by educational administrators. And we have many such cases of injustices and unfairness, which mostly result from archaic ways of managing institutions,” Sharra said.
He said it was imperative for leaders to use and adopt modern leadership that is both shared and distributed.
“We have good examples right here in Malawi, where institutions of higher learning are already using this shared model of leadership, making students an integral part of how the institution is managed. Shared leadership minimises such instances of indiscipline and it is also a model for students on how to become good managers and leaders when they graduate and assume such roles in the future,” he said.
Sharra lamented the then indefinite closure of the Polytechnic.
“The closing of the Polytechnic has made an already misaligned academic calendar even more unmanageable. And the decision adversely affects non-residential students who were not affected by the allowances, and who had to look for their own accommodation, coming from distant places from across the country. This is unfair and unjust to them,” he said.
He noted that the larger allowances’ problem stemmed from the expectation students have that government will pay them for going to university.
“Ideally, it would be great if our economy was sound enough to afford everyone—from primary to tertiary level—free education. Unfortunately, we are not a wealthy country that can afford that.
“So, as of now, we should expect those who can afford to pay for tertiary education to do so. For those who cannot, let us support them with loans and grants. It is pleasing to note that we are heading in that direction already.”
On his part, Kondowe also blamed both the management and the students for the Polytechnic’s closure.
He said had management communicated in a timely and effective manner to the students on changes and delays over the allowance issue, the concerned students could have negotiated with their landlords for late payment for their accommodation and they could have made other plans for securing their food.
Said Kondowe: “Unfortunately, management did not see the necessity for this, culminating into discontent among the students and resulting in the violent protests.
“The students squarely and largely contributed to it by ignoring the essence of contact and dialogue. Having violent protests within a week of their opening shows immaturity and a lack of seriousness on their part, much as they had pressing issues to sort out, such as accommodation and food.”
Kondowe expressed belief that the Polytechnic chaos may be a reflection of the students’ own unruly family set-ups these days in the unpredictable communities. Peer pressure, misconceptions on human rights and a lack of seriousness concerning education, he noted, are some factors which are eroding responsibility and common nation-building purposes.
“Education and morality are inseparable for the future leaders because education, combined with good morals, makes one a better person. Putting it right requires a comprehensive review of the triggers, underpinning assumptions, and the power play of influence. This would help to shape interventions that address the causes rather than the symptoms,” Kondowe said.
Meanwhile, some Polytechnic students, who have sought anonymity for fear of reprisals, spoke out a month ago, saying they felt betrayed by both their union and government, over incidents that led to the college’s closure.
They accused the PSU [Polytechnic Students Union] of acting hypocritically over the highway protests. And they blamed government being insensitive to the students’ woes by delaying the college’s re-opening.
The sentiments and stinging accusations were expressed in an open letter written by a group of ‘Concerned Students’ and addressed to the PSU, government—through the University of Malawi Council and the Polytechnic Management—and members of the public.
On the PSU, the concerned students said in their letter that their leaders’ conduct appeared calculated when they called for a meeting to brief them on management’s decision to deduct K13 500 from any student who delayed in paying school fees.
“PSU encouraged and provoked students to take the issue to the streets. They did not, at any point, try to calm them down or give them other solutions. They put up a united front, siding with students who took the issue to the highway,” the students charged.
They accused their leaders of hypocrisy by reportedly telling some university officials that students do not listen to the PSU leadership. They also wondered why, in a subsequent apology to government and the public, the PSU leaders disassociated themselves from the street protest.
Branding the PSU action as confusing and begging more questions than answers, the letter writers queried: “Did someone put them up to it? Why did they deny their involvement in this issue? They were the same people who called the students who were discouraging demonstrations selfish, saying they (the leaders) were standing for the needy.”
The letter questioned: “Why are we, all of a sudden, hearing that students do not listen to them? Are we dealing with bipolar personalities here? They are supposed to represent the majority of students, but instead they went ahead and encouraged an activity that—we all know fully well—leads to the closure of the school and this has left us feeling like it was a set-up and that someone put these students up to it, so that the school closes on grounds that we are a danger to society.”
Turning to the University Council and the Polytechnic management, the students faulted the two authorities for not communicating effectively, particularly by waiting until the new and senior Polytechnic students had been in campus (separately on August 2 and August 9) during the disrupted semester before they announced changes to the payment of fees and allowances.
The changes included the students being subjected to a delay of up to four days before they could access their upkeep allowances, key for securing their food and renting apartments, as the university accepts all students on non-residential basis.
The letter also expressed the students’ frustration on how the issue of education at the Polytechnic seems to be handled casually. They note, regretfully, that in every other Unima constituent college, there is a two-month, end of the year holiday that, however, somehow tends to stretch to three months in the case of the Polytechnic alone.
“Are we wrong in thinking that these demonstrations were staged and that there was someone behind them, looking for a reason for the Polytechnic to remain closed?” they asked.
They pointed out that self-sponsored students get no allowances and yet they sacrifice much to get education, partly by paying K250 000 tuition fees and meet costs of accommodation, upkeep and stationery by themselves.
“A great number of government-sponsored students also paid their fees on time, found accommodation and travelled from all parts of the country,” the students further said, pointing out that money paid for rent is not refundable and does not depend on whether the payee actually lives in the apartment during the material period.
“Is the administration aware that only a small proportion of the students went to the streets? (It was) less than a quarter of the Polytechnic students, at that. Is this how you execute justice?” the students lamented.
They pointed out that a similar lingering problem has forced the Polytechnic to host two simultaneous cohorts for the past two academic years, in an attempt to catch up with the academic calendars of the other constituent colleges.
However, PSU chairperson Juston Bulaula discounted the Polytechnic students’ accusations that his leadership has acted hypocritically before and after the highway rioting.
“It is unfortunate if some colleagues allege that we (the PSU leaders) instigated the rioting. The truth is that we did not. We merely facilitated discussions over the allowances issue. In fact, the initial rioting started while the PSU council was still meeting, before a decision had been made on the way forward,” he said.
Bulaula welcomed the impending re-opening of the college, conceding the need for both the students and the administrators to bury the hatchet and seek more sustainable and smarter ways of solving any grievances among them.
He acknowledged that the Polytechnic academic calendar demands that the students and the administrators jointly effect much catching-up, including by shortening their holidays in future.
Stressed Bulaula: “During the college’s closure, the PSU leadership held critical discussions with key stakeholders because, this time around, we want to do things differently and maturely, including concentrating on our studies and promoting discipline. We shouldn’t be losing class time anyhow.” n