Challenge of low enrolments in higher education system—Part II

In the previous entry, contributor STEVE SHARRA discussed the history that has created a mindset that holds back higher education enrolment rates in Malawi. In this final entry, he discusses the lack of student support systems in Malawian universities and analyses the strange paradox of “weeding” students who have already been selected from the cream of Malawi’s education system. He concludes the series by outlining how the country can harness the trending continental and global development agendas as a way of allowing higher education to help change Malawian society for the better.

Higher education offers young people prospects for a bright and prosperous future

Because Malawi’s low tertiary and higher education enrolment rates have been a consequence of limited spaces in institutions of higher learning, access to universities and colleges in Malawi is a matter of stiff competition.

Many excellent and capable students are left out, making selection a matter of rare luck riding on top of high performance. However, this does not mean that those who are not selected are not good enough, as is widely but mistakenly believed in much of Malawian society.

It is, therefore, paradoxical that even the few who go into universities and colleges in Malawi, the best of the best, face being withdrawn “on academic grounds” when their performance falls short of certain set standards.

Malawian institutions of higher learning “weed” students who fail to meet certain academic performance benchmarks. The mindset behind “weeding” is based on a number of beliefs, chief among them the “fixed mindset” we discussed in the previous entry.

A fixed mindset is the supposition that human intelligence is innate and fixed, and can never change over the course of one’s life. It is the same supposition upon which the concept of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) is built.

In Malawi this mindset holds sway in a context that provides little support to students to help them succeed. There are some contradictory practices in Malawian institutions of higher learning that militate against the national aspiration to widen access to higher education.

As opposed to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset takes human intelligence to be flexible. It sees academic performance as a work in progress that can get better with more practice and more support.

In her doctoral research spanning three years from 2015 to 2017, Limbikani Kamlongera found high percentages of non-traditional students in one leading Malawian university college. More than two thirds of students from a representative sample were 21 years or older, indicating that they started school later or faced problems as they progressed. But anecdotal evidence also suggests that many students are entering university at much younger ages than is the case in other parts of the world.

Some of this is happening because people jump into and out of public and private schools offering a melange of local and international curricula with little government policy direction. Such students, whether too young or too old for university, need academic support services to help them navigate university education in order for them to succeed.

Kamlongera’s study, whose main aim was to “examine relationships between student academic preparedness, student use of university support systems and student success”, argues for institutions of higher learning to help students make use of such systems where they exist. Where they do not, institutions need to introduce them.

There is need to study Malawi’s higher education system more broadly to learn more about what student support systems are offered across universities and colleges. Students need support with academic work in their particular disciplines, counselling and psychological needs, financial needs, spiritual needs, and much more.

Malawian universities and colleges do offer some of this support, but the reality for many students is that they are on their own, left to fend for themselves.

The fixed mindset that pervades Malawi’s higher education system leaves students on their own because of the belief that one is either innately capable or not. “Weeding” is part of the fixed mindset which sees students in the same way.

But withdrawing students on academic grounds would make more sense in a context where all the necessary support systems were available, and it was the student’s choice not to take advantage of them.

But in Malawi students are “weeded” on the pretext, underlying or otherwise, that it is a quality assurance measure. There are academics who feel good about themselves and their institutions when students tout their courses as tough and when a lot of students fail rather than succeed. Such attitudes are sustained by a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset.

In a country with the lowest higher education enrolment rates in the world, weeding students who already come from the cream of the cream is self-defeating and counter-intuitive, when considered in the light of national development.

What Malawi’s higher education system needs is a paradigm shift from seeing high student failure as a mark of quality to one where retention of students is.

Retaining students and helping them succeed and graduate not only ensures prudent utilisation of scarce national resources. It also offers young people prospects for a bright and prosperous future in which their capabilities are fully developed and their talents fully utilised to contribute to national development.

This is what will take Malawi in the direction toward achieving the continental Agenda 2063 and the global 2030 Agenda. In Agenda 2063, the first aspiration is for Africa to achieve “a high standard of living, quality of life and well-being for all citizens.” The second aspiration is for “well educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by science, technology and innovation.”

For the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is goal number four that is aligned with the top two aspirations of Agenda 2063. SDG 4 is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Taken together, these goals both in Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda make an incontrovertible case for the role of higher education in national, continental and global development.

National development policies are being aligned with the two agendas although it is the SDGs that are getting far more attention. The theoretical framework of Agenda 2063 is the African Renaissance, whose ideological fulcrum is Pan-Africanism.

The African Renaissance and Pan-Africanism are deeply rooted in historical and contemporary desires for African people around the world to be free from global injustices, economic exploitation and neo-imperialism.

The SDGs have their theoretical framework and ideological underpinnings also, they require countries and regions to interpret them based on their historical circumstances, rather than in a generic way.

One thing that pervades the spirit of the SDGs is human dignity, an ultimate end resulting from the faithful pursuit of each of the goals. Whether Pan-African or humanistic, these are not easy ideals to craft into national development strategies without recourse to national histories.

And this is where higher education systems are called upon to offer direction based on deep knowledge and practical understanding of social change. For us here in Malawi, dealing with the challenge of low enrolments in our higher education system will be a central aspect of changing our society for the better.

It makes little sense to aspire to widen access in higher education while clinging to a fixed mindset that leads to very few students entering higher education, with little support, only to be withdrawn later, on so-called academic grounds.

*Steve Sharra, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Director of Research and Publications at the Catholic University of Malawi. He writes in his personal capacity.

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