Kick politics out of public university colleges

This week the University of Malawi (Unima) Council announced that it had endorsed the delinking of the College of Medicine (CoM), Kamuzu College of Nursing and the Malawi Polytechnic from Unima.

The move followed a go-ahead President Peter Mutharika, who is Unima Chancellor, gave the council the nod for the Unima unbundling process to begin.

The Unima Council statement on Wednesday did not explain the reason(s) for the development. But an unnamed official at Capital Hill said the President had considered the issue of access to public institutions of higher learning. He said it is envisaged that once the delinking is done and the colleges become autonomous, they will grow, increase their numbers and the country’s public university’s intake.

And going by comments from the general public, the move is expected to replicate the benefits that the delinking of Bunda College of Agriculture from Unima in 2011 has seen. Bunda College merged with Natural Resources College to form the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar).

Other commentators have said following the delinking of Bunda College from Unima, the new entity (Luanar) is now far ahead of Unima. One commentator said: “Let people with brains now be at the helm of each university.”

Others argued that the delinking of the colleges would make them more efficient as their growth would not be impeded by unnecessary bureaucracy.

There can be little doubt that the delinking of the colleges should improve their management and enable the institutions to raise funds on their own as Luanar is able to do now. It is easier to manage or run a smaller institution.

But I wish to argue that, among other things, apart from bureaucracy, three other problems that have held back Unima’s development are funding, politics and the failure by government to realise the different potentials that the various colleges have to raise funds for themselves.

Despite the pressure to increase intake, Unima has to a large extent been run like one big family fed from one pot—Treasury. If there is no flour and relish in the home, everybody sleeps on an empty stomach despite the fact that some members of the family are (better) able to put food on the table (for themselves). The recent industrial strike at Chancellor College where teaching staff wanted to be remunerated the same way as those of the same grades from CoM is an example of the problem. If I may ask, what should be remunerated, the grade or the job?

But a bigger problem that has rocked Unima is lack of political will to move with the times and the fear of the ruling clique to make unpopular, but sound decisions to keep the ship afloat. Tertiary education as we all know is not cheap. But how many times has Unima Council decided to raise fees in tandem with the rising cost of living, learning and teaching, only for the chancellor to shoot down the decision for fear of becoming unpopular among students and guardians? Who said sound decisions are always popular? This is also the reason for the hemorrhage of teaching staff from Unima to other universities down south-Botswana and South Africa, in particular, since its inception. The institution has not been able to retain most of its cream because the pay has been peanuts compared to other countries. Let us be honest, it is good to be patriotic, but who puts patriotism on the table for lunch?

So, yes, delinking the colleges is a good move, but let this be complemented with sound management devoid of political interference. Good management of the new colleges will start with delinking them from politics. The President of this country should not be chancellor for each one of them. In any case, the President is already burdened with chancellorship titles for several public universities in the country-Mzuzu University, Luanar and University of Malawi. And let the councils for the new universities be appointed by independent bodies and keep the chancellorship titles far away from State House. Then we will be making progress.

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