Quota system: Take the bull by the horns

That the Quota system, in all its sheds and manifestations is evil, there is no contestation. The Quota system was first introduced in 1987. Council of the University of Malawi (Unima) recommended that each district should have 10 guaranteed spaces in the university and the balance of the spaces should be shared amongst all the districts in proportion to their population sizes. It further determined that in cases where a given district fails to meet its quota, the unfilled spaces should be allocated to those districts in that district’s region which produced adequate numbers of academically qualified candidates.

In 1993, the High Court of Malawi ruled in a case involving Mhango and others v University Council of Malawi against basing university selection on district Quota other than on merit because it was discriminatory and of no solid foundation. It is clear that Unima Council was not happy with the ruling. That is why in 2007 it introduced what it termed the Equitable system for admission to public universities. Under the Equitable system, Council for Unima made a resolution which makes a distinction between students on full government scholarship and non-residential students. In essence, this was the re-introduction of the Quota system effective 2008.

The rationale for the policy shift was that selection to public universities had been disproportionate as fewer students were being selected to public universities from some districts than others. But Unima Senate determined that such a policy shift required thorough consultation.

Council then noted that arguments for or against quota may have just been impressionistic, and therefore, requested the Centre for Education Research and Training (Cert) to conduct a comprehensive study to confirm or trash the impressions.

However, after 11 years, Cert has not conducted the said study. Cert is an agency of the Malawi Government under Unima. It is, therefore, dependent on Unima or government for funding. For 11 years, Unima Council has not funded Cert to conduct the study because it does not really want to conduct the study.

In 2011, Unima Council wrote the Malawi Human Rights Commission that what “the University of Malawi is implementing at the moment is not what you erroneously referred to as Quota system of selection. The real Quota system is what was done from the 1987/88 academic year up to 1993/94 academic year when the High Court ruled that it was wrong for the Council of the University of Malawi to use a quota system of selection without consulting its Senate. However, in 2008, in keeping with the priorities set in its Strategic Plan, Council of the University of Malawi, resolved that it would employ an Equitable system of selecting first year students as part of widening access to higher education to benefit disadvantaged groups (Kondowe, 2018).

When the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) which now coordinates selection of students into public universities came on the scene in 2013, it inherited the system from Unima.

From the foregoing it is clear, Ministry of Education and Unima Council have both not been interested in providing the funding to Cert to conduct the study to confirm or trash Quota or Equitable system for admitting students to public universities and colleges. Both are not only complicit in perpetuating the vice, but are also guilty by omission and negligence. To the list of culprits, add Luanar which did not divorce the Quota system after it was delinked from Unima.

Truth is that Quota or Equitable systems are one and the same—just two sides of the same coin. They have the same effect of disadvantaging students from some regions or districts.

The explanation the Ministry of Education gave this week for the small number of students from the North it has selected to national secondary schools in the country, let alone in the Centre, is an affront on the aggrieved. The ministry said it did not want students to travel long distances to and from secondary schools, saying this is expensive to both guardians and students. This is most laughable and should be taken with a pinch of salt. Why if such was the case has the ministry populated national secondary schools in the North with students from other regions? Is it, for example, shorter from Zomba to Mzuzu and vice versa only to students from other regions?

Quota or Equitable system of selecting students to tertiary institutions as well as secondary schools will remain divisive for as long as there is no political will to end it. What is indisputable is that those perpetuating it are benefitting from it. Not long from now—when University selection is done—people will once again be crying that students the system has left out students with very good points while taking in others with poor grades.

Agitating against the vice by merely crying wolf and complaining against the system will not yield anything. Take the bull by the horns. To kill a snake you hit the head. It is foolhardy to expect those benefitting from the system to champion the needed change. n

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