BY LIMBANI NSAPATO
Equity or quota system of selecting students to public higher education institutions is a form of affirmative action or “positive” discrimination aimed at uplifting disadvantaged groups in a society with limited opportunities for higher education in order to achieve equitable access. It considers that although education is a right for every individual, government has social obligation to provide education to everyone. The system is being applied in more than 100 countries across the world, and so it is not only unique to Malawi.
The demand for quota system is high in an environment of inequalities in access to resources at family, school, district, regional level etc. Thus quota system brings a human face to the system considering the disparities that exist in society based on gender, disability, sex, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, geographical background, etc in order to equalize opportunities for access. The current quota system policy in Malawi uses both merit and socio-economic considerations. It allocates 10 spaces to each district for the best performing students in the districts; and then the rest of spaces apply merit and proportion of population of one’s district of origin. It also takes into account gender and disabilities.
In Malawi there are two main reasons why the equity policy was re-introduced in 2008 after being faced out in the 1990s. The first reason was that the number of places within the public universities was too small to accommodate all eligible students. Currently, university is admitting 30% of eligible students (eligible means those that have fulfilled the eligibility criteria of amassing a minimum of six credits at the high school examinations (MSCE) and having points from 6 to 36. For instance, in 2017-18, around 14,843 were eligible, but there was space for only 4,772 students, who were eventually admitted to public universities, representing 32% of those eligible.
The second reason was that the playing ground was (and is still) not level across Malawi because of lack of resources to ensure equal distribution of enabling inputs (e.g. qualified teachers, textbooks, classrooms, teachers houses, libraries, etc.) As such schools from rural areas are at disadvantage compared to those from urban areas, and community day secondary schools are at a disadvantage compared to national secondary schools. Applying merit when playing ground is not level, is unjust because it makes the competing ground tilted in favour of students from schools which have better resources.
The situation of the disadvantaged schools is worse off in some districts than others, to the extent that it used to take a lot of years (some 5 years or 10 years before a person could be selected from the disadvantaged districts, which form the majority (at least two-thirds of the 28 districts). Within this scenario some groups of students, such as girls and students with disabilities were more disadvantaged due to cultural, social, and economic factors. The quota system, ensures that competition (through merit) can be decentralized to district levels (where characteristics are more or less similar) and that girls and children with special needs can be considered in a special way.
For girls, they are considered by having a favorable cut off point (21 points vs 17 points for boys), and also by ensuring that out of the 10 selected per district, 5 of them are the best performing girls regardless as to whether they have better points than boys or not. Children with disabilities are considered in a special way by lessening the eligibility criteria provided there is a medical certificate to confirm their disability.
Therefore, the quota system is ensuring that each district has a minimum of 10 students selected who will became role models in their districts. It is also ensuring that top level employment opportunities which require a minimum of a recognized university degree are spread across all districts. In this way each district has at least 10 people who can be supporting their families financially and socially. Quota system is also ensuring that girls and people with disabilities are considered more favorably than their counterparts to enhance equity. In the 2017-18 selection a minimum of 14 students were selected per district, a minimum of 617 students per region, 650 students from community day secondary schools, 1,919 girls and at least 6 students with disabilities. If pure merit were used the results would be different, and mostly on the lower side for these categories.
To wrap up this discussion on quota, the following are the advantages of the current selection policy: a) Quota uses both merit and social-economic background to select students; b) quota allows people from diverse socio, economic, and political backgrounds to access higher education; c) Quota promotes national building since people from diverse cultures, tribes, regions etc. can have access to education; d) Quota is consistent with recent global goals of promoting equity and inclusivity in education systems; e) Quota responds well to the current disparities in resource allocation and is pro-poor, pro-gender and more democratic; f) Quota is a necessary evil for reducing inequalities : g) Quota ensures that even people from impoverished backgrounds access to education and get well- paying jobs.