There are two main ways of ending the current policy of selecting students to the four public universities in Malawi, which applies merit at district and national levels there by ensuring that each district has a minimum of 10 university places for the best performing students in each of the 28 districts in the country (district merit). The number can increase beyond 10 based on performance of students at national level (national merit) and the population of the district (proportionate representation).
Before I state the two ways in which this policy can be ended, let me indicate why this policy was re-introduced in 2008. There were two main reasons.
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 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, 1,990 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. With or without quota system, the 70% who are left out are mostly those from poor families, rural areas, community day secondary schools , in short those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2016 a World Bank study noted that 90% of university students are taken from the richest quintile, while only 10% are from the poorest quintile. That is why expanding space is critical to ensure the underprivileged find their way and that public university education becomes more pro-poor than it currently is.
Now back to the two ways of ending quota.
The first way is clear cut, policy directive “from above” (ie Head of State, who is also Chancellor making a declaration). This can be done any day, any moment. This abrupt way of ending quota could have negative consequences, in that many of the districts may not be guaranteed space for some of their best students. The university risks having students from a few resourced districts and mostly catering for children from better off backgrounds. There won’t be guarantee for girls spaces, and there won’t be guarantee for children with special needs. The number of students selected from community secondary schools and other under-resourced secondary schools would significantly reduce. The university would become elitist and again dominated by the rich, and males at the expense of the poor, girls and people with disabilities. This could bring about public outcry, which could eventually end with time or could have costly political consequences for some politicians.
The second way is to do it in a systematic manner. This would have two steps.
First step, which is faster is to expand university space by at least five times, so that annual intake into public universities can increase significantly to accommodate all eligible students. The space can be increased through infrastructure expansion and expanding the open distance learning (ODL) which currently is accommodating at least 1,000 students. Expanding space means also training and recruiting university lectures, expanding library facilities, laboratories, and support staff. This can take between 5 to 10 years of heavy investment in the university. Space can also be created by offering scholarships to students to study in private universities in the country or outside Malawi. When every eligible student is accommodated there won’t be any need for quota for each district.
Second step, after expanding space in public universities, is to ensure an even playing ground, so that merit system is seen to be just. This ensures that all primary schools and secondary schools are well equipped to the level of the national secondary schools with well qualified teachers, adequate textbooks, small classrooms , etc., so that preparations to defining national exams like MSCE is even for all students, and all can compete fairly. All schools should have disability- friendly infrastructure. There would be need to expand access to pre-school or nursery education from currently 40% (mostly for cities and towns) to 100% (to take care of rural areas). The investment is enormous and it requires a lot of sacrifice for other sectors and political will. The country would among others need to double the number of teachers (currently around 70,000) , double the number of classrooms, among others. This could take between 10 and 20 years, before justice is seen. When the playing field is level, there won’t be need for quota because the fittest in a just competition wins.
These are my views. Feel free to add or subtract.
Author: Limbani Nsapato