TRUE, higher education has become, and will most surely continue to be, increasingly expensive to offer in this 21st century era. This is largely because offering of higher education is silently battling for competitiveness and relevance in this era. The need to balance low funding levels from government and the political calls to open up ‘access’ on one hand and the agitation for quality education coupled with rising costs of materials, and unsteady economies on the other has meant that administrators in higher education have got to seriously start thinking about lasting ways of mobilizing resources.
|Chanco Students: No to Unima fee hike|
To this end, administrators in higher education have resorted to fees hiking as a measureof mobilizing resources. Such measures, as South Africa’s ‘FeesMustFall’ movement readily provides example, have met with angry anti-fees-hike calls owing to the fact that the economy in many of the world’s countries are less favorable as to welcome such measures with a smile.
Malawi is no exception to this. The recent unpopular fee hike by University of Malawi (Unima) Council pretty much seems to be justified on the grounds above, though, sadly, the anti-fee-hike here will not be as fervent as that of our South African neighbors owing to unpalatable levels of individualism on part of students and pathetic dormancy on part of both guardians and education interest groups. Again, the lack of litigation culture and the rising levels of ‘new wisdom’—the bandwagon thinking that it’s about time Malawians stopped being used to freebies—will also add its fair share of the lack of fervency in the anti-fee-hike campaign.
For some enlightened social commentators, the Unima fee hike from K55,000 to K400,00(727%) and from K275,000 to K400,00 (154%) for the normal entry students and from K275,000 to K900,000 (327%) for the mature entry students is both economically insensitive and politically suicidal unless either there happens to be guarantees of loans for every student or the hike gets implemented incrementally.
Looking at the Unima fee hike from the lens of competitiveness and relevance, one can conclude that there is no doubt that the hike is every inch justifiable. In fact, the hike is long overdue if worries about lack of relevance as echoed by business gurus in the private business enterprises and the nation’s cries over Unima being on the lowest rung of the Africa University Ranking ladder are anything to go by. Indeed, as if echoing the language of competitiveness and relevance, in just less than a month ago the World Bank Report on the state of higher education in Malawi bemoaned Unima’s lack of relevance and competitiveness.
However, in as much as the fee hike is justifiable on the whole, it is nonetheless regrettable to raise the fees at such a time when the economy is in bad state. It would make sense if such a hike were a target to be achieved in, say, 4 years. In such kind of an arrangement, the fees would be hiked, for arguments’ purposes, from K55,000 and K275,000 to K300,000 starting next year and the remaining targeted K100,000 can be spread across three years to reach the targeted amount in the case of the normal entry students. In case of mature entry students, the fee hike would start, say at K500,000 and the remaining K400,000 be spread across three years to meet the targeted sum of K900,000. No doubt, such a fee hike as hypothesized here would most certainly be, at the risk of courting criticism, in accord with economic reality of Malawi as things are now.
It should be remembered that this incremental hike route is the same one Unima council adopted on the lecturers’ salary hike. The story is like this: Unima Council and other interested parties commissioned an inquiry into the salaries of lecturers across the Southern African region. What emerged from this inquiry was that lecturers in Unima were the lowest paid and it was thus recommended that they get a 200% salary increment. The council was dodgy of this recommendation and the lecturers became pushy. What followed was a series of industrial strikes and threats of industrial strikes. The most notable industrial strike being in 2008 where the first years at Chancellor College at the time stayed for more than three months as orientation period because lecturers refused to allow continuing students to report on campus arguing that they would not teach. Sanity came back when Unima Council agreed with the lecturers to be raising their salaries incrementally until the targeted amount was reached. If Unima council, as some contemptuouslysay, “did it” then, they can also “did it”now.
Now given the raw truth that Unima has hiked the fees to the targeted K900,000 without regard to the current sickly state of our economy, one is only left with one and only one conclusion—that Unima wants university education to be for the rich only. With such fees as high as K900, 000 one can bet that no poor Malawian can realize his dream of stepping into the corridors of Unima colleges, never! Honestly speaking, as things are in our economy, the contestably best decision will be not to hike the fees at all.
There is no denying that the Unima Council fee hike does reflect what Unima wants for its constituent colleges. More importantly, the fee hike decision also reflects the education policies of the government of the day—Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), so to say. For quite some time now and over the campaign period DPP has been promising to develop and implement pro-poor policies. Indeed, the DPP has gone the whole hog championing its budget as being pro-poor. Besides, the DPP-led government has defended the infamous quota system policy on the basis of giving the poor access to higher education. The real test of the pro-poorness of its budget and policies, in as much as this is not the only test, is the way its policies affect the poor especially in the education sector which is largely believed to be a surefire way of evening out inequalities.
That university education irons out inequalities in the different spheres of life is well-settled. The inequalities in agriculture, health and all those other areas of life are best and easily equalized through university education. This is the reason why the world over people are relentlessly pushing for widening of access to university education. The booming online university education, the scholarships, and the education trusts are some of the progressive moves in this respect.
On the other hand, governments are also widening access through deliberate policies. For example, as elsewhere observed, the unpopular equitable access to higher education otherwise known as quota system is premised on the same principle of widening access. It is here that the Unima fee hike defeats the whole purpose of equitable access to higher education. If, as it is always said, the quota system of admission seeks to give the poor chances to access higher education then it necessarily follows that any unreasonable hiking of fees limits that access. Surely, it is of no meaning to be admitted and yet have no fees. That, truthfully speaking, is more or less giving with one hand and snatching it with the other.
The giving-snatching analogy will be the clear soon because the immediate fee hike from K55,000 to K275,000 has already seen a substantial number of needy students drop out of college. It was, for those that were still around attending classes despite the non-payment of fees, the directive of the president that gave a sigh of relief to most needy students.
In a nutshell, this Unima fee hike simply confirms the growing talk in town that DPP’s pro-poor policies are nothing but a lip-service. The opposition may be silent for now, but one can say for a fact that the opposition is keenly watching the events on the fee hike and seriously planning its 2019 elections campaign propaganda. And this fee hike will most obviously be a campaign issue in 2019 and some party will be made or broken on the basis of this issue.
The point being driven home here is this: the Unima fee hike is good news overall, however, it is as economically insensitive as it is politically suicidal. As the Malawi economy currently is, the less controversial way to go on this will be to hike the fees incrementally, though, and this is the good part of it, the economic realities on the ground favor that there should be zero increment till the economy stabilizes, and,given the state of our affairs,no one knows, when.