Thursday, October 29, 2009

The QUOTA fallacy and access to high education in Malawi

President WA Mutharika has come out in the open and expressed the view that a quota system is necessary for selecting students into the University including other public training institutions. He argues that the current system favours the Northern region and it is causing discontent in the other regions. Bingu argues further that statistics show that civil service is dominated by people from the North particularly the so called super scale positions. This has caused a serious debate in various fora. I disagree with the president and I reckon his thoughts are simply matters of opinion and not fact because there are lots of factual errors. The key issue, again in my opinion is that there is a structural problem with education policy and the quota solution is no different from the “ARVs” that deal with opportunistic infections! We need a remedy not something that is nothing but dealing with a symptom.

For example, if the president was economic with the truth, he could have gone to look at the number of principal secretaries in the civil service, or chief executives in parastatals or even our senior diplomats. He could also have shown how the so called discontent is being expressed. Who is expressing the discontent? In what manner has it been shown? I feel this is illusionary and does not reflect the mind of an average Malawian. The quota has rekindled the tribal instincts and hatred associated with the Kamuzu era that Malawians gallantly fought against. Following this debate, unfortunately, it come to be a North against the rest of the country, is a sad development for Malawi in the 21 st Century. The May 2009 elections gave us a big opportunity to demystify the regional pattern of voting and it’s an opportunity that the President should help unify our country. Some scholarly articles by the World Bank Economist like Easterly and Levine show ample evidence that countries within Africa with huge ethnic fragmentation often experience low levels of economic development. Ethnic fragmentation often leads to development choices that do not reflect the general public good but unjustified expensive policy decisions that cater a favoured constituency.

Bingu has shown his leadership credentials by defying the IMF and World wisdom of fiscal restraint by embarking on massive agriculture subsidy. I don’t care who is responsible for it. I am just being mindful of JZU claiming the same but I look at the results. Favourable weather plus affordable fertilisers have made Malawi food sufficient and exporter. Bingu argued that Bakili Muluzi’s starter park was not enough. Bingu has put in place such as sound policy that has seen the country enjoy food self sufficiency plus many international accolades on the green revolution. But this story is enough and I think he can use the same logic to apply on education. Which donor would go against him and Malawi per se if we went “green revolution on education’? The quota is just a quick fix whose costs are huge given the ethnic interpretation and the basis that the president, inadvertently exposed in his expression.

What would do if was Bingu to be consistent with agricultural policy? Firstly I would realise that Malawi gave me a mandate to rule overwhelmingly and therefore pursue policies that are in the benefits of the entire nation. I would also realise that it is difficult to ascertain someons' district of origin in 2009 Malawi where intermarriages are rampant. I would take full cognisance of the fact the ministry of education pursued a policy of district of residence given the integrated nature of our society in the modern time. Similarly, I would realise that urban schools are more favoured that the rural ones. Consequently I would embark on a big “green revolution” in education. This would see government build more Universities, if not expand capacity of the existing ones. It would also expand the capacity of technical colleges and allied institutions that can accommodate our youth who cannot make it into the University. This would be complemented by an attractive remuneration regime that is conducive to retaining qualified staff with special privileges to those that work in the rural areas.

Consequently, I would swallow some pride and realise that the “quota” and its variant as in the so called equity access to high learning, is a fire fighting technique in a country whose constitution condemns discrimination of any form (section 20) and guarantees the right to education by all citizens as in section 21. The framers went on board to craft our supreme law to ensure fairness and justice and the “quota” theory stands in sharp contrast to what citizens of this country decided long time ago. It’s not too late to rethink