Equity, equality in higher education


With Fanwell Kenala Bokosi:
The debate on access to higher education in Malawi is a very emotive one. It is a clear conundrum of how to address issues of public policy versus individual freedoms. In the recent weeks, the term “quota”, as defined in the selection of university students in Malawi, has taken centre stage. There are equal emotions on both sides of the debate. There are those who believe it is evil and those who defend it as a policy in the context of distributive justice.

One way to address the rather emotive subject of university “quota” system in Malawi would be to analyse the figures at our disposal and, therefore, get to the real cause of the problem. It is my postulation that the problem is selection criteria (the “quota system”), which is a symptom rather than a cause of the problem.

Any politician who really wants to deal with the issue cannot and should not only look at the symptom but also deal with the real cause of the problem. Anything less than that will simply be an “electioneering slogan”. The problem of higher education in Malawi is not only about how students are selected to public universities but the available space. Statistics indicate that, as early as 2012, only 21 percent of those who passed university entrance examinations were admitted.


The sad truth is that close to 80 percent of brilliant young Malawians, who are eligible for university education, are denied that chance not based of academic ability but by the simple reason that the university system’s infrastructure in Malawi has limited carrying capacity. This is where the problem is.

A simple comparison with our neighbouring countries can attest to why the issue of quota is not a major debate in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. These countries have managed to increase their tertiary education enrolment. Malawi is the only country in the Southern African Development Community region with the lowest tertiary education enrolment.

The last time I checked the statistics, Malawi had a tertiary education enrolment of less than one percent (0.4%). Out of 100,000 people in the country, only 80 students are enrolled in tertiary education compared to Tanzania (186), Mozambique (454), Angola (651), Zimbabwe (654), Swaziland (734), and Botswana (1812).


The country’s higher education system needs reform and quickly. What Malawi needs is an increase in the available university spaces and not to start tinkering with the same limited number of university places. Technically, anyone who scores 36 points in Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations, is entitled to university education irrespective of their district of origin, tribe or village.

As a matter of public policy, university education cannot be a purely merit phenomenon. The concepts of fairness and equity should be at the heart of any access to public resources. Fair access to higher education requires both equality and equity, two principles that are complementary, but they frame the idea of fairness differently.

Equality is based on the fairness principle that every individual is entitled to uniform opportunity to access and participate in higher education. In broad terms, uniform treatment means that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law without discrimination.

Equity is based on the fairness principle that every individual is entitled to just opportunity to access and participate in higher education. In broad terms, just treatment means that everyone has a human right to access and participate in higher education as a matter of social justice as described in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Equity entails understanding student learning needs.

Since not everyone has the same needs and circumstances, equity-related policies call for providing students with additional assistance or appropriate accommodations to make the playing field fairer. The goal is to lessen and ultimately remove obstacles to achieving academic success that may result from one’s personal and social circumstances.

Therefore, equity policies and practices help institutions achieve greater inclusion in education. An inclusion strategy, supported by advances in educational technology, engaged learning strategies and a human rights approach to education, involves cultivating educational integration through meaningful academic and social interactions among all students.

As I believe I have shown through the arguments presented, we should exercise caution in extolling the virtues of meritocracy. Given that higher education plays a significant role in the adjudication of future jobs and material rewards, more thoughtful reflection of all the facets of meritocracy is essential in order to better understand what its underlying foundations entail within the context of higher education in Malawi.

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