There are continued twists and turns in the education field due to changes brought about in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, with parents of learners in some international schools complaining that the institutions are making impossible demands as regards tuition fees.
Some of the parents who spoke to Malawi News said they are uncomfortable to pay extra tuition fees for their wards at a time that most schools have suspended physical class sessions, restricting students to online learning.
“They told us to folk out K600,000 for online learning with the option of paying in K200,000 instalments and then they are also saying we will have to pay normal fees as well once school starts on May 4, 2020,” one of the parents, whose ward learns at one of the schools in Blantyre, said.
This, she adds, has not gone down well with most parents, prompting some of them to seek legal opinion and also petition Competitions and Fair Trading Commission (CFTC).
Minister of Education, Science and Technology Susuwere Banda confirmed they had exempted some international schools to go ahead and ask learners to pay full school fees while they learn from home in view of the coronavirus (Covid-19), a move experts in the education sector widely condemned as unfair and unreasonably excessive.
“I understand some international schools have students that must take examinations set by external bodies, and those examinations have not been postponed. The schools are therefore struggling to keep pace with the agreement of the school boards,” Banda said.
However, this has irked the parents, who are accusing the schools and government of playing double standards.
According to a notice from CFTC which we have seen, the commission has officially launched an investigation against one of the schools, Kalibu Academy which is in Blantyre.
“Take note that the Competition and Fair Trading Commission [of Malawi] has commenced investigation against your school for alleged misleading conduct in carrying out trade. The investigation has been instituted following a complainant that has a child at Kalibu Academy that your school is demanding parents/guardians to pay full tuition fee for e-leaning. Specifically, the complainants allege that recently they received communication from your school announcing the commencement of the third term but in view of the current global health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic classes will be online,” reads in part the notice.
According to the notice, the complainant is alleging that the school is demanding full school fees payment as if children will be physically going to school and making full use of school facilities such as library and cafeteria, which the complainant finds to be unfair, unreasonable and unconscionable.
CFTC Executive Director, James Kaphale, has asked management of the school in question to respond to the notice within 14 days of receiving it.
“The alleged conduct of your enterprise appears to be in is contravention of Section 43 subsection (1) [g] of the Competition and Fair Trading Act which states that a person shall not, in relation to a consumer engage in unconscionable conduct in carrying out trade in goods and services. Any person who contravenes the provisions of subsection (1) commits an offence,” Kaphale said.
However, Kalibu Academy Director Michael Howard said the parents do not have basis on the accusations.
He added that the information given to CFTC was wrong as by then, the school had not announced the charges.
He said: “You just jump and go to the commission and say this is not fair, especially if your information is wrong, that is not right. The parent that complained has no foundation for this complaint because by then, we were yet to set the fees.
“We have now set the fees and it is K600 thousand which is half of what they normally pay.”
A letter dated April 22, 2020 shows that the commission notified the school of an investigation emanating from the complaint from a concerned parent.
A letter which Malawi News has seen from the Academy dated 6th April shows that the school told the parents about their e-learning without mentioning the school fees.
St Andrews International School in Blantyre is among the schools that have also written parents to pay full school fees for students while they learn at home.
The school said it will go ahead to charge a full term’s fees while students learn from home, arguing communication from the Minister of Education is not targeting them.
Head teacher of St Andrews International High School Kieron Smith confirmed the development to Malawi News.
“I can confirm that we are following all the advice from government and have checked to see that what we are doing is within the guidelines. Our School is not open to students and online learning is taking place for all students. We follow an international British curriculum,” Smith said.
Bishop MacKenzie, Saints and Phoenix international schools are also demanding that parents pay full school fees to pay their mainly expatriate teachers (some of whom have since gone back to their countries) yet children are only learning for 30 minutes a day on the Internet.
Only Kamuzu Academy in Kasungu has reduced fees for students learning from home.
Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe said it would not make sense for learners to pay full fees whilst learning from home as they neither need school accommodation and meals.
“I also doubt that the Ministry of Education would endorse that. What I know is that the Ministry of Education accepted the call from some of these schools to open their schools by having a school term through online programme. The ministry has no mandate to endorse the school fees charged by private schools, including online fees. Where such are in excess the Ministry can engage with the proprietors, but not determine,” Kondowe said.
Another education commentator Steve Sharra blamed the development on a lack of a unified education system in the country, which appears to have taken the authorities unawares at the moment.
“We have public schools that use one curriculum, and then we have private schools that use various types of curricula ranging from British, American, Turkish, and religious curricula. That makes it difficult to impose blanket regulations covering everyone. It seems the government has realised that the closure of schools was not a solution that would work uniformly for these different types of schools.
“The issue of some private schools charging full fees as if students are on site and face to face lessons are going on is a different one. Private schools have the autonomy to set their own school fees and salaries for their teachers. What these schools should have done was to engage the parents and guardians. Schools that have functioning Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) did this, and reached a consensus on what the fees for online schooling should look like,” Sharra said.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, government directed that all schools be closed in Malawi.
The Ministry of Education also recently rolled out e-learning for students in public schools, which is free of charge.