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Mr Chancellor, Unima fees must fall!

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Let us say two friends, Dave and Henry, suspected of committing a crime have been arrested and are being interrogated in separate rooms.

During interrogation, Dave has been offered three choices by the police: One, if he confesses to the charges – and Henry coincidentally does the same, both will be jailed for five years; two, if only Dave confesses, he will be freed but Henry – his friend – will be jailed for 10 years or three, if neither Dave nor Henry confesses, both will be tried for a minor offence and be jailed for one year.

Meanwhile, Henry has also been offered the same three choices by the police: One, if he confesses to the charges – and Dave just happens to do the same, both will be jailed for five years; two, if only Henry confesses, he will be freed but Dave – his pal – will be jailed for 10 years or three, if neither Henry nor Dave confesses, both will be tried for a minor offence and will be jailed for one year.

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In Dave’s or Henry’s shoes, which option would you choose?

The chances are, knowing that selfishness is to humans what fuel is to motor vehicles, high that each of the two will go for option two.

Self-preservation will override friendship and they will have no compunction seeing their friend jailed for 10 years to secure their own freedom.

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But assuming the two are the exception to the general rule, and each is thinking selflessly, they will go for option one. The result will be five-year jail terms for both!

With wisdom and a bit of tact, however, both could refuse to confess, be tried for minor offences and be jailed for a year. Remember that they both need to arrive at this independently for this to work.

For this to happen, Dave and Henry must trust that the other will not be selfish, i.e., not fall for option two, will take the collective interest into consideration – resist option one and the misguided impression that they are ‘helping’ their friend; and hence neither will confess but together serve one-year in jail.

The main thing to note is that selecting option three can only come out of a situation where cooperation and trust reign supreme and where blind pursuit of self-interest is viewed with the contempt it deserves.

The scenario described above is referred to as the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

Coming back home, let me fill you in on the big picture and politics of expediency behind the university fees hike, which I should add, have presented President Peter Mutharika with his own iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma.

The story in high places is that, among other things, for the Malawi Government to remain in good books with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), some subsidies must go.

And other than free health services, the main budget busting subsidies we currently “enjoy” are the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), subsidised university education and the new vote-catcher in town, the Malata subsidy.

I will shelve discussing introduction of hospital fees for later and focus on the other three.

Options available to President Mutharika are as follows: He can choose option one say, ‘To hell with the consequences, I will maintain all three!’ Naturally, the World Bank and its associates will not be amused.

But the dilemma on continuing with all three is that given the dwindling aid and given that Chinese aid excludes budgetary support, the government is not too keen to alienate the World Bank nor the IMF.

This state of affairs, i.e., being caught between a rock and a hard place, has given rise to option two which is, choosing the lesser of the three devils and deciding, among the three, what to retain and what to drop.

Option two, given the way the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rewards its supporters via the corruption-ridded Fisp and Malata subsidy, dropping these two is total haram.

The result is what we witnessed, a whole “caring” government going for option three, sacrificing needy university students’ futures and prospects via the cold-blooded fee hike; a development students and guardians are not taking lightly, going by the demonstrations.

Option three is to continue with subsidised university education – whose benefits speak for themselves in the President, his deputy, his cabinet ministers, members of the University Council, plus the many University of Malawi (Unima) graduates selfishly advocating the increase today – yet they never paid a cent; andcompletely drop the inefficient, unsustainable and corruption-prone Fisp and Malata subsidy.

Now, in the light of the demonstrations, which way Mutharika will go depends solely on whether he wants Malawi’s meagre resources to serve us all or whether his presidency’s raison d’être is blind pursuit of self and narrow political interests.

Before winding up, let us revisit Dave’s and Henry’s predicament in the light of our economy. Which of the three, Fisp, subsidised university education and the Malata subsidy, is the least of all these budget-busting devils?

Any economist, applying sound economical principles, would not hesitate to say that subsidising university education ranks very far ahead of the other two.

Reasons?

Ceteris paribus, and only if our university education is completely useless, would we see graduates clamouring for free Malata. Bona fide graduates should construct not only their houses but their folks’ homes too, without needing subsidies.

Secondly, a graduate who lines up to get Fisp – if there is any – belongs to the mental hospital. Graduates, bona fide ones, schooled in the art of thinking, should be able to buy their own and kins’ farm inputs and fertilisers.

Let us flip the coin. Let us assume you were poor and Mutharika has given you Malata for your house and fertiliser, seeds and all that jazz for your maize, would this enable you to pay the ridiculous Unima fees as revised?

The answer is a big “NO”.

Let me twist the same question, in case there are doubting Thomases out there. Is there any bona fide beneficiary of Malata and Fisp subsidiaries that was able to afford the Unima fees, even at the rates before the adjustment?

If the answer is “YES”, then indeed these two must go. No-one needs them.

If, on the other hand, the answer is the obvious “NO”, then by all means let us subsidise our youths’ university fees so that in three or four years time, with our culture of caring for parents and extended families, the new graduates should take over the burden that these two subsidies are placing on the national coffers, and look after their folks.

Ladies and gentlemen, under our circumstances, the way out of this prisoner’s dilemma is subsidised, if not free university education.

Fees must fall.

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