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Quantity, quality of Malawi’s universities

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The front cover of The Economist dated March 28 – March 3, 2015 was headed “The whole world is going to university” and sub-headed “Is it worth it?”.

The supplement on this topic is worth reading and re-reading by all those who are concerned with university education, the academia and policy makers. Malawi is part of the global economy not only in terms of markets but also education.

From the supplement, we learn that China produces more graduates than the United States and India combined. One would assume that as far as education is concerned, China is self-sufficient but you will find thousands of Chinese students in western universities, especially the United States. I remember at one time reading that there were 150,000 Chinese students either in Britain or the United States.

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China is sending so many of its students abroad because it is interested not just in quantity but also quality. According to researches done by Chinese scholars on universities, about 70 percent of the world’s best are in the United States. Britain comes next in quality of universities.

We are told by The Economist that governments want top-class universities because the modern economy is driven by human capital. The goal is to nurture people who will create intellectual property and clusters of high-tech companies similar to those around Stanford and Cambridge.

Recently, there were comments by members of the public to the effect that Democratic Progressive Party government had defaulted on its promise to build five universities. Was this fair and constructive criticism? In the present circumstances when millions of people are in dire need of food, is it prudent to divert scare resources to building extra universities when we already have quite enough though whether they effectively cater for the needs of the country is another matter?

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What Malawi needs at present is not extra universities. Priority should be given to the quality and quantity of research in universities. Invention and innovations these days originate in university laboratories. Since the first university was established in Malawi, no breakthroughs have been made in research. This is a pity.

We have heard enough about grumbles concerning quota of admissions to public universities. The quota system as it has turned out, in practice, is hurting deserving students not just in one region but in all the regions. We ought to be discussing the more urgent problem which is to upgrade our universities to world-class levels. Universities are crucibles of what develops into technology and technology is the indispensable factor of production. Let us not feel contented that we have people with doctorate degrees while some are professors. Are these people comparable in quality to professors of Harvard, Oxford or the Sorbonne? It is not titles that enhance the reputation of universities but contribution to knowledge.

Let there be a policy of having visiting professors. We avoid in-breeding; there must be intellectual cross-fertilisation. Human resource is a nation’s greatest asset and these assets are outcomes of quality education.

From The Economist, we learn that in countries like France, the state meets full tuition for students in public universities but at the United States public institutions, a student meets part of the costs. I think the American system is better because it encourages the spirit of self-reliance among students and enables universities to admit more students because not all the money is concentrated on the lucky few.

For general effectiveness, there should be management by objective. Having made a decision at one point in time to upgrade universities and provided the wherewithal, we should at a later date demand reports on the progress made. Open-ended plans are of no value.

As regards natural intelligence, it is no disadvantage to be born in a small country. In contests between world students of mathematics and science and reading, small countries like Singapore defeat such giants as the United States and Germany. If properly organised, Malawians can contribute to innovations and inventions but we must be highly motivated. Nothing great was ever invented by chance.

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