Not too long ago, getting selected to public university colleges was a source of joy for family and community members. But that is no longer the case. Many learners who earn selection to University of Malawi (Unima) constituent colleges and other public universities are dropping out because they cannot afford tuition fees, food and accommodation. In this Friday Shaker, JAMESON CHAULUKA narrates the ordeal of some students who are grappling with life at college campuses where they cannot afford learning materials as they learn on an empty stomach and even sleep in classrooms because of poverty.
Looking at the newly constructed building housing the business and ICT departments at The Polytechnic main campus along Masauko Chipembere Highway in Blantyre, a passerby can be forgiven for thinking that all is rosy at the Unima college.
But that is not the case as this magnificent building masks sad stories of learners struggling to access education services which, according to the Constitution of Malawi and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 4, are a fundamental human right for all regardless of one’s social status.
One such learner is Panganani Chepu, a bachelor of business administration (marketing) student. He lacks tuition fees, accommodation and money for buying food.
“I reported at the campus on Monday May 27 but I don’t have a place to sleep in. I sleep in a classroom when my friends retire to their places of accommodation. I asked some well-wisher off the campus to keep safe some of my clothes,” he said.
Chepu, who is aged 20, does not know where to get the K400,000 tuition fees, saying he cannot register as a student without paying at least a quarter of the fees.
A letter from the school’s administration to Chepu, dated May 27 2019, says any late registration, which is after June 12 and before June 19 when normal registration window closes, would attract a penalty of K200 per day.
“You should also note that only those registered are the bona-fide students of the University of Malawi. As such, if you do not register by the said date [June 19], you will be asked to withdraw and join the next academic year,” the letter reads in part.
Chepu, who is from Chibalala Village, Traditional Authority Makwangwala, in Ntcheu District, is a fourth-born in a family of eight.
His father died long time ago and the mother is a typical poor, small-scale farmer.
Yet, when Chepu scored 13 points in Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations at Ntcheu Secondary School in 2018, there was a flicker of hope in his family.
“Out of the eight children in my family, I am the only one who has gone past standard 8. When I was admitted into the University of Malawi, I became a source of hope to my family but now I don’t know if I will make it,” he said.
Chepu is not the only one in a fix regarding where to get tuition fees, food and accommodation at The Polytechnic.
Second-year industrial engineering student, Florent Munthali, is on the verge of withdrawing from the institution after he was left out of the list of students who benefitted from Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board services last year.
Munthali, who failed to pay tuition fees last year, faces an uphill task of raising fees for two academic years.
“Ndabalalika abwana [I am so confused]. I am stuck. I am withdrawing anytime. Where do I get tuition fees and food? I stay with a friend but at least I need to find my own accommodation where I can study,” he said.
Last year, The Daily Times, brought to light the plight of Damison Jame, another student at The Polytechnic who was forced to sleep outside the college’s hostels in the company of security guards due to lack of money for food and accommodation, not to mention that for tuition fees.
Chepu and Munthali are among many underprivileged students who face challenges to pursue education in public universities.
The Polytechnic Dean of Students, Luciano Ndalama, said they were overwhelmed by the problems which learners from underprivileged families face at the school.
“He [Chepu] is not the only one [facing this ordeal]. Other students with similar problems have just left my office. The other student has not had any meal since he came here over the weekend. Others lack even pens and notebooks. It is just too much,” he said.
Chepu wants to try his luck with the Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board but he is struggling to raise K2,000 processing fee and other logistical expenses.
“The tuition fees, accommodation and food are just too expensive for me. How will I manage?” he said.
Management of The Polytechnic appreciates the fact that the institution faces many challenges, including that of lack of accommodation.
On July 23 2019, The Polytechnic website published a story quoting Vice- Principal, Nancy Chitera, as saying they would construct two hostels at the facility to provide additional 10,000-bed spaces for undergraduate and post-graduate students.
“We started meetings with the consultancy and contractors to construct two hostels, one on campus while the other will replace the Poly Alley hostels,”Chitera is quoted as saying on www.poly. ac.mw/news.
This year, The Polytechnic admitted roughly 1,400 first-year students against limited accommodation at the campus.
The situation is not different at another Unima wing, Chancellor College.
Chancellor College Students Union Chairperson, Kennedy Ganthu, Thursday said the school has over 1,800 learners who are struggling to raise fees and other expenses.
“We try and engage the administration to find piece work for the needy students. Sometimes, you find that the available piecework requires someone who is doing chemistry but the one in need is doing a totally different course,” he said.
The loans board’s director, Chris Chisoni, said there was nothing they could do to help learners such as Chepu just yet.
He said all Chepu can do is apply for loans which the board would disburse in July 2019.
“We are working using the budget we had last year when they [learners] were in secondary school. We communicated this to the school’s management to say that, until we have a new allocation in the 2019/20 budget, there is nothing we can do, but they can apply now,” he said.
Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director, Benedicto Kondowe, said it was unfortunate that quality higher education remains a farfetched dream for students from poor families even in public institutions.
He said, with such challenges, it was difficult for learners such as Chepu and Munthali to concentrate on lessons in the classroom.
“It is unfortunate that we have such a situation at The Polytechnic but not strange because calls for the government to support learners from poor families to access quality higher education have been there for a long time,” Kondowe said.
“Ordinarily, you would expect the situation within institutions of higher learning to be better to act as a motivation. Where one toils all night in a classroom without sleeping because they cannot afford accommodation, that student cannot learn,” he said.
The learners face such challenges when Section 25 of the Constitution of Malawi guarantees the right to education to everyone irrespective of their social status.
SDG number 4 aims to increase access to quality education for all at all levels.
SDG number 4, however, notes that poverty keeps many around the world out of school , saying children from poor households are four times more likely to be out of school than those from rich households.
The SDGs, therefore, aim to fight for better grades of all learners and to achieve the goal of universal primary and secondary education, affordable vocational training and access to higher education.
Learners in other public colleges such as Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Mzuzu University and Malawi University of Science and Technology face similar challenges.
The learners face these challenges despite that the Public Private Partnerships Commission (PPPC) on behalf of the government, through the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, embarked on a programme aimed at providing comprehensive accommodation facilities (hostels) and associated services to students in public universities through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) Framework.
In a statement of 2016, PPPC attributed accommodation challenges to the fact that “public universities have not been able to increase student hostels in line with the demand primarily due to limited resources.
“Government faces an ever expanding and competing ends for its meager resources and therefore cannot be relied on for the long term supply for student accommodation.”