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Ten questions on quota system

Capital Hill


By Kenneth Wiyo:

Which districts are winners and losers of the current quota system?

Under the Equitable Access to Selecting Students into Public Universities as a policy of government, some 320 places are reserved as quota for each of the 28 or so districts including city districts of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba.

Each rural district is guaranteed ten places while city districts are guaranteed 20 places under quota. The rest of the places (about 4,800 places) are competed for under merit system based on population of each district.

This means that districts with large populations will send more students under merit in addition to the ten reserved for the district under quota. It is worth for the general public to note that only less than 10 percent of the annual intake is under quota while the rest is decided by the population-based merit system.

It is often assumed that only districts in the North are losers and victims under ‘Equitable Access’. Is this true from the data? After examining the data, we might be surprised to see that not all districts in the North are losers and have been victims under quota system.

We might even be surprised to see a large district of Mzimba having benefited more from the quota system as well as a small district of Likoma. We might be even surprised to see that only Rumphi and Karonga are losers and victims under the current quota system.

Listening to the public outcry in the media, one gets the impression that all districts in the North are losers and victims under ‘Equitable Access’. This may not be supported by research results. Let the research evidence from the data indicate. It may surprise us. The use of “may and might” is deliberate for it may go either way.

Furthermore, we might be surprised to see from the data that even Ntcheu, Blantyre and Thyolo districts (yes Thyolo District) are losers and victims of the current quota system. They might be sending less students to public universities under the current quota system than they were sending under 100 percent merit.

That is the beauty about thorough research. It often brings out surprise results, something many people just assumed might be the case. This underscores the importance of research in giving policy directions to policy makers.

Introducing a new policy without factual evidence is folly of classic proportions and some would say wooden-headedness. To do this research on quota system, winners and losers we need candidate-level data from both Maneb (for MSCE results) and National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) (for public selection results) and some expert mathematical manipulation.

What are pros and cons of merit versus quota?

As policy makers consider abandoning quota system in favour of a merit-based system (thanks to pressure from the public), do we know the pros and cons of the quota system? And do we know the pros and cons of a 100 percent merit system?

For a purely quota system, it balances availability of university places and the demand for places based on districts. It addresses historical imbalances across districts. It also takes care of other disadvantaged groups such as the girls and people with disabilities. By taking on board disadvantaged groups and districts, it does enhance social cohesion and unity across ethnicities.

Its major disadvantage is that it leaves some students who have qualified for university education at the altar of equity. Leaving out somebody who has qualified in order to give a place to someone less qualified is obviously a human rights violation and cannot be condoned.

I am sure the Malawi Ombudsman and the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) cannot take kindly to such a violation. In fact, these two human rights organisations are interested parties on the quota system debate. Perhaps, what they have been lacking is research-based facts and evidence to make a public stand on the issue. This proposed research offers these two institutions facts and evidence on the system.

The 100 percent merit system on the other hand addresses the human rights concerns of the quota system and, thus, addresses equality for all but does not address equity. The merit system is likely to perpetuate historical geographical imbalances. It will not accommodate other issues that may require positive discrimination such as girls’ education, people with disabilities and students from struggling public schools.

The current ‘Equitable Access to Selecting Students into Public Universities’ is a hybrid system. Apply the district quotas first and the rest competed on merit based on district population. It tried to balance the need for equality of selection while addressing equity issues. It tried to address the weaknesses of both the quota system as well as the merit system.

Its major weakness is that it leaves some who have done well in order to give a place to those who have not done so well from disadvantaged districts. Given the public outcry on the system, it does indicate to us that the system requires further serious tinkering.

What government policy options on quota system?

The research will evaluate five policy options for the government to consider. First is to continue with the current quota system even though it is increasingly clear that the current quota based system is untenable. The second option is to consider building new public universities or expanding existing ones.

The research will provide the number of university spaces required given a certain MSCE-points threshold. The third option is to provide scholarships and grants to private and faith-based universities to admit government public students as the case is with some grant-aided secondary schools. The fourth option is to remove completely the quota and go 100 percent merit. The last option is to go to a new hybrid system which is pro-merit as opposed to pro-quota. It is a merit-based system with reverse quota for disadvantaged groups and districts.

Under this system, all students who achieve threshold MSCE aggregate points will be guaranteed a place at a public university to do a programme of their choice. Thereafter, districts and disadvantaged groups that have not met minimum quota numbers will be admitted by relaxing the university entrance conditions.

In this way, no student who has passed well will be left out on account of district quotas. Our research will provide the threshold MSCE points values and the modalities for its implementation. We are of the view that this last option may unlock the quota system debate after thorough evaluation through this research.

What are the next steps?

The biggest hurdle in getting this research done is not the money required but in accessing the candidate-level data from Maneb and NCHE to allow such analyses. Given the importance of this research in providing evidence-based answers to the quota system debate, government and most development partners would willingly pay the required $65,000 to carry out this comprehensive research. Within six months we would have a detailed report on the analyses. The methodology is already developed and ready to go.

The Maneb data required is from 2013 to 2019 MSCE candidate-level data (less the student names and examination numbers). I already have MSCE data for the years 2004 to 2012 partly analysed as I was developing and sharpening the methodology.

However, both Maneb and NCHE are reluctant to release the rest of the data to a public university researcher like me on account of confidentiality of the data. Even after offering that Maneb can first remove all student names and examination numbers and we get the rest of the parameters, Maneb has flatly refused. We have explained, begged, pleaded with Maneb to no avail since 2018. We started the research in 2017 funded by ourselves.

Initially, Maneb had agreed to give us the data if we could pay for computer time and labour for processing the data. We have the communications. We even tried to negotiate down the price but this was refused. When we finally organised the money they had asked for, Maneb changed tune, saying they cannot release candidate-level data.

We suspect (without proof) that Maneb’s change of heart was from orders from above given that quota system is now a hot public-policy issue. But without this research, there will be no evidence-based answers to policy makers to unlock the quota system debate.

It is for Malawi when one taxpayer-funded public institution refuses to give research data to researchers from another taxpayer-funded public institution to help policy makers unlock a hot public policy issue like quota. Malawi cannot develop with such kinds of mindsets.

Given that the quota debate is now a public policy issue with human rights dimensions, it is our strong hope that the Ombudsman, MHRC and the Parliamentary Committee on Education can take interest in this issue and use their powers to help us get the candidate-level data from Maneb and NCHE.

As seasoned public researchers, we will maintain the confidentiality of the data and share the report with key stakeholders first before releasing the report to the wider public audience while informing policy makers on successor options on the quota system.

Writing in his personal capacity, the author is an Associate Professor at Bunda College of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He specialises in solving national level intractable problems.

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