There was a time students from constituent colleges of the University of Malawi (Unima) would brag about being paid to pursue degrees.
In 2014, for example, fees were K55,000 per year for students in the then constituent colleges of the Unima— The Polytechnic in Blantyre, College of Medicine in Blantyre, Chancellor College in Zomba and Kamuzu College of Nursing in Mzuzu City— and those enrolled as government-sponsored students were receiving about K40,000 stipend allowances monthly.
In the same year, however, the government announced that sponsored students enrolled in college in 2014 would be the last to receive allowances, which were given a K10, 000 boost due to the rising cost of living at the time.
The cost of living has been worsening year after year, especially for needy students— who now have to rely on the hope of being one of the lucky ‘few’ to receive fees and upkeep money through the Higher Education Students’ Loans and Grants Board (HESLGB).
As a matter of fact, school fees in public universities have since gone up from K55,000 to K400,000 in a space of seven years.
After observing that life on campus was not for those with empty pockets, third-year student from Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences (Mubas) Auswell John, who is studying for a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and Technology, started a fruit business to complement the loan package he got from HESLGB.
“In first and second year, I received K597,000 as a loan from the board. K400,000 was channeled to fees for the rest of the year while K197,000 catered for my accommodation and food needs,” he said.
Accommodation at the college costs K96,000 per year while a meal costs about K700 per day on campus, which means, in a year, one would need about K168,000, making John short of at least K67,000— without factoring in groceries and other contingencies.
“I knew that the amount would not sustain my stay on campus because we, s college students, need a lot of things. I have to buy stationery, food and pay for my bed space on campus. I come from Chiradzulu District and stay with an uncle who also takes care of four other children and cannot afford to fully support me financially.
“Seeing all these needs, I decided to start a small-scale business that would help me find money to sustain myself. I borrowed K28,000 from a friend and bought bananas and apples. Then, I started walking room after room, asking people to buy. I was able to make enough money to pay back the loan and, then, the business started to help me find extra money for food. I am able to generate between K60,000 and K70,000 in a good month, mostly if I am not distracted by examinations,” he said.
This is just one business-minded student with the chance to make ends meet.
On the other side lie needy students without the capacity, knowledge or resources to run their own businesses on campus. How are they meant to survive college life while watching students from rich backgrounds enjoy meals, parties and the other joys of college life?
Recently, a group, trading under the name Public Universities Student Unions Taskforce, issued out a letter to HESLGB, the Ministry responsible for Economic Planning and Public Sector Reforms, Minister of Education, Minister of Finance and Parliament’s Committee on Higher Education. In the letter, the group is asking for an increase in upkeep and loan coverage.
“The students acknowledge the board for supporting the needy students so that they should accomplish their dreams and finish tertiary education. Nevertheless, it has been noted that a good number of needy and deserving students are being left out, hence they opt to withdraw, and this affects many students mentally. We hereby request the government and HESLGB to at least maximise the number of beneficiaries so that it can incorporate as many needy students as possible,” the letter reads.
Education Ministry spokesperson Chikondi Chimala earlier said efforts were being made to address challenges the education sector, including tertiary education institutions, were facing.
Meanwhile, education rights activist Benedict Kondowe has said the government should strike a deal with the private sector to provide loans to students.
“It is quite unfortunate that university loans are becoming less available and inadequate to meet the basic needs of needy students in a month or a semester. While our economy is the reason for the current situation, loan recovery has been slow. As a consequence of this, the right to education is deemed to be the right for the halves and not the halve-nots. This marginalisation has intergenerational effects.
“Therefore, in order to turnaround the predicament of these students, there is a need to diversify student loans by promoting partnership with the private sector under soft loan terms. In addition, the criteria for student loans must be revisited to give primacy to very needy students, some of whom sleep on empty stomachs and sometimes literacy spend nights on campus because they have no shelter to accommodate them,” he said.
The idea, in the long term, is to ensure that those that step in university campuses accomplish their missions.