The triviality of intellectual debates


Last week when it was announced that President Peter Mutharika has approved the unbundling of the University of Malawi, there were people who condemned the decision and called it the destruction of the university.
Others believed that this was a long overdue decision and welcomed it with joy. What was interesting was the debate on social media which was very intense and from the great minds that graduated from the University of Malawi. This debate was not on the merits or demerits of this decision but rather on the proposed name of one of the standalone universities that will come out of this decision.
The debate about the name reminded the Nutcracker of the days at HHI Secondary School from 1984 to 1989 and the few books read for English literature. The books included the plays written by a famous author called William Shakespeare. While the book that was part of the Malawi School Certificate of Education syllabus in 1989 was called Macbeth, the Nutcracker was inspired to read a few more of this author’s books, namely Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet.
In Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet, there is a line said by Juliet in reference to Romeo’s house, Montague which would imply that his name means nothing and they should be together. The actual words are “Oh, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet”.
The point of this scene is that the names of things do not affect what they really are. Whether the new university is going to be called Chichiri or whatever name will not affect the quality of teaching. The debate should rather be on the issues of access, quantity and quality of university education in Malawi. Perhaps the debate should focus on how will the increase in the number of public universities deal with the politically sensitive quota issue. Instead of debating the name, maybe the nation would benefit from a debate on the role that that higher education plays in development; it is the wish of any country to provide its citizens with the much-needed education. However, it is not always possible for the countries to meet all the educational needs of their citizens due to financial resources among other things.
It would be helpful to debate solutions to the yearly recurring problems that see huge numbers of students completing their secondary school education but only a small percentage get enrolled into the nation’s public universities? Should the debate not focus on the fact that in 2010, the world statistics indicated that only 0.3 to 0.6 percent of those eligible are enrolled? This is even more worrying when the figures are put into proper perspective. In Malawi, the percentage of those that are admitted into universities is just too small compared to those who are left out even when they qualify for admission.
The statistics indicate that during as early as 2012, only 21 percent of those who passed the University Entrance Examinations were admitted. The sad truth is that close to 80 percent of brilliant young Malawians who were eligible to university education were denied that chance not based of academic ability but by the simple reason that the university system’s infrastructure in Malawi has limited carrying capacity. The mushrooming of private universities (some of them do not even qualify to the called the name) is a clear indication that the demand for university education is far much higher than the current public universities can absorb.
The unbundling of the colleges can lead to increased access to the many deserving Malawians. The case of Mzuzu University (Mzuni) should offer some encouraging news. When Mzuni was established by the Malawi Government through an Act of Parliament in 1997, as the second public university, it started with only one faculty of education at its first intake in 1999.
Twenty years after its establishment, the university now boasts of several faculties such as Environmental Sciences, Tourism and Hospitality Management, Information Science and Communications and Health Sciences and the student population has increased from only 60 students to over 5,000 students. These new universities which will come out of this unbundling of Unima challenge the various new universities to increase their intake and compete and challenge the current public universities by offering similar or more innovative modern courses like the ones being offered by Malawi University of Science and Technology.
There is need for more public universities in Malawi. This country cannot remain behind when the rest of the continent is moving on. In 1965, Malawi had only one public university and this was the case until 1997 when Mzuni was established. Would it not be beneficial if the debate zeroed in on why Zimbabwe, a country that became independent in 1980, by 2012 it has nine public universities while this country which became independent in 1964 has only four public universities?

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