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Why communication matters

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Teaching on persuasive writing, one renowned instructor, said Winston Churchill would not be highly regarded today if it were not for his power to communicate.

I thought it was one of those pedagogical skills by teachers to ensure we fully grasp the lesson.

Growing up, I had always heard about the importance of hard work, honesty and other things but never communication.

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Yet now I have come to know the instructor was right.

It is not enough to just invite individuals and come up with big ideas to share with them. You also need to work hard to communicate the ideas clearly in order to persuade them to consider your way of thinking.

I take, for example, one Dedza East Member of Parliament Juliana Lunguzi’s post on her Facebook page she titled ‘Should fees fall or stay as recently hiked?’ to illustrate my point.

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Lunguzi starts: “Ever since I heard the rumour that Unima fees would rise, when the increases have been duly communicated, I have been in pain, my heart torn into two pieces.

“My heart is torn because while I agree that University Education is not cheap, I am also aware of many students who were failing to pay university fees in public universities at the rates before the increase.”

To assert that, indeed, some university students have been failing to pay fees, the lawmaker concretises her point and brings in the story on Naomi (not real name) that hit her inbox at a particular time.

The post reads:

“Dear Madame,

Can you please help my friend, Naomi. Naomi got eight points and a place at The Polytechnic to study Bachelor of Civil Engineering.

Naomi is intelligent but has withdrawn due to lack of fees and, as I write, she is looking for any job in town, just to survive.

Her dreams are now shuttered unless people like you find her a scholarship. It pains me to see a young hard-working intelligent girl withdrawing from the university.

I have tried to contact different organisations and people to help her but nobody has responded. She is an orphan who never saw her parents and was raised by her sister who runs a hair salon and her income is not enough to feed the family, let alone pay Naomi’s school fees.

I can send you more information, that is, results notification slip and admission letter if necessary.

I sincerely hope that you will find it in your heart of hearts that Naomi is worth of your time and support.”

Many schools do not teach communication perse. They teach mathematics, some science, social science, humanities and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly.

But in her attempt to solicit views on how best to solve the University of Malawi’s (Unima) fees hike, Lunguzi did best to touch on the pathos of her readers.

But it was not the case with Unima Council during the briefing they convened at Golden Peacock Hotel in Lilongwe and was attended by different individuals including members of the private sector, civil society organisations, the academia and politicians.

Suppose I were there at the meeting but my mind boggling at some more Naomis that the fees hike will force into destitution, with some even forced to sell their bodies, just to earn a living.

And then there comes a justification for the increase.

“The latest university ranking puts Unima at 149 out of 200 in Africa. In the context of globalisation and networking, this is a very poor position to occupy and particularly painful when we remember that our university was highly rated in the 1980s and 1990s.”

The statement from the Unima Council’s Chairperson, Professor Jack Wirima, suggests that the reason for fees hike is merely sustainability and improvement – of course, without a clear picture of where we are coming from and how the council will attain its rank-jump objective.

So I have to struggle making connections and filling the mind ellipsis left by the justification.

Of course, I might know that investing in education meant investing in my country’s future. However, I might also be aware, so too the Unima Council, that rather than sinking a great deal of money, sometimes unproductively, into these other areas such as Decent and Affordable Housing (Cement and Malata) Subsidy Programme, the government would relocate such funds to education.

By so doing, the ‘caring’ government can rescue intelligent and deserving students whose futures will be cut by the 600 percent fees increase, in Lunguzi’s words, “just like that, because they come from poor families, or worse, because they are orphans”.

Surely, Unima Council knows the challenge that fiscal constraints can pose to public universities, especially for the low- and middle-income countries to which Malawi belongs. The council also knows that it is possible to achieve success on a limited budget.

After all, simply having more money would mean little if there were no other necessary tools the council needs to succeed and take Unima to higher rungs on the ranking ladder.

Yet a team from Unima Council led by Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Kalenga Saka, not long ago appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Education, where they explained their budget.

The presentation reads: “The net outstanding obligations in the form of unpaid invoices to suppliers of goods and services, unremitted taxes and pension contributions are expected to exceed K1.8 billion at the end of 30 June 2016.”

Unima Council officials said underfunding in recent years is what has led to accumulation of the outstanding financial obligations, which have been carried over from one year to another.

Unima Finance Officer, Henry Chiwaya, said the university’s capacity to properly service its obligations has been further hampered by funding shortfalls in subvention that was approved in 2015/2016 financial year.

“The Ministry of Finance was requested to adjust the 2016/2017 subvention to meet this requirement. In April 2015, the ministry had communicated tentative subvention ceiling of K20.3 billion, one percent point down on the revised subvention for 2015/2016 financial year. The deficit, therefore, stands at K14.3 billion,” the document reads.

It adds: “The University of Malawi will find it difficult to operate normally for the full year if 2016/2017 subvention allocation remains as proposed.”

Perhaps hearing this, then I, together with the council, would start contemplating mechanism that should be put in place so that not only Unima but also disadvantaged Naomis and Johns should not fall through the cracks.

It is said our present epoch is an information age. But, in truth, we live in a communication age and it is time we started taking it seriously.

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