I was in my second year at Chancellor College when the institution was closed in March, 1992 following student protests that were precipitated by the fallout from the release of the famous Pastoral Letter by the country’s Catholic bishops. It was another six months before we set foot on campus again. I, therefore, have an idea of how current students of the college must be feeling right now.
With my first born son currently in his fourth year at the Polytechnic, I also have a very clear idea of how parents of these Chancellor College students are feeling because my boy just returned to college a few months ago after his own long layoff that spanned another boring six months or thereabouts. When he was starting his five-year course in 2012, we were all planning on his graduation this year. As it is, however, he has one more year after this. Hopefully.
If anybody in authority could identify with the feelings of these two groups, they should be ashamed of themselves. Why should it be so difficult for people involved in the running of our universities to find solutions to their problems in a timely manner? Is it not so ironic that an institution that is supposed to produce people to help solve some of our problems cannot solve its own problems?
I have on several occasions offended people in the University of Malawi because of my less than complimentary views on how they present themselves. In the first ever opinion piece to be published under my real name in 1994, a few months before I left college to join Nation Publications Limited, I opined that people were putting too much premium on university education as a qualification for the country’s leadership because my experience taught me otherwise.
This did not go down well with some of my collegemates and a few lecturers called me aside to protest, but I was only being honest. The way some students, lecturers and administrators conducted their affairs was hardly a good advert for university education. I regretted offending those that did not like what I said, but I never backed off from my view and I will say it again whenever I have the opportunity.
Fast forward to 2007, I also stepped on the toes of the University of Malawi academics during one of the never ending pay disputes between them and the authorities in Zomba. They issued an ultimatum they could not execute and I felt that was embarrassing for people whose forte should be meticulous operations. It was clear to me that they had not thought through their threat and strategy and were left with egg in the face.
The difference between 2007 and now is that at least there was a leader who did something that time. His reaction may not have pleased everyone, but at least Bingu wa Mutharika did something and the lecturers strike ended. The students were back in class after a short time. (Don’t remind me of the academic freedom battle a few years later). The situation is different now because it seems no one cares, except the students and their parents or guardians, of course.
The other day President Peter Mutharika curiously told the nation that he cannot spend time resolving issues in the University when there is a council charged to run the institution’s affairs. Some Malawians typically clapped their hands. Really? I can write a whole book to expose the folly in this thinking, but just come to think of it. It is the duty of the President to preside over the elevation of a traditional leader, but not to solve an impasse within the University for which he is Chancellor? Clap hands again.
I hate to do this, but I need to remind my President that as Head of State and Government he is answerable for everything that happens in this country, especially in the public sector. If leaders can claim credit for bumper harvests even if they do not provide the rains nor work in our gardens, how can one pass on the responsibility of some failure to other people, who incidentally happen to be his appointees?
Granted, the University Council should be on top of the situation, but if it proves a failure as is clearly the case here, the President ought to be interested. He should not be washing his hands. As pointed out already, these are his appointees, after all. He should be taking them to task and, if need be, replacing them with people who will do as expected. In other words, he should be demonstrating that he cares by being seen to be doing something. Whether anyone likes it or not, the Council’s failure is his failure.
It does not require rocket science to know that these college closures are very costly to the economy in many ways. College staff, including the protesting academic staff, are getting their salaries for doing nothing. When they eventually start doing what they should be doing now they will be paid again, probably more if they get their way.
On the other hand, parents are having to spend time taking care of their children who should be in class. Because of the indefinite nature of the closures it is not even easy to find something productive for the students during this period and they become an unnecessary burden. And because their graduation is delayed, both the students and the economy register losses.
Someone who should have started earning his own money this year is made to wait for another year. Everyone who would have benefitted from the student being employed a year or so earlier loses out. The economy which would have benefitted from his skills and income earlier is also made to wait. These are costs that are not obvious to everyone but they are costs all the same. I expected any leader worth the name to know this and act like they do.
The disputes in our universities have been running for far too long. If it is not the students it is the support staff, if it is not the support staff it is the administrative and academic staff. Surely, there must be an end to this circus and all it takes is good leadership at all levels. Malawi needs this leadership like yesterday.