University of Malawi Fee Hike

The University of Malawi (UNIMA) has recently introduced increased fees for students. The proposed new fees are as follows:

Chancellor College

Generic students: K400, 000

Mature entry students: K900, 000

College of Medicine

Generic students: K600, 000

Mature entry students: K1, 400, 000

Kamuzu College of Nursing

Generic students: K450, 000

Mature entry students: K1, 000, 000

The Polytechnic

Generic students: K450, 000

Mature entry students: K950, 000

In many cases these new fees amount to a 400% increase on what students are currently paying. Students have conducted demonstrations to highlight their unhappiness over the new fees, which led to Chancellor College being closed for a short period.

Timeline of events

May 12th — Letter from the UNIMA council to all constituent college principles, finance officers, registrars informing them of the new course prices and urging them to implement them in the upcoming term 2016/2017.

June 29th — University of Malawi Student’s Union (UMSU) gives MoEST 72-hour ultimatum to review the new fees

July 11th — UNIMA announce that there will be no change to the new fees

July 18th — Chancellor college students conduct first demonstration. Classes are closed

July 19th — Second day of Chancellor college demonstrations. US Second Lady Jill Biden’s motorcade is blocked by demonstrating students. Chancellor college is closed indefinitely.

July 25th — Polytechnic and Kamuzu College of Nursing students hold demonstrations

July 28th — Kamuzu College of Nursing students hold demonstrations

July 29th — Civil society organisations plan demonstrations for August 4th

August 1st — Students deliver petition to the Office of President and Cabinet requesting a meeting to discuss fees issue with president

August 4th — Meeting takes place. Demonstrations in Mzuzu, Zomba, Blantyre and Lilongwe take place. Mutharika’s press officer allegedly calls students ‘idiots’ in a leaked conversation. President orders fee reduction of 50000MK and for Chancellor College to be reopened immediately

August 9th — UMSU say that the deal is not good enough.

August 17th — It’s reported that UNIMA institutions that have already opened for students — College of Medicine — do not implement Mutharika’s revised fees, but the initially hiked fees instead, saying that they have received no official communication regarding reducing the fees.

August 18th — Student union leaders are summoned for a disciplinary hearing regarding the demonstrations.

August 19th — It’s announced that Chancellor College will reopen on the 12th of September

COMSU letter

August 22nd — College of Medicine Student’s Union (COMSU) deliver a notice requesting permission to conduct a further demonstration on August 24th.

August 24th — Permission is denied and the demonstration does not take place.

At least 27 students were arrested during the demonstrations, which were technically illegal. Student representatives say that they initially attempted to pursue a legal means of protesting but were blocked by the district councils. The police force has been heavily criticised for their use of force during the demonstrations — a video of an officer beating a young female student was widely circulated on social media and there have been calls to prosecute over the use of unnecessary and excessive force.

There’s been a general sense of frustration and confusion among students and staff over the last month. No one really knew what was happening and while all UNIMA colleges are either open again or will be opening in the next few weeks, for students the issue is very much still unresolved. However, the UNIMA council are unlikely to make any further adjustments unless President Mutharika intervenes yet again. The majority of students I’ve spoken to aren’t against a tuition fee rise per say, but feel it should have been introduced more gradually, with a 5–10% increase per year. One of the main justifications given for the fee hike is that it costs K2.8 million on average to provide one student with university education. There’s a consensus among students that if the fees remain as they are proposed, even with the 50K MK reduction, then they’ll have to leave the university and reports of some students already having had to drop out of their courses.

Students I’ve interviewed so far are increasingly anxious about the situation in higher education in Malawi, concerned both about their ability to continue to finance their education and the prevalence of university closures. There’s a feeling that the fee hike will make university education even more exclusive than it already is, unattainable for those outwith the highest socioeconomic groups. A few students I’ve spoken to indicated that they’ve now been at university for 6 years, studying what should have been a 4 year undergraduate degree. This then reflects negatively on them when they’re applying for jobs or further study. Most students I’ve spoken to are also frustrated at the consistent denial of their right to conduct legal demonstrations. Student leaders are continuing to pursue the issue, but there are reports of divisions within different colleges’ unions on the best way to move forward.

A few comments from students I’ve spoken to:

‘The Malawi Government doesn’t understand conversation or enter into dialogue. It won’t work’

‘It’s not good to do it, because the Malawian economy isn’t doing too good, so it’s just unfair’

‘The Government have to subsidise the fees so that the poor can get to university as well, because in Malawi most people aren’t able to afford tertiary education’

‘Students are complaining, it’s just too much, most parents and guardians can’t afford it’

‘Fees here in Malawi should be cheap because people aren’t earning that much. It’s viable that students are complaining because here the unemployment rate is very high.’

‘I’m happy that I’m in university, it’s a privilege that most people don’t get. But that standard and quality of education is very low, compared to institutions in other countries.’

‘The main issue is that students are unhappy with the fee hike as it’s unreasonable given the economic situation in Malawi. The economy is unstable and it’s unjustified, they’re hiking the fees, they’re expecting people to pump in more money which they just don’t have.’

‘We understand that fees may have to be hiked but it has to reflect the situation on the ground and people’s financial capabilities.’