…fees hike -universities, secondary Schools hit hard
…hunger worsens school access in Lower Shire.
Thousands of poor students in Malawi’s public universities and secondary schools risk not returning to school as the Government continues to “sleep on the job” by raising school fees, without corresponding safety nets, The Investigator Magazine has found out.
An average increase of K200,000 for Universities and K50,000 for secondary schools will exclude hundreds of the poorest of the poor, who were already failing to pay the old fees, and food shortages are said to have changed family priorities as the meagre incomes now are being used to buy food.
Malawi has now two-thirds living below K3,000 a day classified as below the poverty line. The currency- the Malawi kwacha continues to lose value and the government has been doing weekly devaluations disguised as foreign exchange trading. High street banks are already selling the US dollar over K1600 making a mockery of the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s foreign exchange auctions.
The cost of living has been rising sharply and conspicuously absent under the leadership of President Lazarus Chakwera and his Tonse Alliance is a plan to mitigate the impact of the high cost of goods and services which has now spilled into the education sector.
The president’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) election manifesto promised to, “promote free public secondary education to guarantee access even to those coming from disadvantaged families and backgrounds.” Instead, fees are going up, and no immediate response from the government.
The promise or the idea is yet even to take shape, instead, fees have risen from K45,000 to K120,000 in the three years he has been in power and are likely to keep rising, ending the dreams of hundreds of poor families that have invested in the future of their wards.
Public Secondary School fees unreachable to many
As secondary and primary schools open, many of those who cannot afford fees are now desperate as they cannot support their children, forcing some young people to start looking for work instead of school.
14-year-old John from the Traditional Kapichi area in Thyolo, who looks after four siblings, is now looking for casual work in Tea Estates to raise the new school fees which have been raised from K90,000 to K120,000.00.
John was under a Constituency Development Fund (CDF) bursary scheme which is pegged at K5 million annually and has been a lifeline for many of those who could not afford to pay public school fees.
The 5 million is five percent of K100 million CDF given to parliamentarians to initiate and support development projects in their constituencies, but at K45,000 fees it was enough to settle for 100 students annually.
“Fees was raised to K60,000 in the 2021/2022 education year and then to K90,000 for the past year. To carter for the students, parents and guardians were contributing K30,000 just to ensure they completed school. Many come from poor families, they can’t afford food, let alone decent clothes,” explained one of the committee members we found at Thyolo Boma.
The increase to K120,000 for Thyolo Secondary School means the fund will only be able to support 41 students and about 60 others will have to find alternative financing with those starting in Form 1 having no access to the funds.
“The idea is once one is on bursary; they can’t be removed. I will personally follow up on John and do everything possible so that he completes his education. My biggest fear is those young girls who were supposed to start, and they can’t be supported might resort to getting married as we deny them an opportunity to go to school,” responded parliamentarian for the area Ben Phiri, when we asked him about John’s situation.
Dr. Ben Phiri’s headache is shared by at least 26 parliamentarians we reached out to comment on the matter. Those based in urban constituencies state the situation is worse, as fees and other things are more expensive for those in towns and cities.
“K5 million has turned out to be a joke, you must deny hundreds of deserving students because simply there is no money to pay. I was praying that MCP would make its promise of free secondary education a reality. But now with fees increase, I have no idea what will happen,” said an MCP legislator from Lilongwe, who said with food shortages, school fees will be the last things parents will be looking for.
Appeals support area growing that Social Media Influencer Pemphero Mphande has been posting calls for support to several young girls from Mchinji and other areas to get support of fees.
Lower Shire kids face a double burden.
The situation is worse in the Lower Shire where food shortages are already at peak and apart from fees, young children are supporting their families by looking for food or piece work to buy food.
“I come from Bangula in Nsanje to beg here so we can buy food. Otherwise going to school is a non-starter, we don’t have food, I live with my mum and four other children,” said a young man, who claimed he was in form 1 at a school near Bangula trading.
The Lower Shire is flood-prone and the March Cyclone Freddy hit the two districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje and wiped out most of their produce and recovery efforts have been too slow for life to return to normal.
Some families in Nsanje Lalanje are still in make-shift camps.
However, some schools we approached reported some parliamentarians have been paying fees by “mouth” which has contributed to some schools failing to provide services to students on bursary loans.
“The MPs sometimes send children on bursary, and they don’t remit the funds to schools, it is good you are asking these questions. Find out for us as well. Some have threatened teachers with transfers if they ask for payment. The chaos in education needs strong leadership. The Ministry of Education does not seem too aware that it is failing to provide education,” said a teacher in Chikwawa.
Girls in rural areas are more at risk
The failure to get fees and support for education will impact more young girls, putting them at risk of early marriages or childbearing, which has consequences for the long-term development efforts of the country.
“It is the responsibility of the Government to cushion its citizenry against shocks of its policies such as devaluation. Keeping a child for a full circle is part of population management and it helps in avoiding teen pregnancies. As you are aware, if a child starts childbearing at 18 she would have physically matured and reduces the maternal mortality rate at the same time reduces the number of children the same child would have given if she had started giving birth at say 13. Now by keeping these pupils home due to school fees issues, it shows lack of government seriousness not only in education but also issues of population and family planning, maternal death, and promotion of a girl child,” said Dr. Phiri who is also Chairperson of the Southern and Eastern African parliamentary Caucus on SRHR and Sustainable development.
“I am pleading with the government to consider either increasing the bursary or reducing the school fees to allow as many children as possible to go to school. Education is an investment and must be a priority as human development is key to any country’s progress,” pleaded Phiri.
Struggling University students facing torrid times
University students will be returning to their programmes next semester full of anxiety as many have already been struggling to pay for their education, with the President himself donating K120 million from his charity to keep hundreds in school.
Students have had to hold big walks and other fundraising initiatives to keep themselves in universities and the new K200,000 to the fees will stretch their already limited capacity.
“Already most of them are begging for assistance,” said one of the philanthropy advocates who has been helping students to raise money.
Malawi University of Science and Technology now charges K650,000 for its undergraduate programmes the same as the University of Malawi. Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Mzuzu University students will now pay an average of K600,000 while the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences will be now paying K500,000.
Government mum on increase, safety nets
The President, the Ministry of Education, and the entire government system have remained mum on the impending education affordability that could lead to hundreds of students withdrawing from schools or failing to take up their places in Form 1.
The Ministry of Education is yet to respond to our questions.