Granted, the University of Malawi (Unima), now 52, is on the verge of being dismantled. This will see four constituent colleges attaining university status.
While the decision has created euphoria, the idea itself is not new.
Education analyst Steve Sharra says the idea to dismantle the institution first surfaced during the reign of Bakili Muluzi.
However, the idea did not materialise as it was shelved, not to be heard of again until it was mentioned in a speech by the then Unima Vice-Chancellor, Emmanuel Fabiano. At the time, Fabiano suggested that doing so would be in the interest of the public university.
But, since tussling for power seems to have become one of the specialties of Unima, soon newspaper pages were filled with negative news articles of events in the public university. This, naturally, overshadowed the issue of dismantling Unima.
For example, at one point, there were misunderstandings between the University Council, the central office of the institution, and principals of constituent colleges of the institution. The later was being accused by the former of being power hungry.
The accusation followed the suggestion made by principals to have Unima constituent colleges dismantled. May be this was the effect the decision to delink the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) — which was called Bunda College of Agriculture when it was under the armpit of Unima.
However, Vanywk Chikasanda, education specialist and lecturer at The Polytechnic— one of Unima’s constituent colleges— says blaming principals might simply have been a typical case of barking at the wrong tree, saying the principals were merely messengers.
In his understanding, the decision to dismantle the institution came from students and Unima staff.
That aside, the First Citizen, who is also the “honorary” Chancellor of Unima, has finally, given his nod to the decision to unbundle Unima.
The question is: What next?
Before the advantages of dismantling Unima are highlighted, several issues have to be highlighted.
“A possible negative is the daunting task of building a reputation and standing, regionally and internationally. Currently, the [constituent] colleges benefit from the good reputation and standing of Unima overall. On their own, they will need to build individual reputations, which, for most universities, takes many years and decades,” Sharra argues.
Unima has, as a brand, 52 years to its name. When the university dismantles, each college will have to put a face to its name.
The fact that graduates from Unima standout and gloat when they are amongtheir counterparts from other institutions in the country cannot be overlooked.
Therefore, splitting the colleges will mean each institution/college has to build a reputation in the industry. Not as a constituent college but as a university in its own standing.
This task, according to Sharra, will take years to accomplish. It would only be right to assume that these colleges are ready to embark on the reputation-building exercise; otherwise, it is the splitting that might lead to a demise of reputation and ranking of the colleges.
In the meantime, the university, meaning all its constituent colleges, relies on the government for funding. A big chunk of funds that these colleges use for their day to day running is from the government.
What happens is that the university comes up with a budget and, when the funding arrives, the money is divided and allocated to each college. Now, when these colleges attain independence, will they still rely on government for funding? It is right to assume that this will even be a bigger strain on government coffers.
“The ability to pursue new initiatives is based on the supposition that the new universities will have that capacity and the right resources. Developing resources and capacity will not be an overnight thing, and there is potential for the whole idea to go wrong if the universities are not properly funded,” Sharra says.
So, before the individual colleges start celebrating “we are an independent university” and start gloating about it, they should make sure they have contingency plans in case funding goes south.
Contrasting with this negative, is there a possibility that the new universities will be open to funding from different partners.
Chikasanda, while drawing comparisons with Luanar, argues that when the colleges are made independent, more investors and researchers will pour resources into the new universities.
Chikasanda adds that Unima’s federal structure retards the growth of individual colleges, adding that doing away with the federal structure will give the colleges room to expand.
Chikasanda adds that Unima unbundling will pave the way for growth, both in terms of opportunities available to students who enroll in the university as well as the number of programmes that could be on offer.
“If the colleges become autonomous, they will offer more programmes and increase the number of students,” Chikasanda says.
There are also suggestions that making the colleges autonomous will bring with it freedom and space as universities will be more creative and innovative and have liberty to explore new partnerships, projects and other ambitions.
These, according to Sharra, might not be easy tasks to accomplish in a federal structure.
Sharra attributes some challenges facing Unima constituent colleges to bureaucracy that exists in the university.
Echoing Sharra’s comments, Chikasanda elaborates that the federal structure does not allow the colleges to be innovative as they have to abide by rules and regulations that are instituted.
In the end, though, one only hopes that Unima does not find itself in a situation that makes the words ‘better said than done’ ring true.