About a couple of weeks ago Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika told academics at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College that they were not being creative enough in helping to curb unemployment rate in the country. Unemployment is indeed a problem and I agree with Mutharika’s observation that it has a lot to do with Malawi’s education. However, I do not think the problem can be tackled top down; it is the other way round.
Malawi education requires some fundamental changes from grassroots and not only at university level. After all, it is extremely minority of Malawians that make it to university. Just for the record, Unicef statistics indicate that it takes an average of 14 years for a child to complete the eight-year primary school cycle as a quarter of children repeat a grade; the net enrollment rates are high in grades one and two for both boys and girls, but over half of the children do not reach grade 5, so they leave school before they are literate and numerate.
The stats further show that despite the abolition of school fees in 1994, over 10 per cent of eligible children in Malawi do not attend school; net enrollment rates are high in grades one and two for both boys and girls, but completion rates for primary education are low at 26 per cent on average and only 16 per cent for girls.
These figures demonstrate that university education in Malawi is for the fortunate few. The story here being job creation through university, these stats begs a questions: what about this majority that fall on the wayside? The problem is with our education system, the current curricula only prepares children for administration work, which is not practical in a country that do not have big private and indeed public sector to absorb the work-force that the school curricula is meant to create.
A couple of months ago I read a brilliant article by a Tanzanian journalist, Young Kimaro on this very subject. Kimaro argued that education in Tanzanian is still that of colonialists, tailored to produce administrators and clerks to work in colonial offices and not to equip Africans with self sustained skills. This is exactly the case in Malawi.
My final class in primary school – standard 8 – had about 28 pupils, almost equal between boys and girls. About twenty of us passed final exam, 4 boys got selected to go to government secondary schools, I was not one of them. I ended up at a private secondary school, I was the only one whose family was fortunate enough to afford the high costs of private education. Of the 4 boys who got selected, only one finished the secondary school and went on to study marketing at a private college in Lilongwe. He’s now back at our home village, married with a child and he is jobless.
With this picture I cannot see anyone who know this friend of mine being motivated to send their children to school. Now, what strikes me most here is not only Mutharika’s seeming neglect for the majority that do not reach the university, but the fact that successive governments in Malawi are happy to continue with school curricula that is clearly not delivering. If my primary school friends were to be encouraged to study some skill, say, carpentry, brick laying, tailoring etc. Would they not be self employed today? Instead, we did English, Maths, History, Bible Knowledge, Agriculture (theory), Commerce, Chichewa, Health-Science, and so on. I have just completed my Masters, now job hunting, but I am sure no-one would have employed me based on the aforementioned school subjects.
Once again, Kimaro gave example of some of the countries that did not had colonial education, such as Japan and China. They do not use English or French, as a language of instruction, yet the world is awash with their high-tech products. They emphasise and encourage creativity in their education. Malawi needs to re-think and do so quickly. It’s not only the minority who gets to university that matter, but also the majority who fall by the way side need help. This help will not only come as a result of job creation, schools must also concentrate on teaching subjects that will foster self sustained generation of children. By the end of the day employers are looking for skilled people. Has anyone ever wondered as to why the Chinese construction workers come with their own work-force to Africa?