Sunday, 8 November 2009

If I was a Country called Malawi......

Statistics and Tertiary Education

A guy called Mark Twain claimed that Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. With that in mind, I browsed through the education statistics documented by UNESCO. The statistics provide very elaborate information that I am sure countries use to determine public policy as well as public expenditure. For example, the statistics ranks the various countries in different categories and policy makers can learn best practices from countries that are doing well and successful. Statistics however, may not tell the whole story. Aaron Levenstein once said, “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” One needs to go beyond the statistics and look at the impact on the ground. But for now, here are the statistics:


Malawi is ranked last in the world (No. 150) together with Vanuatu. Malawi’s total tertiary enrolment rate is 0.3% (about 4,500 students). Compare this with Burundi (12,000) Rwanda (20,000); Zambia 25,000; Zimbabwe (56,000); Uganda (74,000); Libya (375,000).

Not encouraging. I then went to the next table. I was excited when I saw Malawi right at the top! Number 2! Yes, Malawi ranks second in the world (Vanuatu is ranked first) in terms of public spending per student at tertiary level. Tertiary education gets 18% out of the education budget and with this Malawi spends $1,492 per student (MK208000). Is this good news? Well if you spend so much money on a small fraction of your population, when same money can be spread to more people, it is not good news. The lowest ranked on the chart, is Brunei that spends US$8.5 per student. Namibia spends US$147 and South Africa, US$61.

For argument’s sake, let us assume Malawi adopts best practices and reduces public spending per student at tertiary level to US$500 per student. With the same budget, we could easily triple the enrolment from 4500 to 13,500 students. If we learnt from Zambia who, allocate US$330 per student per year from public coffers, we could increase the number of students to 22,000! Is this rocket science? Talking about budgets, a guy called Russell Lewis tells the following story:

“Give us a copper Guv," said the beggar to the Treasury statistician when he waylaid him in Parliament square. "I haven't eaten for three days."
"Ah," said the statistician, "And how does that compare with the same period last year?"


Vocational education has never been given the priority it deserves in Malawi. Compare this to countries like Ethiopia, Cameroon , Canada, Libya, Israel South Africa, who have student enrolment of between 100,000 – 400,000 students. The graduates from these vocational schools form your artisan group of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. Malawi is reported to have an enrolment of less than 800 students (even lower than Seychelles a country of 88,000 people).

Robert Hayden was probably right when he said “In God we trust. All others must bring data”. Given the statistics and the opportunities that Malawi has (i.e.
Malawi is already spending too much money per student) where should our priorities be? I believe that our priority should be in tackling two issues. First, at a stroke of a pen, initially increasing University enrolment at least threefold (from 4500 to 13,000) and increasing vocational enrolment to 10,000 in the next 5 years. This is still small considering that you have 50,000 students finishing form 4 every year. But the change would mean that the University can absorb more that (80-90%) of MSCE qualifying students (currently the figure is only 25%). This will require a complete change in university financing system including amount of tuition and fees students will be expected to pay. All logistics of managing University will have to be contracted out and University should no longer be involved in providing accommodation, food etc. University’s role should only be teaching. Providers of accommodation will only guarantee campus space to first year students. From second year, students should, at their expense (others will get scholarships) stay outside campus. The change however should ensure disadvantaged students and those from social and economically deprived families have access to government scholarships.

Secondly, Government will have to review capacities of schools that have been producing poor results and schools in disadvantaged areas. Deliberate policy should be made to direct public investment into these areas to capacitate the schools. Probably for the next 5 years, donor support should be directed towards human capacity (i.e. teachers, learning material and lecturers) to support the programme.