Crisis? What Crisis? Malawian Degrees and International Comparability

Article published in the Malawi Weekend Nation Newspaper, 6th April 2019 (Part I) and 13th April 2019 (Part II)

University of the West of Scotland and Chair of the Further and Higher Education Forum, Scotland-Malawi Partnership, UK. He writes in his personal capacity.

By Yonah Matemba, PhD

Introduction

Malawi’s population increases by half a million annually (2.9% growth rate) and by 2018 it stood at 17.5 million, of which 27.9% were young people (15-29 years old) ready for higher education and the world of work. However, access to higher education for eligible young people is woefully low and accounts for <1% (African average is 12%). The demand for university education in Malawi is acute and to ease pressure, the higher education sector has expanded exponentially in recent years as seem y the emergence of private universities, colleges/institutes and establishment of new public universities, including the expected ‘unbundling’ of the University of Malawi (UNIMA).   

Public Universities

4 Registered

4 Anticipated after UNIMA ‘unbundling’

Private Universities

19 Registered

2 Provisionally registered

Colleges/Institutes

12 Registered
2 Provisionally registered
5 Registered for tuition only

The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) established in 2011 by an Act of Parliament has brought some sanity to the higher education sector (both public and private) in terms of registration and accreditation. Although currently there are more than 25 registered institutions teaching to degree level, NCHE has accredited only 15 universities and colleges (five public and 10 private) as bona fide degree granting institutions.

The recent (2018) uproar NCHE caused by its (correct) decision to ‘un-register’ and ‘un-accredit’ unfit universities, including accrediting (or not) particular degree programmes within individual institutions already accredited, wound indicate a crisis of confidence in Malawi’s higher education sector, particularly since the emergence of private universities in the mid-2000s. Although the American based African Bible College started a degree programme in 1989, it did not receive full government recognition until 2008.

While the work of NCHE goes someway to assure the public about the credibility of the higher education sector, the brute reality is that degrees offered by Malawian universities do not compare favourably with degree qualifications particularly in the United Kingdom (UK).

Critical Issues with Malawian Degrees

University education is expensive and to imagine spending time and money investing in a degree programme whose certificate is only as good as the paper it is written on, could be heart breaking. Crisis? what crisis? are three words that perhaps capture succinctly the issue with Malawian degrees. It is not that the public and government agencies, including NCHE, are unaware of inherent quality issues in the higher education sector, rather that people may not fully realise the extent to which Malawian degrees are downgraded when subjected to comparability assessment by the UK’s National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC).

The issue is that since the mid-2000s a number of UK universities that use NARIC have been refusing applications from Malawian students on the basis that their degrees do not compare with UK degrees. This practice is now widespread, adversely affecting Malawian applications seeking postgraduate study in the UK.

The failure to recognise the extent of the problem can be attributed to a number of interrelated factors. UNIMA as the only degree granting institution in the country from 1965 until Mzuzu University came along in 1997, followed a typical British university structure in terms of teaching, learning, assessment, resources (including staffing) and quality control arrangements. As such, earlier holders of UNIMA degrees who had unfettered access to postgraduate study at UK universities could be understandably sceptical about the claims of crisis of Malawian degrees.

Not all UK universities follow strictly NARIC’s assessment of international qualifications, and some choosing to make their own assessment of applicants’ foreign degrees. Malawian students who apply to such universities (e.g. Strathclyde, Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow etc.) could be admitted (as most do) for postgraduate study without ever knowing that if they had applied to universities that use strictly NARIC’s assessment, the outcome of their application could be different.

Holders of Malawian degrees who apply for postgraduate studies in Africa, Middle East and those wishing to study in countries like Japan, USA, Canada and Australia gain admission and as such, the UK NARIC issue might not be of particular concern and thus question claims of ‘crisis’ regarding the international comparability of Malawian degrees

UK NARIC and the Nature of Its Work

UK NARIC is the official designated agency for the recognition and comparison of qualifications and skills. It provides informed advice and guidance on institutions and qualifications from across the world, on behalf of the UK government, and principally to service institutions and employers in the UK. 

It is part of the NARIC network, an initiative of the European Commission created in 1984. The network, inter alia, aims at improving academic recognition of qualifications and periods of study in the member states of the European Union (EU), the European Economic Area (EEA) and the associated countries in Central and Eastern Europe. In the UK, its work covers for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in England, and its scope reaches the devolved regions such as Scotland.

UK NARIC bases the assessment of qualifications on a learning outcomes approach, and involves a holistic analysis of a qualification, taking into account all possible variables available to it. UK NARIC claims that the application of this methodology ensures that the evaluations are transparent, objective and neutral. Controversially perhaps, international qualifications UK NARIC evaluates are compared against UK standards and qualification levels.

UK NARIC seeks, as far as possible, to identify minimum standards that apply to ‘national awards’ across the whole of a country, done with reference to and in consultation with relevant authorities in country that operate to independently oversee qualifications and institutions, and to ensure adherence to national regulatory standards.

For UK NARIC the assessment it makes are not based solely on comparing the duration of courses of study and that a Bachelor degree in country X might not be evaluated by UK NARIC as comparable to a UK Bachelor degree. UK NARIC recognises that education systems and years of schooling vary in different countries, and all this affected by different entry levels onto higher education. For this reason, in its assessment of various qualifications from different countries, UK NARIC recognises that a Bachelors or a Masters degree in one country may not necessarily equal a Bachelors or Masters degree in another country.

UK NARIC’s Comparability Assessment of Malawian Degrees

UK NARIC carries out regular, planned and periodic reviews of all of its databases, within which information is available for 208 countries. In the case of Malawi, the country’s file was last reviewed in 2017.  Based on NARIC’s evaluation, in broad terms, Malawian degrees are downgraded to a grade lower in comparison with similar British qualifications (Zambian degrees are also downgraded evaluated in a similar predicament while those from Zimbabwe or Tanzania, for example, meet NARIC’s standards). Based on UK NARIC’s evaluation, Malawian university degrees are assessed as follows:

  • Bachelors degrees are comparable to British two year Higher National Diploma (HND)
  • Bachelors degrees in professional subjects such as engineering, law, medicine and veterinary science are comparable to three year British Bachelor Ordinary Degree standard.
  • Masters degrees are comparable to British four year Bachelor Degree Honours.

Malawian professional undergraduate degree programmes are assessed rather differently (and better) by UK NARIC because these often require the completion of a separate foundation programme or one to two years undergraduate study prior to entry onto the course. UK NARIC’s assessment of Malawi degrees is influenced by a number of indicative factors.

  • The number of years primary and secondary students stay in education is lower in Malawi lasting 12 years while in the UK it lasts for 13 years.
  • Entry level into university in Malawi is lower. Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), which is atypical (and sole) requirement for university entry is compared to the British GCSE (Grades A*-C) / Scottish National 5 (Grades A-C). While in the UK university, entry is based on higher academic (i.e. A-Level in England & Wales and Highers/Advanced Highers in Scotland) and non-academic qualifications (i.e. two-year vocational qualification). For some universities like Oxford and Cambridge an interview is also required as part of the application process.
  • Malawi lacks a number of relevant quality control structures which UK NARIC relies on to make a holistic evaluation of a country’s national qualifications. Despite discussions going back to 2007, including tabling a bill in 2016, to date Malawi does not have a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) to provide oversight for academic standards and formalise national awards.
  • Malawi does not have an independent regulatory body to oversee national qualifications. Although a draft bill was tabled in Parliament in 2017, intending to set up such an authority, to date this has not actualised. Only, recently has NCHE formalised minimum standards for higher education institutions although the substantive report, including criteria for formal accreditation/dis-accreditation of degree-granting institutions has not been shared, at least publicly.

Implications and Suggestions

The UK remains the main destination for work-force training for Malawian academics, government officials and industry specialists, especially in technical or scarce professional niche areas, and therefore ensuring degree comparability is crucial.

Since that UK universities do not publish whether they are bound or not by NARIC’s evaluation, it is difficult for prospective Malawian students to know which UK institutions do not rely on NARIC’s assessment and choose those for postgraduate study.

The UK government, universities and other bodies (such as the Commonwealth) occasionally offer open competitive scholarships for postgraduate study in the UK. Malawian applicants who apply to UK universities that use NARIC miss out because their applications are rejected for not meeting the minimum degrees requirements of a comparable UK degree.

The downgrading of degrees from Malawi also affects individuals with UK residence status and wishing to apply for professional recognition in areas such as teaching and nursing. Teachers who qualified through UNIMA are unable to register with professional bodies such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) because GTCS currently uses NARIC’s comparability assessment.

In 2019, UNIMA—the best ranked university in Malawi—was placed 82 in Africa out of 1685 and 3075 in the world out of 28158. Although one Malawian university is at least in the top one hundred in African, in reality there is no cause for celebration here, if we also consider that Catholic University of Malawi, the country’s top private university, is ranked 1240 in Africa and 23518 in the world. Competitive university education is the ‘new’ currency in a globalised work environment and as such international comparability of provision matters and high university ranking matter.

Undeniably, the quality of Malawian university degrees is not at the desired level. To improve standards and ensure international comparability, a national qualifications framework called ‘Malawi Qualifications Framework’ (MQF) should be developed as a matter of urgency. Such a framework should define learning outcomes and explain how levels of learning link with credit values of various qualifications, both school based and vocational & Technical education.  

In addition, and importantly, an independent regulatory body called ‘Malawi Credit and Qualifications Authority’ (MCQA) to set and manage qualifications and oversee standards should be established. This body should subsume or complement the work of done by Malawi National Examination Board (MANEB) and Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education and Training Authority (TEVETA).

Fundamental reforms to the structure of primary and secondary education, including new assessment regimes are urgently needed. To increase the length of study for primary and secondary education by at least by one year, a new 8+3+2 education system is suggested:

  • Eight years to be spent in primary school and students to write the Primary Leaving Certificate Examination (PSLCE).
  • Three years to be spent in secondary school, with content of teaching comprising aspects of the former Junior Secondary curriculum and current Malawi School Certificate curriculum. At the end of this stage, students to write a new national examination called ‘Malawi Ordinary School Certificate (MOSCE). Students with general passes at MOSCE should be eligible for entry into colleges and institutes to undertake various courses in Social Sciences; Nursing; Teaching Studies; Arts & Crafts (including Music); Technical & Vocational for the award of a one year Higher National Certificate (HNC), upgrading to a two year Higher National Diploma (HND). A student with an HND should be eligible for university entry as a second year student in a related degree programme. 
  • Students with good MOSCE passes should proceed to senior secondary school for two years, and then write a new national examination called ‘Malawi Advanced School Certificate (MASCE). Students successful at MASCE should be eligible for university selection into a degree programme as direct entry candidates. Those less successful at MASCE should be able to apply to colleges and institutes for either an HNC or HND and if successful at HND they should be eligible for university entry as second year a student in a related degree programme.

In considering this issue, there is need perhaps for the establishment of new ministry in Malawi responsible for further and higher education. A national debate on the quality of higher education and international comparability of Malawian degrees is long overdue.

For any enquiries

yonah.matemba@uws.ac.uk or ymatemba@yahoo.co.uk