“My dreams were shattered when I learnt that the university’s communications department wouldn’t admit me because it had no special needs lecturers. I was forced to go for education and social studies, which didn’t interest me in the first place.”
That’s 26-year-old Wilton Nyirenda, a visually-impaired student, who was accepted to further his studies at the Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi in Zomba, Malawi’s former capital city, in 2014.
Chancellor College was set up in 1965, just after Malawi’s independence.
Since 1970s the university has been dedicated to be admitting students with special needs – and particularly the visually-impaired.
Equipped with a Special Needs Centre, Chancellor College is supposedly the embodiment of the Malawi government’s commitment to “inclusive education”, where every student is entitled to quality education regardless of disability.
Of the 55 special needs students at the university, 33 are visually-impaired.
Chancellor College receives the lion’s share of government spending on tertiary education. While Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources received a total budget of seven billion Kwacha in 2018/19, the Zomba institution received MK10 billion.
However, in an interview on the campus, Nyirenda raised questions on how this money is spent.
He pointed out the many failures of the University to meet the needs of students with visually impairments.
A senior lecturer at the university, who asked not to be named, confirmed that there are no special needs lecturers in the language and communications department and many other faculties.
Though the government regards science education as critical to Malawi’s development, special needs students are not accepted by the science faculty for degree courses because it has no suitably qualified lecturers.
Another lecturer at the special needs centre, who also asked to remain anonymous, revealed that there are only three special needs lecturers at the centre to cater for 55 students with disabilities.
The university has 292 lecturers for about 5 000 students in total.
The lecturer also said 54 years after the establishment of the university, it still had no specific policies for special needs education and that it followed national education policy guidelines.
Nyirenda said: “I don’t use the library because I can’t use the stairs and there no braille books. Even though we can scan books at the Special Needs Centre, the process is time-consuming because there are only five working computers for special needs students. We are not on a par with sighted students.”
His complaints were echoed by other visually-impaired students.
Blessings Mwalwanda, 26, also took a swipe at the infrastructure at Chancellor College, saying some visually-impaired students are not orientated on how to move around the campus.
Mwalwanda said, “We weren’t given prior warning about where to walk. They’ve built waterways and drainage channels everywhere on the paths between the hostels and the teaching area. I don’t know why they did this, maybe for decoration, but they are death traps for us. One of my fellow students fell into a ditch, and I had to shout for help from the security guards. He sustained head and arm injuries.”
Visually-impaired students blame their generally poor academic performance on the shortage of special needs facilities at college.
Mercy Phiri, 25, a BA student, attests to this. She said that there are too few lecturers who are able to transcribe printed exam papers into braille, meaning that exam papers are often not available during exams.
The students’ answer papers then have to be transcribed back into print for marking purposes.
“We often have to come back during holidays to track down our answer papers from the lecturers. If we can’t find them, we are failed for the exam,” Phiri said.
Malawi’s 2013 National Education Policy demands the creation of a conducive learning environment for all students with disabilities.
The policy acknowledges the need to address barriers to learning such as insufficient qualified staff, inadequate teaching and learning resources, and the irregular review of curricula.
The former chairperson of the parliamentary committee responsible for people with disabilities, Richard Chimwendo-Banda, faulted the college for failing to prioritise the needs of students with disabilities, especially the visually-impaired.
“This is the most important university in the country, but it’s pathetic that the management is failing to plan and allocate enough resources for students like this, so that they have the same privileges as others,” Chimwendo-Banda said.
Chimwendo-Banda believes the university and the government are to blame, as inadequate funding is compounded by the university’s failure to prioritise the needs of special needs students.
In 2018, the Civil Society Education Coalition, which promotes quality education in Malawi, pleaded with parliament to push for increased allocations and the formulation of special needs policies.
But Benedicto Kondowe, the coalition’s executive director, said there has been no response so far.
Kondowe did not mince his words.
“The government has neglected visually impaired students. There are no braille books or computers at Chancellor College, and the college has few special needs lecturers and other departments have none,” Kondowe said.
The head of programmes of the Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi, Simon Munde, also took a swipe at the government, saying that it has left everything in the hands of its development partners.
“It’s unfortunate that the college relies on funders such as the Scottish government to provide learning equipment such as talking computers and braille papers,” said Munde.
He said he feared that visually-impaired students are not fully equipped with the necessary skills and struggle to find employment.
Munde said, “We have a lot of visually impaired people begging on our streets because they did not go to school. So it is sad to deny the few who have managed to reach tertiary level access to quality education, and all because the government is paying so little attention to them.”
His view was supported by Chifundo Kamala, who graduated from Chancellor College in 2018 after spending six years at the university acquiring a degree in communication and cultural studies.
Kamala said, “I have been to so many places hoping to get a job. Maybe its industry’s perception of visually impaired people that’s to blame, but I sometimes I think I was not fully equipped by the college. I’ve given up in life.”
Ministry of Education Spokesperson Lindiwe Chide argued that Malawi has made some strides towards inclusive education.
“I think Chancellor College is doing well; for example, they are doing a project with the African Development Bank on issues of mobility. They’re also putting up ramps and other facilities for students with disabilities,” Chide said.
Chide admitted, however, that there were “some problems”.
Asked if the government is allocating sufficient funds to inclusive education at Chancellor College, Chide replied that she was sure that the funding is adequate.
“But it is an independent body that does its own budget, so that information should come from the university.”
She did not provide details of how much of the education budget is earmarked for students with special needs.
Asked what efforts were made to monitor the implementation of special needs learning at Chancellor, Chide said the the ministry relies on the National Council for Higher Education, an arm of the ministry mandated to monitor tertiary education.
The Chancellor of the University of Malawi, is Malawi’s president, Peter Mutharika.
Asked how the president had used his influence to promote inclusive education at the university, and whether he was failing in his duty to special needs students, the Presidential Press Officer Mgemi Kalilani said, “If you look at the University of Malawi Act, the day to day running of the university is vested in the university council.The issues you are raising at management and policy levels squarely lie within the mandate of the university council and university management, and not the office of the chancellor. Google the Act and you realize that the role of the Chancellor is essentially ceremonial.”
Kalilani said questions should be directed to the vice-chancellor, the chair of the university council or the university spokesperson.
However, Zodiak has established that the University of Malawi Act of 1965 recognizes the position of the chancellor as having certain powers, including the appointment of the university council’s chairperson.
Online records show that in July 2017 President Mutharika appointed a new university council chairperson, James Maida, in response to disagreements that had erupted between the council and staff.
Attempts to get a comment from the university proved futile. Zodiak first contacted the registrar, Mary Wasili, who failed to answer her phone, emails or text messages over several days.
The Vice-Chancellor, John Kalenga Saka, referred Zodiak Online to Richard Tambulasi, the university’s principal, who referred us back to the registrar.