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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Regulating Higher Education

By Chola Mukanga

Government has drafted the High Education Bill, which is intended to put in place a new regulatory for higher learning institutions in the country. Education Minister John Phiri says once enacted into law, higher learning institutions operating below the required standards will face the law. He believes that there are too many higher learning institutions that do not befit the title "higher learning".

The draft Bill is a direct fulfilment of the PF Manifesto, which promised to create a new independent regulatory body to register and enforce education standards in public and private universities. The PF initiative of course builds on what the MMD administration begun with introduction of a National Qualifications Framework in Education Bill 2011. Indeed it should be clear for the record that MMD also called for such a new Regulator in its manifesto. One hopes the proposed new Regulator will sort out our current higher education mess.

It cannot be denied our higher education is a total mess. The current constrained supply of public universities has led to poor quality higher education in general. The excess demand in higher education has led to the mushrooming of poor and unregulated alternatives to the two universities (CBU and UNZA). Desperate students who cannot get into these two universities and cannot go abroad to study (which is another problem if they never return) often find themselves paying extortionate amounts of money just to get into "B class" colleges offering "accredited" degrees from foreign universities carrying popular but meaningless brand names. Its not uncommon to hear of "accredited" institutions without credibility which are later shut down for misleading students. The sad thing of course is that often these students are from the poorest of backgrounds - who cannot corrupt their way into UNZA/CBU places or cannot afford to study abroad. Zambia's poor therefore suffer most from the capacity constraint and this does not bode well for the nation's quest to break intergenerational poverty.

Private provision is good, but currently it is operating in a largely unregulated educational market. If regulatory standards were high (and uncorrupted) then we would have a better chance of delivering an educational infrastructure that supports a growing economy. Instead what we have are cheap and low quality colleges which are not doing much to get the poorest members of our society to achieve the best returns from educational investment. Many students complain of rampant "leakages" and being taught by under qualified lecturers. This is the classic case in which the invisible hands needs some effective direction. A good start would be a clearly defined framework safe from corruption in which Government regulates some of these institutions better to ensure there’s a minimum level of good education being provided. If this is what Minister Phiri is proposing then it is very welcome indeed.

The other issue of course is pace. With the universities virtually full, better regulation of these new institutions must come with rapid roll out of the President's bold plan of establishing provincial universities. People need to be educated where they are and the university courses should reflect provincial priorities. Of course funding is a problem. Many doubt whether Government which struggles to maintain UNZA and CBU can possibly maintain 7 more universities – possibly not. However, the "lack of funds" argument does not really stack up because Zambia in previous years has been spending lower in education than other SADC members (as a share of GDP). If others can do it, we should too!

The other problem we need to deal with is one I have touched upon - corruption. I once did a stroll poll among readers on what they felt was the most corrupt ministry in Zambia. Ministry of Education came top just ahead of Home Affairs, elbowing Department of Health to 3rd place. This could just be perceptions, but there’s a view that whether you get to UNZA or CBU depends not on your ability always but on who you know and how much “side payments” you are willing to make. This undoubtedly does mean that these institutions are not necessarily getting the brightest minds. In a nation in which university capacity is severely constrained the last thing you want is a corrupt and inefficient system of allocating places! If the new Regulator can sort that problem out, it would be a leap forward!

Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013

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