By James Mphande
Majete Game Reserve in Chikwawa prides itself as the only wildlife park in Malawi boasting presence of the big five: lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo. It is perhaps the greatness of sharing the same fresh air with these animals that infused an ambition for greatness in one Elamess Faluweki, 23.
After completing her secondary education in 2018, Elamess was not picked for university education. Not that she had not qualified for selection but as everyone knows, our public universities have limited capacity for enrolment due to inadequate space.
As such, only a few are selected. As fate would have it, in 2018/19, out of 23,775 eligible students, only 5,925 were selected, representing 25 percent. In the subsequent two years, only around 6,000 and 7,000 were selected in 2019/20 and 2020/21, respectively.
No wonder Elamess looked elsewhere for higher education opportunities. Even there, the situation was no better and a resigned Elamess decided to pick up a job with Majete Game Reserve as a ranger but spent most of her time on the main gate, issuing tickets to visiting tourists and giving them initial guidance.
Much as she was able to make ends meet, her job was a far cry from her dream occupation of being a journalist. Much as she talked to people on daily basis, she wished it was through a TV or radio broadcast or wordsmithing in a newspaper or magazine.
As she and fellow rangers preached against bush fires in the game reserve, inside her a raging inferno for higher education was raging. She tried Domasi College of Education for a teaching course, she was not picked. Another try with agriculture at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) was equally met with disappointment.
“I was very disappointed and I nearly gave up because with the passage of time, my chances of being selected were getting less as more students were finishing their secondary school education and were all chasing after the same few opportunities.
“However, in hind sight, I think this was a blessing in disguise, God was creating something great in line with my ambition of becoming a journalist,” said Elamess as she walked the corridors of the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) where she is now a student.
Thanks to the Open, Distance and E-Learning (ODeL), Elamess and a group of nearly 300 students have now realized their life dreams. For the first time since its inception in 2014, MUST this year decided to enroll students under ODeL for two of its degree programmes.
“We have started with a Bachelor of Science in Sciences Education and Bachelor of Arts in Language, Communication and Culture. Before the advent of Covid-19, we had been working with an Arizona State University but Usaid supported Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (SHEAMA) project but for short courses. But our experiences with ODeL platforms for our generic students during the Covid-19 periods where education institutions were closed, we realized that it was a platform we could utilize to expand access and this is the fruits. We intend to add more degree programs to the platform as we continue with the short courses,” said Professor Jonathan Makuwira, MUST Deputy Vice Chancellor in an interview.
According to Professor Makuwira, ODeL is not only beneficial to students who finally get access to an institution of higher learning, it also helps the institutions like MUST to realise some revenue.
“In recent times, government has struggled to fully fund public universities and this has left us to look at ways of reforming for financial sustainability and this is looking like one viable mechanisms.”
For Elamess, hers is happiness that finally her dream of becoming a journalist has become more promising. She was selected to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Language, Communication and Culture which has three optional majors in Literature, Linguistics and Communication. The latter covers issues of journalism, public relations and media.
“I never imagined this day would come in my life. But thanks to the ODeL platform, I am now a registered student of MUST. In my conversations with fellow students, who have diverse backgrounds, one thing is coming out clear. We all have been given a lifeline in as afar as higher education is concerned because of ODeL,” she said.
But a joyful Elamess is somehow worried. Ironic it would appear.
“I am still working at Majete Game Reserve but I am not sure how I would be able to combine work and studies. This period I am here on campus because I am utilizing my leave days but once I exhaust them, it will be challenging,” said Elamess.
But Dr Nerpha Semphere of SHEAMA says ODeL programmes demand a balance in time and are specifically designed to allow for people with other responsibilities to ably do their studies.
“One needs to have a schedule of work well planned so that neither their studies nor their work suffer. ODeL also requires commitment and hard working for one to excel. Fortunately, students under ODeL do not require to be on campus all the time as they can access class material through online portals,” said Dr Semphere when she addressed the MUST ODeL students.
Another worry for ODeL students in Malawi is the perception people have towards qualifications obtained through this platform.
“No-one should cheat you that ODeL is easy. In fact, the opposite is true. But as MUST, we have put in place mechanisms for quality assurance so that there should be no difference between generic and ODeL students in terms of the skills and knowledge they gain during their studies,” added Professor Makuwira.
“In fact, there is equal chance of students under ODeL to excel and go for further education at either Masters or PhD level. All they need is hard work and commitment. There are many people who are PhD holders today having done their undergraduate studies through ODeL. They need to look at themselves as any other MUST student and I can assure them, the sky will not even be a limit.”
With the first intake on campus for the two degree programmes, MUST is now working on adding more programmes to the list. The aim to expand access to quality higher education to the majority of the youths in Malawi in line with the MW2063 aspirations of developing human capital for industrialization, agriculture productivity and commercialization, and urbanization.
Whatever the challenges, for Elamess, the road to the newsroom has begun, and in earnest too.