Talking Blues Xtra: Merit or quota?


The Ministry of Education is under attack. The issue? The selection of the 2019/20 PSLCE candidates to national secondary schools whose allocation of students to Malawi’s 24 national secondary schools is as below:

  • Northern Education Division 182 students,
  • Central East 250 students,
  • Central West 679 students,
  • South East 230 students,
  • South West 230 students, and
  • Shire Highlands 289 students.

Among the critiques is that the Northern Region was robbed despite performing better.

This was echoed and amplified by Leader of Opposition in Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa who argued that the regional allocation of SR, 929; CR, 749 and NR, 182; proportion-wise: SR, 40%, CR, 50% and NR 10% is unfair because “while the Central Region has the lowest pass rate, it has the lion’s share in national secondary schools,” Nankhumwa said. Put differently, the Central Region – Malawi Congress Party (MCP)’s base – has been favoured.

Secretary for Education Chikondano Mussa and her pals disagree.

“We would like to make it clear here that merit was the major determinant of selecting students to secondary schools,” she said, adding that the cut-off point for selecting boys into national secondary schools was 380 marks while that of selecting girls was 354 and that selection to district secondary schools also depended on proximity and economic considerations.

This is one old controversy which will never end because most Malawians are either overt or covert regionalists.

In theory, Malawi adopted the Quota system as a means of affirmative action. This has often resulted in students who perform exceptionally well but are from competitive districts losing out to students with not as good grades from uncompetitive districts.

Now, assuming that merit was indeed used as the ministry wants Malawians to believe, the Central Region benefited this time because while it had a lower average (as argued by Nankhumwa), it had the highest performers.

Next year, it could be the North or the South, depending on high performers. Whatever happens in future, the debate will never end.

Whichever region has fewer students selected will complain. Further, the merit system by design and by definition, cannot achieve equity.

It is intended to reward and encourage excellence.

On the other hand, the quota system penalises and potentially discourages students from regions and districts perceived to be competitive.

Any solutions?

From what I see, the ‘quota vs merit’ debate is complicated with emotions, the discussion is not grounded on facts and is skewed with assumptions supported by fallacies, leaving some feeling short-changed.

Secondly, most Malawians, concerning ‘quota vs merit’ debate, want to have their cake and eat it too.

Let me unpack.

When Pres Chakwera was making Cabinet or Advisor or Board appointments; practically everyone wanted their region, district and gender to be “represented”.

Sort of quota.

Come secondary or university selection, those same Malawians split into two camps: pro-quota and anti-quota.

So, for one thing and when it suits us, quota is welcome and for the other and when it doesn’t not fit our selfish agenda, merit should apply? Cherry-picking without a gram of shame? Any wisdom in this?

Check this: let’s say the 20 most meritorious Malawians are from Mangochi. Would a Cabinet which is 100% from Mangochi be acceptable?

Of course not. Malawians would demand “balance”.

Conversely, let’s say that in pursuit of quota, we pick mediocre minds at the expense of high performers. Would this help Malawi?

Of course not.

Therefore, I posit that a hybrid system, subject to agreement on which dimension between merit or quota should be prioritised and weigh more.

A practical example:

~ Let’s assume that the University of Malawi has 380 slots, and our objective is a hybrid that accommodates the best students while providing affirmative action.

~ My suggestion: out of the 380 we should allocate 100 slots as merit based. That is, awarded to the top 100 students regardless of gender or region or district.

~ This leaves 280 slots.

~ Next would be a gender dimension: split 50% apiece, divided across 28 districts = ten (5 men + 5 women) from each district.

Using this model, the districts with high performers would have more students, but their high grades would be explained. Of course, we would need to factor in population size.

Full transparency and consistency would be imperative to stop the temptation to shift goalposts.

Check this: imagine if you will, a full Cabinet from one region. Even if all members were picked on merit, would you swallow that?

Conversely, how about an incompetent minister selected ostensibly to satisfy ‘quota’ and appointed to a crucial Cabinet post. Would such a minister deliver?

Ergo, neither merit nor quota is ideal. Why because we will want to cherry-pick whichever suits us.

The solution is a hybrid model that incorporates both merit and affirmative action.