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One on One with outgoing Unima Vice Chancellor Professor John D. Kalenga Saka

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Professor John D. Kalenga Saka

The Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Malawi Professor John D. Kalenga Saka wound up his tour of duty at the University’s Central Administrative Office in Zomba. He was appointed as Vice Chancellor in December 2013 where he and the Pro Vice Chancellor Professor Al Mtenje have served for four years. Professor Saka and the Professor Mtenje are currently on a month to month contract until the Taskforce appointed to oversee the delinking of the University’s constituent colleges completes its work where the two Professors will assist in seeing the successful of the University’s three colleges. In this article, Professor Saka reflects on and discusses a number of areas of priority within the University during his four-year tour of duty.

Excerpts:

Your four year report highlights the need to increase students’ intake as one of your major objectives during your duty of office. What is the current situation?

 It is interesting that every year when Council selects, there is always a need to demonstrate increase. But we will have capped the increase to about 10% across the University for the simple reason that we do not have adequate holding capacity particularly teaching and learning facilities like labs, lecture theatres, and therefore this is discussed in the first phase of planning to recruit. So when students have graduated, we replace them with an equivalent number but we normally add. We also consider carefully that if we increase by 10%, then are we able to manage the students but equally, the staff complement because we must be mindful that internationally as well as the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) expects a staff-student ratio to be appropriate so that there is better teaching experience amongst the students community. So if we were to increase and increasing successively, then quality is going to be affected. But also we have not expanded the Open Distance Learning (ODL) since the policy is under offing after which  we will increase the intake although the strategic pillar of education sector plan says we must increase access and equity because that is very  important.

As you are leaving office as University of Malawi’s Vice Chancellor, what is the future of the University in the presence of its challenges or opportunities as highlighted in your report?

Indeed in any report, we must indicate challenges or opportunities. Being in the fourth year of our tour of duty, we thought we could transform the challenges the university is facing to opportunities. The opportunities exist now because University Council has made a decision to unbundle the University of Malawi. As a result of this policy direction, it means that the resulting universities must reflect on the past of the University of Malawi.

For example, what were the challenges and then address them.  I would say that it is very easy to address them.  I will mention the following;

Firstly, you will have observed that instead of having a regular academic calendar, nine months you finish and at the end of that you graduate, it has been very difficult.  Therefore, University Council-employee relationship must be improved. The employers must constitute them into a structured dialoguing registered according to law because then it becomes much easier. The present situation scenario is that there are four campuses and that four different groupings have different expectations. However, with the unbundling of the university it means each university will have one group of people which it will deal with. That will foster teaching-learning environment.

Secondly, in terms of administration, the structure of the university office is described as the Central Administrative Office. So the character of the university office must be such that it is modelled. So we need to adopt a new model in the university office such that the university office must build on what exists and strengthen the functionality.

Thirdly, it is the issue of marketing. We do marketing. Across the country for example not many people know about the programmes that we offer here at University of Malawi. But through delinking, it would be possible that the new universities would have the well targeted marketing. For example College of Medicine because it is medicine, MBBS, Allied, then they can focus on that across. They have tried and that’s why they are able to attract international students. And similarly for the other colleges, they need now to market their programmes because it forms the basis for competition.

However, equally as an institution which is going to be transformed, I would expect that compliance issues will be much easier to handle because, I will share with you, that the University of Malawi, here at the Central Office, we consolidate financial statements from all the colleges and it is only thereafter that we process them to the University Council’s finance and audit committees. I must say that if one center (college) has delayed in submitting that for various reasons then we cannot proceed. Then we are not compliant with the Finance and Management Act of 2003-similarly the Audit Act of 2003. The individuals at each college will have to be very careful and that indeed the Auditor General, Parliamentary Committee on education matters will be interested to see how each one of the colleges will be doing. And therefore it becomes easier to foster compliance. We already have members in the audit departments, therefore, strengthening financial sections should be part and parcel of the new universities because they need to have a different mindset and doing business differently.

Apart from students’ contributions, what would you suggest as a sure way of stabilizing the income of University of Malawi, as an alternative source of funding?

What I would like to say is that we normally have three main streams of funding; subvention, secondly tuition fees or contributions and thirdly these are income as a result of offering services. Now the subvention is set by the government on the basis of total annual income and that is what we have had over the previous years. So normally that will increase to 10-15%. But largely the subvention is to support the remuneration package, salaries so that these are guaranteed. For operations then we have indeed tuition fees. But there is an aspect within the tuition fees which we normally do not highlight. These are normally the fees from post graduate studies.

We are called now and again to provide services through consultancies and so forth. But despite having a consultancy and research policy, not many of us go out and declare that I am John Saka, an employee of University of Malawi and lecturer or a professor in chemistry or my services are being given on the basis that I am an employee of the University. Since most people do not seem to be declaring the resources, therefore the University does not have a hold on those resources. So if I am engaged on the basis that I am a University employee, then the University must benefit. That is an interesting stream, if we can practice a culture of declaring our services and that the University has a share. And interestingly the formula is very attractive. But the question is why is it not possible that we are not able to come forward and declare these things?

How has the community benefited from the University under your leadership?

If you visit the campuses, you will actually see that the university has increased on engagement with the communities, either providing services or creating awareness, whether it’s on HIV and AIDS, for example College of Medicine and KCN. At Chancellor College, they have a legal outfit where they engage with the community within Zomba so that indeed they are able to appreciate if indeed human rights, legal issues are of a concern.

Similarly, at The Polytechnic, because of the programs, they must engage with the community and I would say that having organized what we call a Thought Leadership Dialogue, the private sector in Blantyre particularly have come forward to engage with us so that we can provide services. So it is not surprising that United Nations engaged us so that we can support in the development of a model to inform prioritization of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) which this country needs to emphasize on. But also the private sector conglomeration of oil industries engaged us because it is an issue of chemistry, chemical engineering to determine the loss of fuel during transportation.

So far what has been the significance of the Alumni Committee as well as other external partnerships to the University?

When we came in (as VC and Pro VC), I looked through the documents, there is a huge file on the alumni association. There was a draft constitution indeed but it only stalled because then the committee was seeking the Head of State, the former president Dr Bakili Muluzi to be the patron. Therefore we did not get a response that time.  But when all the other three predecessors who were here (at my position as VC), tried their best but when we came in we said let us give it another goal. Therefore we went around the country; Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Zomba and Blantyre.

We got organized and said even if we had only five people coming to the meeting we would enlist them. Then after we had gone around, we organized a meeting in Salima where we engaged with them (alumni) and reminded them that they were members of the university. Therefore they needed to avail themselves so that they could work with the university. The leadership of the country both in public and private sectors is led largely by, I think we can put it at 92%, the alumni community. Therefore, the alumni must also be seen to be interested in the university which trained them.

And it is not surprising that the University Council sometime in May-June 2017 made a decision or approved senate recommendation that during graduation  we should have an aluminus to give a motivational speech to the graduands. Through that engagement we have now seen that members of the alumni are coming forward and the first person Mrs Emmie Chanika donated K500, 000 to the alumni fund. So as we speak now that resource has already been transferred. As we organize the next graduation ceremonies we will be engaging others (alumni).

More importantly since most of them are key captains in the industry when we discuss matters relating to scholarships to support needy students they are able to come forward and support. This has been the case of last year. Through the alumni window, the Polytechnic has an advisory board comprising alumni members. Through that the students’ leadership engaged with them and they were able to mobilize over K16 million and that money has been trickling to support needy students. So you can see the value. So what is needed is that the Vice Chancellor with the leadership at the colleges should move aggressively in this regard because it is an interesting window for resource mobilization. And that once the alumni is formalized these individuals will be requested to be paying a little sum of money every year so that they come to participate so that we hold the ventures together for the growth of the university.

How would you want the University to remember you, I mean what is your personal impression of the University under your four-year leadership?

It is a very difficult question but it is interesting. What I would like to say is that I am here in the VC’s office as John Saka but I don’t work alone. We have the University Registrar’s office, my colleague the Pro Vice Chancellor, University Finance Officer, then the University Internal Auditor and the principals who are heading the colleges. It is not surprising therefore that when I came in as Vice Chancellor I said let us have a motto which is “Together We Can”. By doing that it means that it is a collective effort and that we can implement programmes on behalf of University Council as well as supporting the growth of human capital in this country.

Initially as I came in I was very much in that probably if we worked together, we had a shared vision, we had the strategic plan. That strategic plan requires that every person within the university should take a role. So I would hope that after four years we have increased awareness on the need that if we are a university whether federal, federated or not, each person has a role and we must work towards that goal. So even if we have had a number of important innovations for example the establishment of the Centre of Excellence on Ethics, College of Medicine has a Centre of Excellence on Public Health, we have several undergraduate and post graduate programmes; We have developed several international partnerships and these are a result of a collective effort. Therefore we should always reflect on the fact that “Together We can” and if say “Together We Can” then the core values which we have here which were approved by the University Council, they are very easy to live because we have a shared vision.

So as I leave the University of Malawi, 10 years down the line, in a new structure of the University of Malawi with four new universities, the question is “Are people still committed to working together? Just as players in a football team which has a manager as well as captain, if they win it is a celebration. So the question is “Do you think it is not necessary to engage those of stakeholders that indeed we had John Saka and Alfred Mtenje, and the four principals in this period? Do you think you can be remembered, and if it is so what is it (that we can be remembered for)?

I believe that together we have been able to see some reasonable growth in quality assurance, internationalization of our programmes, networking, and being relevant to the society. And more importantly is that we have been able to shun out every year a reasonable number of graduates particularly also at master’s and PhD levels.

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