Online and Distance Learning Makes Higher Education More Accessible to Malawians

February 28, 2017


Agriculture Extension ODL student Joe Mwenye, in a stripped golf shirt, engages rural subsistence farmers in a discussion before visiting their fields. 

© Ephraim Kugingo

  • The new Online and Distance Learning System (ODL) is giving more people access university education
  • Through ODL students are able to get an affordable college education while maintaining their jobs and attending to their families
  • ODL is focusing on much needed skills in science-based subjects to help meet growing demands of the economy

LILONGWE, February 28, 2017 –With just about 20 universities in the country, college has long been out of reach for many Malawians. Tertiary education enrollment stands at less than 1%, less than 100 people per 100,000, but more and more Malawians hunger for higher education.

With support from the World Bank, citizens now have more education options. Through the Skills Development Project (SDP) , two public universities, the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and Mzuzu University, have introduced  online and distance learning (ODL) to help improve access to higher education.

As a result, student enrollment has increased at both LUANAR and Mzuzu University. 

“Between 2014 and 2016 Mzuzu University increased its intake of ODL students by 10 times,” said Fred Msiska, a professor and ODL coordinator at Mzuzu University. Before ODL, he said, the average enrollment was 150 students per year.

At LUANAR, ODL students are now 10% of the total student population. LUANAR has three ODL centres in Mzuzu, Lilongwe and Blantyre. With support from SDP, Mzuzu University is expanding its satellite centers to Balaka, Karonga, Mulanje and Lilongwe  

The ODL system, which focuses on science-based areas such as engineering, agriculture, science teacher education, and other forms of training that support extractive industries, has helped to open up access to higher education for many people across the country, who otherwise would not have been able to because of challenges of balancing school, work, and family.

“I enrolled through ODL because of its flexibility. I continue with my everyday life and yet I am studying at the same time. This is wonderful,” said 45 year-old Joe Mwenye, a teacher in Ngabu in Chikwawa district who is studying at LUANAR for a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Extension. Mwenye said because of studying through ODL he is able to be still on a salaried job which enables him pay his college fees and feed his family of five.

“I am employed and I did not want to lose my job. So when I heard about ODL I thought I could kill two birds with one stone,” said 26-year old Leah Nyondo who is studying for her Bachelors in Agricultural Economics. She is scheduled to complete her studies in 2018. While she lives and works in Karonga in the northern-most part of the country, she benefits from the LUANAR satellite center in Mzuzu.

The ODL students who would have missed out on higher education a few years ago, attest to how the higher skills they will obtain are going to turn around their fortunes. Nyondo says her studies have already started changing her life.

“Whereas previously I was just a subsistence farmer, driven by learning from my studies I have now ventured into farming as a business,” she said. “Even just my reasoning has changed and I have no doubt commercial farming is the way to go.”  She said she already has a harvest on the way, which will boost her income whilst studying.

The cost of higher education to students in Malawi also impedes access, but the ODL system is providing a way out. Whereas in recent times, regular public university students in Malawi had been on a “fees must fall” campaign, Joshua Valeta, ODL coordinator at LUANAR, describes ODL programs as relatively inexpensive. The students agree.

“The fees are really affordable and practical for a Malawian like me,” said Mwenye. Nyondo, who works for a faith organization as an administrative assistant, said she manages to pay the annual fee of K300,000 (about $400) at LUANAR.

Issues of cost are also relatively lower for the universities, especially when considering the high return obtained in terms of contribution to Malawi’s development. “ODL will help to build the much needed human resources for engaging with various developmental challenges across socio-economic, political and social spheres, including supply of secondary school teachers at a relatively lower cost,” said Msiska.

The public universities already have sustainability plans for their ODL programs. Valeta said LUANAR is partnering with local and international institutions in course delivery, for example, offering some joint programs and using resources from reputable institutions to ensure very high quality. Locally they are also partnering with the private sector for key services such as telecommunications required in delivering ODL programs.  

Much as the students are generally happy with the ODL system and the high standards that are maintained, they would like to see the satellite centers stocked with more books to supplement the materials they get from their colleges. They also would like to have some face-to-face time with lecturers once in a while.

“Despite this, I would 100% encourage others to go the ODL way,” said Nyondo. According to Valeta much as the ODL system has been received by various stakeholders, there is still need for more public sensitization.