MALAWI’S Mzuzu University, a campus under the University of Malawi, has taken the unprecedented step of indefinitely shutting down its operations in response to violent student protests triggered by a recent fee hike. The protests, which unfolded on Friday night, led to the arrest and charging of 16 students with disturbing the peace.
In a statement issued on Friday night, Yonamu Ngwira, the registrar of Mzuzu University, ordered the suspension of classes and instructed all students to vacate the campus by 5 a.m. Saturday. The decision was made to restore order and safeguard the university’s property.
Witnesses reported that the protesting students obstructed the main road and besieged two ambulances transporting patients to a hospital. As a result, Malawi police resorted to using tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
The University of Malawi had previously announced a substantial fee increase in July, raising undergraduate fees from approximately $350 to $600 per semester and graduate fees from about $780 to $920 per semester. These fee hikes were met with strong opposition from students, who demanded the intervention of Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera within 14 days. However, they claimed that their appeals went unanswered.
Charles Dokera, a leader of the student group that issued the ultimatum, defended the protests as both justified and foreseeable. He stated, ‘We should first understand that the frustration among the students has gone beyond control. The only language of the unheard … most of the time is protests, because you are demonstrating, and you are trying to show your anger.’
Dokera criticised the university’s decision to close, suggesting that a more constructive approach would have been to engage in roundtable discussions or commit to addressing the students’ concerns.
Clifton Kawanga, assistant registrar and public relations officer for Mzuzu University, indicated that discussions regarding the students’ concerns were still ongoing before the protests erupted. He explained, ‘Discussions were still ongoing before they [students] went on the streets. And even after that press release that the school fees had been raised, there have been discussions until yesterday when the students started going into the streets.’
In July, Kondwani Nankhumwa, the leader of opposition parties in Malawi’s parliament, raised concerns that approximately 2,000 students were at risk of withdrawing from public universities due to financial constraints. The fee increases affected all public universities in Malawi, with protests emerging at Mzuzu University, likely because it was the first to commence the semester.
In a recent address, President Chakwera pledged his administration’s commitment to ensuring that no student drops out of school due to financial difficulties. He announced that funds, including a donation of about $93,000 from a bank for the Presidential Charity Golf Tournament, would be allocated to support needy students at public universities.