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A study of institutional autonomy in the University of Malawi



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The purpose of the study was to examine institutional autonomy as it was operationalized in the University of Malawi. Specifically, the study focussed on University of Malawi’s (UNIMA) autonomy in the post multi-party political climate of the country. Research questions were designed based upon James’ (1965) elements of university autonomy, Ashby’s (1966) ingredients of institutional autonomy, areas to be protected for institutional autonomy (Ajayi et al., 1996) and McDaniel’s (1996) components of governance. Six groups of research questions, which included governance, administrative matters, financial matters, personnel matters, academic matters and student matters were used as interview guides in the data collection exercise. The findings of the study were examined and interpreted through a framework adapted from Govindaraj et al. (1996): Hospital Autonomy in Ghana and McDaniel’s (1996): The paradigms of governance in higher education systems. UNIMA, the only university in Malawi (1965 – 1998), has five constituent colleges with a central administrative office. The researcher made field visits to all the five colleges and the central office and collected data by means of interviews and document review This formed the internal players. As external players also have an impact upon university autonomy, the four groups that the researcher interviewed were the government, regulatory bodies, politicians, and a public university. Out of a total of 44 interviews, 32 respondents were from internal groups and 12 respondents were from external groups. In addition, some data for the study were also drawn from university documents and publications, local newspapers, and periodicals. It was shown in this study, that since the founding of UNIMA in 1965, Government took much interest and intervened in the activities of the then only institution of higher learning in the country, imposing its control on the running of the institution. Since the emergence of multiparty politics in 1994, the role of government has been moving from state authority towards market control as a result of the liberalization of the education sector. The amount of autonomy UNIMA had gained compared to the pre-1994 situation was notable and was increasing as government was progressively decentralizing decisions to UNIMA.Malawi is facing a rapid expansion of the higher education sector as a result of the liberalization of the education sector, evidenced by the introduction of four new private universities since 1994. The findings point to a need for the establishment of the Commission for Higher Education (CHE), to act as a buffer body between government and higher education institutions. It is also necessary to revisit the university constitution to change the provision of appointing Head of State to also be the chancellor of the university. The current heavy dependence on governmental funding is not sustainable and UNIMA should be encouraged to diversify the generation of revenue through alternative sources. Since the autonomy of UNIMA was in transition, the researcher suggests that longitudinal studies be made to ascertain the variables that might have changed over a given period. Further studies were also suggested to investigate the issue of autonomy in selected African universities and to compare these with UNIMA’s experience. Such studies could be extended to Western universities.



accountability, governance, instituional autonomy



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Educational Administration


Educational Administration


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