Policy and Programs Program and Sector policy
Policy and Programs

An Overview of Distance Education Iniatives
and the Use Technology in Malawi

While collecting information for this global distance education network, SAIDE held several interviews with organisations in Southern African countries. Impressions of each country were generated to give some introduction to distance education and technology use in the area. Each interview has also been written up separately as a case study.

SAIDE country visits conducted in 1999

Permission granted

Country visit: 12 – 16 July 1999


Malawi, which is one of the twenty poorest countries in the world, has a largely agriculture-based economy that comprises mostly of subsistence farming. Malawi is placed 159th out of 174 countries on the 1999 Human Development Index. It has a population of approximately 11 million people. According to the 1999 Human Development Report, the adult literacy rate in Malawi was 57,7% in 1997. Malawi is ranked 72nd on the Human Poverty Index.

Distance education has been recognized as a strategy for delivering schooling opportunities for out-of-reach youth in rural areas since 1965 when the Malawi College for Distance Education (MCDE) was established.

Following the first multiparty elections in 1994, many changes took place in education in general, and in the provision of distance education in particular. Two important factors contributed to these changes. First, the Malawi government’s commitment to a structural adjustment programme under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund, which commenced under President Kamuzu Banda’s government in the late eighties, led to cuts in government spending. Second, the decision of government on 29 September 1994 to provide free primary education placed an immense burden on an already over-stretched education infrastructure and budget. As a result, emerging distance education initiatives, such as the development of distance education materials and investments in infrastructure development required for distance education, are, by and large, supported by donor funding. Education is, however, an important priority for the Muluzi-government.

Statistics indicate that approximately 3.2 million pupils are currently enrolled in 2 900 primary schools in Malawi. In 1994, there were approximately 34 000 pupils enrolled in conventional secondary schools. In 1998, 150 000 students were enrolled with the Malawi College of Distance Education for secondary education through distance education. Currently, approximately 3 000 students are enrolled at the University of Malawi and its constituent colleges, and 1000 students are enrolled at the University of Mzuzu. It is estimated that approximately 4 000 students are attending public vocational and teacher training schools. In addition, there are 3 000 registered learners at the Aggrey Memorial School – a private distance education college - though these learners are not all from Malawi. Information on the number of Malawians studying through international providers could not be obtained.

Education opportunities in Malawi remain severely limited. In 1997, for example, of the 98 819 pupils that successfully completed their Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education, only 8 359 could be placed in Form I in conventional secondary schools. Of those completing their secondary education, only 15% obtain places at the University of Malawi and University of Mzuzu. For that reason, many Malawians pursue tertiary studies through distance education institutions in other countries, particularly South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Education in Malawi in the 1990s


The structure of schooling in Malawi is as follows:

  • An 8-year Primary School cycle that leads to the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education;
  • a 2-year Junior Secondary School cycle that leads to the Junior Certificate (Form I and Form II);
  • a 2-year Senior Secondary cycle that leads to the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), which is equivalent to "O" Level (Form III and Form IV).

Secondary school education is offered through two modes of delivery. Face-to-face secondary education is offered by conventional secondary schools. The Malawi College of Distance Education offers an alternative education route for those students who are unable to secure a place in conventional secondary schools to complete their secondary education through means of distance education. There are four types of conventional, face-to-face secondary schools in Malawi. These are:

  • Government Day and Boarding Schools;
  • Grant aided Schools;
  • Private Schools;
  • Designated Schools.

The Malawi College of Distance Education used to enrol three types of students:

  • Distance Education Centre (DECs) students;
  • Night Secondary Schools (NSSs) students; and
  • Home-study students.

In 1996/7 the Malawi government decided to convert the MCDE’s DECs into Community Day Secondary Schools. Since 1999, the MCDE therefore enrols home-study students and Night Secondary School students only.

Distance Education Centres (DECs)

These institutions were established by communities to provide a face-to-face component to the distance education programmes offered by the MCDE. At these institutions, students were supervised, received counselling, and listened to radio broadcasts or recordings on audiocassette in groups. Communities raised their own funds to run these programmes. Often, these centres did not have their own premises and had to share premises with primary schools. DECs used to receive their instructional materials from the MCDE. As the MCDE’s budget was inadequate, the materials received by the DECs were often not enough and had to be shared amongst students. DECs were staffed by primary school teachers (called teacher-supervisors) who had not been oriented in the principles and practices of distance education. At the time when the government decided to convert the DECs there were 520 such Centres – by far outweighing the number of conventional secondary schools of which there were fewer than two hundred.

Conventional Secondary Schools

These schools are set up and funded by the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. They are in general better resourced than the DECs, with library and laboratory facilities, and are staffed by trained secondary schools teachers.

Education opportunities for girls

The participation rate of girls in primary and secondary education seems to be very low. With the assistance of the US AID, the GABLE (Girls’ Attainment in Basic Literacy and Education) Project was launched. The Project covers the full tuition fee for girls at conventional secondary schools.

National Examinations

All pupils, irrespective of whether they are distance education students or enrolled with conventional secondary schools, sit the same examinations, which are set by the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB).

Recent developments

In 1995, the new government adopted a policy of free primary education. The principle of free primary education is also enshrined in the Constitution as a human right. As a result of this policy decision, enrolments in primary schools increased by more than 70% and went up to approximately 3.2 million. To cope with the increase in numbers on primary school level, government recruited 22 000 untrained teachers and sent them on a two-week training course before placing them in schools.

The increase in enrolments on primary school level resulted in an increase in demand for secondary education. As part of its election campaign in 1994, the United Democratic Front, which is the ruling party, had promised to set up a secondary school in every constituency. To meet this target, and for a range of other reasons, the Malawi government in 1996/7converted large numbers of Distance Education Centres (DECs) into Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSSs).

The fact that government was unable to provide secondary education opportunities to match the increase in demand resulted in a sharp increase in the number of private secondary schools. Many of these – though not all - are offering poor quality tuition.

Increased secondary school enrolments in turn led to an increase in demand for higher education, as more learners completed their secondary school education and wanted to pursue further studies, and as the country needed to train more teachers. To meet the demand, a teacher training college in the North was converted into university, and became known as the University of Mzuzu.

Provision of free primary education (coupled with expansion of the secondary education sector) placed severe restrictions on the education budget. In the beginning of 1998, the Malawi government decided to drop twenty-one education institutions from the public budget to kerb government expenditure. Among the institutions to be dropped were the University Council, the Polytechnic Board of Governors, the Commission for the Establishment of the University of the North, and the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre.

In 1998, the overall pass rate for the Malawi School Certificate of Education, which is the final school-leaving qualification, across different forms of provision (Malawi College of Distance Education students, private schools, government-aided schools, designated schools, and external candidates, was 16,7%.

In his 1999 inaugural speech for his second term as president, President Muluzi stated his goals with regard to education for next five years:

"The government will continue with its primary educational programme and improve the education of the entire spectrum of the learning process, which includes University education. Where necessary new primary and secondary schools will be built, technical institutions will grow during the next five years. Our teachers everywhere will receive special attention under a new programme the will ensure that they are well and properly accommodated within their teaching environment."

From the above discussion it seems that, over the next five years, education interventions in Malawi could be expected to have the following aims:

  • To open up more places in higher education;
  • To provide more secondary school education opportunities;
  • To train more teachers and re-train underqualified teachers;
  • To put in place mechanisms to ensure the quality of private education;
  • To increase the pass rate for MSCE and JC examinations.
  • To improve the participation rate of girls in primary and secondary education.


Malawi has two dedicated distance education providers, one a private school and the other a department of the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. New distance education initiatives are, however, on the cards. The University of Malawi is exploring possibilities for offering distance education programmes, and the Domasi College of Education plans to offer a Diploma in Education through distance education in 2000. MIITEP, an inservice programme run by the Teacher Development Unit to train untrained and under-qualified teachers, employs distance education methodologies for delivery of the programme. In addition, the newly established Mzuzu University is also planning to offer teacher education courses through distance education. International providers, such as the Rapid Results College, also operate in Malawi.

Malawi College of Distance Education

The Malawi College of Distance Education was established as a department of the Ministry of Education and Culture in 1965. In 1973, this college merged with the Schools Broadcasting Unit to form the Malawi Correspondence College and Broadcasting Unit. In 1987 the College changed its name to the Malawi College of Distance Education (MCDE). The College is part of the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. The College currently offers the following courses:

  • Junior Certificate (JC)
  • Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE)

Courses are delivered through printed materials – referred to as sets - which are self-instructional and cover the whole syllabus for each subject. Radio broadcasts were in the past used to supplement and support the print materials. As a result of Malawi’s structural adjustment programme, there is a strong drive for government institutions and parastatals to cut costs and to move towards increased financial sustainability. This is equally true for the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). The rates charged by the MBC for broadcasting educational programmes developed by the MCDE in support of their programmes became too high and government discontinued its funding for the radio broadcasts in 1997. To compensate for the fact that there are no more direct radio broadcasts, the MCDE started offering a service whereby the radio programmes are put on audiocasette for anyone that sends them a blank audiocasette.

In 1998, the overall pass rate for the Malawi School Certificate of Education, which is the final school-leaving qualification, was 16,7%. Figures for the Malawi College of Distance Education are equally bleak: out of a total of 42 987 students who wrote the exams, 6 906 passed (16,7%). MCDE pass rates for 1996 and 1997 MSCE examinations were 11,2% and 9,3% respectively. Although these figures are alarming, the way in which these rates are calculated does to some extent misrepresent the achievements of MCDE students. The pass rate does, for example, only include students that have passed six subjects. Distance education students often do not attempt to write six subjects in one year and are therefore included in the statistics of those that failed. At best, however, the low pass rate bears testimony to the massive increases in enrolments coupled with budget cuts the College experienced as a result of the introduction of free primary education. MCDE students do, however, do much better in the Junior Certificate examinations, usually with a pass rate around 80%.

When government in 1996/7 - for range of reasons - converted Distance Education Centres and Night Secondary Schools into Community Day Secondary Schools, it had a major impact on enrolments with the MCDE. Since 1999, the MCDE does therefore enrol home-study pupils only. MCDE enrolments thus fell from approximately 150 000 learners in 1998, to about 80 000 in 1999.

MCDE materials are, however, widely used in conventional schools to support teaching.

Aggrey Memorial School

Aggrey Memorial School was established in 1976. It is an independent private school, established with permission of the Ministry of Education. It is a family-run business, with as its central aim to provide quality education opportunities to the poorest of the poor. As a result, the majority of its students are from rural areas in Malawi, and the School also enrols students from neighbouring countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Tanzania. The School offers three types of programmes:

  1. Single subject courses most of which lead to examinations of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI).
  2. Courses that lead to examinations of professional bodies in the UK and elsewhere
  3. General courses
  • Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC)
  • Junior Certificate (JC)
  • Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) (required for entry into university)
  • General Certificate of education (GCE)

In 1999, approximately 3000 students are enrolled at this school. Courses are delivered using printed correspondence texts. As it is a private-rum enterprise, the School is unable to attract public or donor funding and finds it difficult to raise capital, even through a loan. Printing equipment is very outdated and the School suffers severely under financial constraints.

University of Malawi

The University of Malawi was founded in 1964, as one of the first acts of government under independence. At the time, all its activities - including capital expenditure - were fully subsidized. The University of Malawi comprises of six Colleges:

  • Chancellor College
  • Kamuzu College of Nursing
  • Malawi College of Forestry
  • Polytechnic
  • Bunda College of Agriculture
  • College of Medicine
  • College of Accountancy

In 1989 a study on the feasibility of introducing a distance education component at the University of Malawi was undertaken by Tom Prebble from Massey University, New Zealand. The Commonwealth of Learning funded the study. The study found that introducing a distance education component at the University of Malawi would increase the capacity of the institution. The study did, however, suggest that the University should offer a limited number of distance education programmes to achieve economies of scale, and that these programmes should be on diploma rather than on degree level. As a result of funding constraints, the proposal was never implemented.

In 1997, the Malawi government commissioned the Malawi Institute of Management (MIM) to conduct a two-year consultancy on effective management strategies for - and the possible restructuring of - the University of Malawi. One of the MIM’s recommendations was that the University explores the possibilities of introducing distance education. In mid-1998, the vice-chancellor of the University indicated that he would be going ahead with implementing distance education programmes (particularly in the humanities and law) the moment that government approves the recommendation.

As a result of government cuts in university funding, rumours persist that University may be privatized. The University has been closed for extended periods over the past two years due to student protests relating to lack of facilities, teaching aids, books, and laboratory materials, as well as steep increases in university fees.


Though the Malawi Institute of Education does not offer programmes through distance education, the Institute is involved in the training of teachers for primary and secondary education delivery through distance education. The Malawi Institute of Education operates as a joint venture between the University of Malawi and the Ministry of Education, Sport, and Culture. Its main function is to coordinate curriculum development and to publish teaching materials for schools. From the early 1990s this institution increasingly became involved in teacher training and re-training.

MIITEP (Malawi Integrated Inservice Training Programme) was launched in 1998 by the Teacher Development Unit of the Ministry of Education, as a strategy for training the 22 000 under-qualified teachers that had been recruited in 1995. The Malawi Institute of Education develops materials for this programme. The project is funded by the German government (through the funding agencies GTZ and KfW), the British government (through DfID), and the World Bank.

Delivery of the programme encompasses elements of on-campus, face-to-face tuition, coupled with distance learning self-study materials and a mentorship programme for supporting learners.

Mzuzu University

The former Mzuzu Teacher Training College was converted into Mzuzu University in September 1998. It opened its doors in November 1998 with a Faculty of Education and there are currently 1000 students enrolled at this university. Government officials confirmed that plans are under way to introduce a distance learning component at the University for the training of secondary teachers.


Domasi College of Education is a government institution that was established by the Ministry of Education in 1993 to train secondary school teachers to alleviate the shortage of teachers in secondary schools in Malawi. The College became operational in 1994 with thirty-two professional staff members and seventy-two administrative and support staff members. In 1999 the College has thirty-six professional staff members.

The Domasi College of Education recognized the need to open up more places for training of secondary school teachers. As both this College and the University of Malawi (Chancellor College) had no more capacity, a proposal was submitted to the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) in August 1998 for support for what is called the Diploma in Education through Distance Education Project. COL funded the training of professional staff in materials writing for distance education, and the development of materials has commenced. Materials for the first year of the programme should be completed by December 1999. It is hoped that the first cohort of 400 students will be enrolled in March 2000. Whereas funding for materials development has been secured from COL, a process is underway to find donors willing to fund the implementation of the project.


Most technology infrastructure in Malawi is still government-controlled, although processes to privatise some of this have commenced. Malawi’s postal service has recently been privatized.

Levels of ICT infrastructure and use, both in government departments and educational institutions, in general could be said to be very low. E-mail access in government departments is almost non-existent and many government departments and offices are not yet issued with computers.

Access to information and communication technologies for staff and students in educational institutions remain very restricted. Staff at Chancellor College, University of Malawi do have computers and e-mail access. The Malawi Institute of Education has Internet access and is well equipped with a range of ICTs and printing equipment. By far the majority of schools do not have any access to computers, and there are some schools that do not have telephones. Support staff in educational institutions still commonly use electric typewriters. The Malawi College of Distance Education (MCDE) has two computers only. One of these is used to do desktop publishing of their materials.

In 1998 it was estimated that there were 35 000 working telephone lines. In the introduction to the Communications Sector Policy Statement, which was released in August 1998, then Minister of Information Sam Mpasu states that statistics available at the time indicated that 80% of telephone lines were available to 20% of the population living in urban areas, and that the majority of the rural population was left without adequate telephone facilities. In 1998, it was estimated that there were approximately 1 060 000 radio sets in use in Malawi. The following table from the 1998 Human Development Report gives an overview of the lack of information and communications infrastructure in Malawi.

Radios (per 1000 people)


Printing and writing paper consumed (metric tons per 1000 people)


Public pay phones

(per 1000 people)


Main telephone lines

(per 1000 people) 1995

International telephone calls (minutes per person)


Cellular mobile telephone subscribers

(per 1000 people)


Fax Machines

(per 1000 people)









Table 1: Access to Information and Communications (1998 Human Developmnet Report)

In August 1998, the Ministry of Education released its Communications Sector Policy Statement, in which it provides an outline of the principles and objectives underlying policy development. In terms of Telecommunications, the most important objectives set by the Ministry of Information are the following:

  • To increase the number of working telephone lines from the present 35 000 to 150 000 by the year 20003;
  • To ensure that the quality of service meets acceptable international standards;
  • To liberalize the market in respect of the provision of services such as Internet, e-mail, data and paging;
  • To reduce the price of telecommunications services in real terms;
  • To ensure extension of modern telecommunication services to rural areas;
  • To allow private sector participation in the provision of telecommunications services;

The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation is a parastatal with two radio channels. These channels are broadcasting nineteen hours daily. A new Communications Act, passed in 1998, makes provision for private radio licenses, and a number of these have been issued. Malawi TV was launched in March 1999 and is currently broadcasting two hours daily. At least ten private radio stations are broadcasting in Malawi.

The Communications Act 41 of 1998 established the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), which is charged with the responsibility of regulating broadcasting, telecommunications and postal services, as well as managing of the radio frequency spectrum.

Malawi is one of the African countries that qualify for assistance from the Leland Initiative. This project aims to provide about $400 000 per country to develop Internet connectivity in return for agreements to liberalize markets to third-party Internet service providers and to adopt policies that allow for the unrestricted flow of information.


New education legislation is in the process of being drafted. The Communications Act 41 of 1998, which encompasses all regulations with regard to ICTs, was passed by Parliament at the end of 1998.

Southern African Countries: Malawi  • Program and Sector PolicyPolicy and ProgramsReturn Home