Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (SHEAMA)

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Principal investigator

Samuel DiGangi

Direct sponsor

U.S. Agency for International Development

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The challenge

In Malawi, a nation of nearly 20 million in southeast Africa, more than 80,000 students graduate from secondary schools each year with no access to higher education. Multiple impediments are responsible for this lack of opportunity, including systemic societal barriers that confront females and students with disadvantages; the latter including orphans, persons with disabilities and students from rural areas served by an inadequate system of poorly resourced community schools. Similarly, institutions and stakeholders in the economy have significant capacity challenges to overcome. Malawi’s higher education system suffers from low levels of enrollment and technical capacity. University institutions and on-demand learning programs are not adequately adapted to Malawi’s market dynamics, and existing ODL centers are limited in reach. As a result, vulnerable groups do not adequately participate in higher education and are underrepresented in meaningful employment areas. For the nation, this means limited resources and a nonequitable workforce that are unable to sustain economic growth.

The approach

With support from USAID, the Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity is increasing Malawi's skilled and employable workforce — particularly through opportunities for adolescent girls and young women — by strengthening capacity and fostering collaboration among five Malawian public universities: Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi University of Science and Technology, Mzuzu University and University of Malawi; Chancellor College and The Polytechnic. Through close collaboration with the National Council for Higher Education and Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, SHEAMA secured an agreement among the university partners to codevelop and share courses and learning materials in a jointly managed system of open, distance and e-learning centers located throughout the country, thus serving more students and reducing the cost of attaining a degree. The agreement also creates mechanisms to codesign courses and programs with industry for better alignment with Malawi’s market needs. SHEAMA is conducting institutional readiness assessments; learning center instructional design workshops for faculty; scholarships for female students from disadvantaged groups to study STEM subjects; and education and employment advisory boards formed in each of six target districts.

As initial courses and programs were implemented and the University Partners began to explore new modalities enabled by SHEAMA, the arrival of COVID-19 required an abrupt shift in higher education strategies. The need to continue programmatic activities while maintaining safe protocols highlighted the value of accessible Open and Distance Learning systems and the SHEAMA model. Skills and opportunities enabled by SHEAMA strengthen the capacity of institutions to effectively adapt their coursework to best support the higher education community of Malawi.

Findings and impact

In December 2022, funding for SHEAMA was extended an additional year. The $2M will be used to build on the success of the first four years. Moving forward, the project will place increased emphasis and additional activity focusing on areas that have been identified over the past four years as of particular need among the Malawian university partners.