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Malawi university closed over fee increase protests

Mzuzu University

Mzuzu University

Malawi indefinitely closed one of its universities following violent student protests Friday night over a recent fee increase.

Police said 16 students were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. In a statement released Friday night, Yonamu Ngwira, registrar of Mzuzu University, a University of Malawi campus in the country's north, suspended classes and ordered all students to leave campus by 5 am.

Saturday, saying the decision aimed to preserve order and protect the university’s property. Witnesses said the students blocked the main road and besieged two ambulances that were rushing patients to a hospital, forcing Malawi police to fire tear gas to disperse the protesters.

The University of Malawi in July announced a fee increase from about $350 to $600 per semester for undergraduate students, and from about $780 to $920 per semester for graduate students. Students said the increases were too high and gave Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera 14 days to intervene. They say he did not.

Charles Dokera, a leader of the student group that issued the ultimatum, told VOA that Friday's protests were not only justified, but predictable.

“We should first understand that the frustration among the students has gone beyond control,” he said. “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 criticized university officials for closing the institution.

“The decision which the management has taken is a clear indication that probably management itself does not have enough skills on how to control circumstances of that kind,” he said. “It’s something maybe a roundtable discussion or a commitment to take into account the concerns raised by the students would have prevented.”

Clifton Kawanga, assistant registrar and public relations officer for Mzuzu University, told VOA the discussion about students’ concerns is still underway.

"Discussions were still ongoing before they [students] went on the streets,” Kawanga said. “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."

Kondwani Nankhumwa, leader of opposition parties in Malawi's parliament, told lawmakers in July that some 2,000 students were on the verge of withdrawing from public universities on financial grounds. The fee increases apply to all of Malawi’s public universities. Protests may have broken out at Mzuzu first because it was the first campus to begin its semester.

In an address last week, though, President Chakwera said his administration will do what it takes to ensure that no student drops out of school for lack of adequate finances.

After receiving a donation from a bank of about $93,000 for this year's Presidential Charity Golf Tournament, Chakwera said the proceeds will, among others, be used to cover fees for needy students at public universities.

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