17 December 2012

Zambia: Knowing the Brains Behind Zambian Open University

What began with a mere working capital of only K45 million, has now grown to a turn-over to a tune of about K62 Billion - the Zambian Open University (ZAOU).

The man behind the success story of this institution is vice-chancellor Professor Dickson Mwansa, born on January 11, 1947 at Musangu Village in Mwense District, to parents Dickson Mwika and Lenise Musangu, of the Benambeba clan of Paramount Chief Kazembe's royal lineage.

He began his education in Mansa and later relocated to Luanshya, where he attained part of his education at Mambilima, Kashikishi and Kawambwa schools.

His leadership skills date as far back as when he was in Form Three, and was appointed school head-boy, owing to his exceptional academic performance.

He broke the record at the school of having held this position from Form Three to Five.

In 1968, he was selected to pursue his bachelor's degree in education at the University of Zambia (UNZA) and in 1973 soon after his graduation, he began his teaching career at Chongwe High School, where he opted to follow the love of his life-Miriam Musonda a fellow teacher by profession, who has been his wife for the last 39 years.

Prof Mwansa, a father of two taught at the school for only six months before his exemplary leadership skills could not go un-noticed.

He was appointed to act as deputy head-teacher, and in 1976 he was promoted to become lecturer at Nkrumah Teachers' College, because of the good academic results recorded from classes in which he taught.

Incensed by the lack of capacity at the public university to absorb all suitable applicants following increased demand for higher education, Prof Mwansa gathered courage which ordinarily would have been regarded as wishful thinking, to set up a private university.

This was of course after his retirement from active employment at UNZA in 2002, upon the attainment of the retirement age of 55 years.

Having risen through various ranks to the level of associate professor (one of his greatest achievements), a dream come true for him, he felt he was ready enough to retire from employment and set up a university that would absorb the remainder of the applicants left out in the selection process to public universities.

"I was angered at the failure by UNZA and CBU (Copperbelt University) to absorb the over 10,000 applicants, who deserved places in the higher institutions of learning. But UNZA could only take up 1,200. This made me think of establishing a university that could take up the remainder of these applicants," he explained.

The task of setting up a university was not an easy task despite the fact that he had vast teaching experience, especially after having served in administrative capacities in the highest learning institution in the country.

The biggest challenge of course for the set up of this university, which at the time was just an idea, was the lack of finances.

"I did not have the money, so I invited some of my colleagues to support me, at the time, I only had a starting capital of K45 million," he explained.

Negotiations with Government began as early as 2002, but took another three years before the institution could be registered as a company.

At the time, there were more pessimists and doubting Thomases, who could not believe that a university could start from this level.

"We met with the then Minister of Education 12 times and with UNZA officials nine times, just discussing the setting up of this institution. There was a mixture of resistance and support from different sections of society as regards the establishment of this university," he said.

To cut the long story short, Prof Mwansa managed to source K110 million which he invested into the university, which began operating in a three-roomed building offered to him by a friend.

In 2005, when the university was finally registered, there was no money left for advertisement of places for would-be students.

"We needed about K10 million to advertise. I met a colleague -Davis Machinga who gave me K10 million and another also gave me K10 million, which I used to reconnect our disconnected phone lines, re-open the post office box and the remainder of the monies were used for advertisements in both the print and electronic media, which ran for four days each.

By Monday the following week, all our phone lines were jammed with calls inquiring about application procedures, this necessitated me to employ a telephone operator," he said.

That week alone, the newly-registered institution, received 700 applications, from the application fees alone K60 million was raised.

"From this money, I bought vehicles and duplicating machines for the university, and out of the 700 applications, 369 were eligible for admission," he said.

Prof Mwansa had an initial team of 33 colleagues from UNZA who volunteered to work at ZAOU on part-time basis.

Today, the institution situated in Lusaka West which offers disciplines such as agriculture, law, business studies, social sciences and education, has more than 6,000 enrolled students, with 135 members of staff, 65 of whom are academicians, with 12 professors on board, and 150 part-time staff.

As demand for services at ZAOU grew tremendously with the lapse of time, the need for infrastructure development could no longer be ignored, hence the decision to purchase land worth K760 million in the second year of its operation, in order to construct an ultra modern structure to house one of the country's most successful private universities.

The construction of the main building and seven other structures at its current premises gobbled a total of K8.5 billion, but plans are underway to expand the institution further, hence the purchase of a 84 hectare plot in Rufunsa and another 200 hectare plot in Chibombo areas.

In Rufunsa, the institution grows soya beans, for both the students of agriculture and for commercial purposes.

The institution's motto is 'A University Without Walls', which prof Mwansa interprets as "students are able to access the much-desired educational needs through digital moodle platform using internet applications such as skype, hence our motto, we extend education beyond the walls of this institution," he said.

Now, the intermediate plans are to construct student accommodation worth US$ 45 million for full-time students who wish to enroll at the institution.

ZAOU, an affiliate of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, also belongs to the Association of Private Universities in Zambia (APUZ).

According to prof Mwansa, one of his key drivers in life is his passion to educate the world, and this is what prompted him to share this passion through establishing one of the most progressive institutions of higher learning.

He is a great advocate of education for prisoners, as a way to arrive at the much-desired social change, derived from one of his favourite proverbs that entail that 'No man is born a criminal, but society makes him so', so Prof Mwansa believes that social change is the only way to reverse the negative aspects of society.

This year, ZAOU won the top prize by scooping the first prize in the best institution of higher learning category at the Zambia International Trade Fair in Ndola, while at the Agriculture and Commercial Show in Lusaka, ZAOU came second to Kafue Gorge.

Having had a double major in literature and geography, Prof Mwansa is also a playwright renowned for 16 plays such as The Cell (based on life in prison) Save the Villa, Dilemma of a Husband, The Family Question just to mention but a few, and the latest one currently being authored at the time this article was being published.

He was also the first editor for the International Popular Alliance newsletter; an organisation founded on the belief that theatre can be used as a tool to promote social change.

One of the latest books he has authored is,'Literacy Changes and Myths in an African Society'.

One of his hobbies is travelling around the world with his wife Miriam who is deputy head-teacher at Kabulonga Girls' school, something that he says he has come to enjoy more especially now.

Well, when all is said and done, Prof Mwansa would like to be remembered as an educationist with a passion to support calls for all who care to get educated.

He now plans to retire from ZAOU next year, and plans to concentrate on a kindergarten project he and his wife run in Lusaka's Kabanana area.

Undoubtedly, he has set the trend and paved the way, as the country strives to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) number which two entails that the country should seek to attain universal education by 2015, investments into the education sector such as these at ZAOU, should be harnessed.

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