We may debate on what has been achieved in Malawi in the last 50 years. We can debate especially on the measure of progress. However, it should be easy to agree that Malawi today is far different and far more advanced than it was at independence in 1964. One of the sectors that has progressed a lot and, in turn, spurred other sectors is education. At independence, Malawi had a handful of graduates—now we do not even have an exact count of them. We have hundreds of secondary schools with nearly 200 000 pupils completing Form Four every year! Primary schools play host to a couple of millions of pupils and so on.
At the heart of the progress in education was the decision by our founding President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda that Malawi needed to have its own university within the first year of gaining independence. And so, by 1965, Malawi opened its own university in Blantyre at Chichiri, Mpemba and Soche. From oral history, some of those who were there that time, share that it sounded like a joke when Kamuzu spoke with conviction that Malawi would have its own university by the next year. But true to his words, the university started.
Like everything else, University of Malawi (Unima) started as a small institution, using some of the existing infrastructure and a handful staff. In parallel, government was constructing Chancellor College (Chanco). In 1973, students were relocated from campuses in Blantyre to Chirunga in Zomba which is the present Chanco.
It is notable that the first cohort of students to start learning at Unima in 1965 was only 90 compared to now when total student population of the university is approaching 10 000! As our former principal at the Polytechnic, Henry Chibwana used to tell us, as students, big things come in small dozes! It takes vision and belief to start something small with a goal to make it big over time. It takes leadership to make others see the vision, buy into the vision and implement the vision. The story of Unima is a case in point here.
That is why, with time, Unima grew to five colleges by early 1990s, with later additions of Bunda College, Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) (1979) and the College of Medicine (1991), complementing the existence of Chanco and the Polytechnic. Recently, Bunda has been converted into a separate university, which is also another major milestone in the history of Unima, giving birth to another separate university.
Unima has produced many thousands of graduates over the 50 years, in all key professions and fields of study—serving the public and private sectors of our economy and with others working beyond the borders in Africa as well as the rest of the world. All this is a stamp of authority on the quality of education that Unima provides to its students. We cannot imagine how little Malawi would have achieved if we did not establish our own university.
A second national university was established in the late 1990s in the name of Mzuzu University (Mzuni). Since then, we have since several universities formed, mostly private in nature but also some State institutions. Unima has supplied the know-how, founding staff and the standards for benchmark, comparison and learning to these new institutions. We salute Unima for this extra role and value that it has played in the development of tertiary education in Malawi.
As we celebrate 50 years of existence of Malawi’s first university, we need to be mindful of the fact that with many universities coming into play, Unima needs to position itself to compete in this sector so that it remains the leader that it has been when it comes to university education. Without clear strategic focus and execution excellence, Unima will easily be overtaken by one of the newer private universities if not one of the new national universities. It is up to Unima and its leaders to choose the destiny for this great university. We congratulate Unima for lasting a great 50 years as we wish Unima another great 50 years ahead!