In February 2002 six founding members working with other colleagues from the University of Zambia (UNZA), academic and corporate world thought of establishing the first private University to meet the demand for higher education that had arisen in the country. They included:
- Prof Dickson Mwansa Former Dean, School of Education, University of Zambia (UNZA),
- Chairperson Prof Elizabeth Mumba Former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (UNZA),
- Mr Hugo Mubashi Former Company Secretary, Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO),
- Dr Salome Katwishi Former Principal Inspector of Schools, Ministry of Education,
- Mr Hatchwell Siulanda Former Programme Officer, UNICEF, and former Company Secretary,
- Mr Edward Cholwe Former Chief Accountant, LONHRO Zambia.
The founders realized that in 2002 there were 32,000 primary and 7,000 Secondary school teachers with certificate and diploma qualifications in need of University education whose demand could not be met through traditional methods of teacher education. However, education could be brought to their doorsteps through new, flexible methods and approaches. As a result, they decided on an ‘Open University’. The founders invited forty Zambians to participate in the running of the institution, through the acquisition of shares. ZAOU commenced its operations along Kafue Road at Waterwells, in an office generously rented to it by MBBZ, a company ran by Dr Moses Banda, a prominent citizen of Lusaka. The Ministry of Education prevail upon ZAOU to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the University of Zambia (UNZA), in order to be recognized and registered under the University Act No. 11 of 1999 of the Laws of Zambia.
A number of intensive discussions were held with both the Ministry of Education and the University of Zambia (UNZA) which focused on the modalities of how the new institution would interface with the existing state universities. The MoU which allowed ZAOU to engage the services of UNZA staff and use existing UNZA curricula while reciprocating this with some fees accruing to UNZA was duly signed on 23rd November, 2004. On 23rd December, 2004 the then Minister of Education, Hon. Andrew Mulenga registered ZAOU , thus heralding the birth of the first Open University in Zambia. On 2nd February, 2005 the Board of Directors appointed Prof Dickson M. Mwansa as the first Vice – Chancellor and Chairperson of the Directors for ZAOU. Mr Hatchwell Siulanda was appointed the first Registrar, while Dr. Enela Mwase, the former Dean of UNZA’s School of Veterinary Medicine was invited to replace Prof Elizabeth Mumba who had resigned, to take an appointment in Foreign Service.
The University admits students on merit and without discrimination based on disability, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation.
There is a fairly good number of Grade 12 school leavers, teachers with certificate and diploma qualifications who are eligible to study for Degree Programmes but are handicapped by the small number of places available at existing universities. Annually, over 20,000 students apply and only about 2,000 are admitted.
The University offers the Bachelor of Agricultural Sciences, Bachelor of Business, Studies Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) degrees in Adult Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Early Childhood Education, Guidance and Counselling and Special Education; Bachelor of Arts degree in Development Studies (BA); Bachelor of Laws (LLB); Master of Education (M.Ed) in Literacy; Master of Laws (LLM); PhD studies in Education, Laws, Sociology of Education and History. In 2009 the School of Media, Fine and Performing Arts admitted its first students. At a later stage the institution will offer Degree Programmes in other fields in response to demands by the labour market.