The idea of a University in the Midlands dates back to the foundation of the National University of Science and Technology when Gweru, which was identified as a possible site for a second university campus in the country, lost its bid to Bulawayo. Two other opportunities to host institutions of higher learning (the Open University and the Catholic University) were also missed by the Midlands Province, when the two universities went to Harare instead. It was in the midst of such disappointments that two initiatives gradually converged to give birth to what has since become the Midlands State University. The President R G Mugabe, on the nudging of the Provincial political leadership of the Midlands, accepted to the idea of a national university being built in the Midlands. This coincided with the then Ministry of Higher Education and Technology's policy of devolution, which was aimed at expanding access to higher education by converting teachers and technical colleges into degree granting institutions. It was through the process of devolution that beginning in 1998 Gweru Teachers College started to enrol students studying for the Bachelor of Commerce with Education and the Bachelor of Science with Education degrees offered by the University of Zimbabwe.
In the meantime, although the devolution policy inaugurated an irrevocable process of bringing university education to the Midlands, there was a strong feeling, especially in the Province, that what was being done did not quite amount to the President's promise of a fully fledged state university in the province. Responding to these feelings, but without losing sight of constraints imposed on Government by declining national funds, the Minister of Higher Education and Technology transformed the devolution project at Gweru into Zimbabwe's third state university by means of the State University in the Midlands Act of April 1999.
The new University, whose name was later changed to the Midlands State University, was to be initially housed at the Gweru Teachers College premises. The mandate of the institution was contained in its broad objects which are the advancement of knowledge, the diffusion and extension of arts, science and learning, the preservation, dissemination and enhancement of knowledge that is relevant for the development of the people of Zimbabwe through teaching and research and, so far as is consistent with the objects, the nurturing of the intellectual, aesthetic, social and moral growth of the students at the University.
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