The 8th of May 2020 was an important milestone in the history of Unicaf University, marking the first graduation at the state-of-the-art Malawi campus in Lilongwe. Three hundred and fifty two graduates from fifty different countries were awarded their Master’s degrees in a ceremony broadcasted online through social media and attended virtually by the graduates and their families from the safety of their homes, abiding with social distancing measures enforced around the world to contain the spread of Covid-19 disease.

Director of Academics and Quality Assurance of Unicaf University in Malawi, Samuel Katsaruware, serving as Master of Ceremonies, opened the event welcoming viewers from many different countries, watching from home. He said that Unicaf University felt it would be unfair to delay the conferment of degrees because of the pandemic, and decided to hold an online graduation ceremony, to match the delivery model of its programmes.

The first ever Unicaf University graduation ceremony was graced by the presence of the Honourable Minister of Education, Science and Technology, of the Republic of Malawi Dr William Susuwele-Banda MP, who commended the institution as the first fully online university in Malawi, and said that the Government highly appreciated the decision to hold an online graduation, in view of the seriousness of the pandemic.  And he continued: ‘ The government appreciates the good work that Unicaf University and other private universities are doing in this country….. concerned (African) governments are working hard to expand access to Higher Education, and at the same time to maintain high quality standards within our Higher Education system.’

The Minister added that the government encourages the establishment of private universities such as Unicaf University, so that together with public universities they can meet the demand for Higher Education in the country. He also said the government encourages all universities to provide Open Distance and e-Learning (ODEL) to enable more students to access quality Higher Education, while they continue to work.

Finally he stated: ‘Time has come for the continent to increase post graduate programmes, so that we train specialists in different areas right here, in Africa. By doing so we will be able to equip them with the relevant skills and experiences for handling continental challenges. I’m pleased, therefore, to note that the 352 graduands today are all Master’s students. It is my hope that in the near future there will be more doctoral degrees awarded.’ Closing his speech, he congratulated Unicaf University management and staff and asked them to continue to develop and strengthen their systems to meet the needs of students in Malawi and internationally, and he also congratulated all graduates.

Vice Chancellor of Unicaf University in Malawi Professor Kuthemba Mwale referred to the important achievement of the institution, in gaining accreditation locally by the National Council of Higher Education in Malawi and internationally by the British Accreditation Council, based in the UK. He said that over $100 million worth of scholarships have been awarded from Unicaf so far, helping thousands of  financially challenged students to access quality Higher Education and working professionals to earn higher qualifications without leaving their jobs and families to study abroad.

Professor Kuthemba congratulated the first graduates of the University and said that the biggest testament to the benefits of online learning will be the quality of the training they have received. He noted that throughout the pandemic, the University continued to operate normally and that it remains open to collaborations with other local institutions, who wish to expand their operations to online teaching and learning.  And he added: ‘ Unicaf University aims to produce leaders, managers, and administrators with integrity and a strong sense of accountability. The world today needs more professional men and women, who are ethical and cannot be bought.’

The congregation was then addressed by Unicaf University Vice Chancellor Federal Dr Kevin Andrews, via video link from Cyprus, where Unicaf has its headquarters. Dr Andrews congratulated graduating students on behalf of all faculty and staff of the University, recognising the importance of their achievement. He said that the Unicaf University network has a central mission of educational excellence, while it continues to expand across Africa. And he added: ‘We celebrate today the innovation, the diversity, the multiculturalism and the achievements of our broader academic community, which comprises participants from 156 different nationalities, both students and faculty…Higher Education plays a vital role in fostering global awareness and in promoting democratic values, such as critical questioning, understanding complexity, embracing tolerance and promoting empathy.’

Professor Nyovani Madise, Chair of the Local Unicaf University Advisory Board, said that after its accreditation locally by NCHE and internationally by the British Accreditation Council, based in the UK, Unicaf University ‘is recognised as a bona fide institution of higher learning’. And she added: ‘As a Board we view the establishment of Unicaf University in Malawi as an opportunity to expand access to Higher Education through its flexible learning approach online, while ensuring a high quality of education at an affordable price. We also recognise the value of the international experience cultivated by the University’s programmes… Recent events have demonstrated that online learning … should be recognised in its own right as a valid medium of teaching and learning.’

Dr. Ambumulire Phiri represented the Chief Executive Officer of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) in Malawi Dr. Ignasio Jimu and read his message, in which he stated that ‘Unicaf University is a leader in the field of distance and e-learning, and of the internationalisation of Higher Education in Malawi. ODEL complements the traditional, face to face mode of delivery and is also a viable means for expanding access to Higher Education… It is also noteworthy that Unicaf University has a significant number of international students studying for its degree programmes by ODEL, this is commendable.’

Dr Jimu congratulated the students, academics and management of Unicaf University and urged other institutions in the country to emulate Unicaf University in the areas of Open Distance and e-learning, internationalisation, and national and international accreditation.

Unicaf University International Board member Professor Jonathan Kydd sent his message from the UK via video link. Professor Kydd thanked the Minister and the government of Malawi for their co-operation and support since the early stages of establishing Unicaf University in the country and described the graduation of the first cohort of students as ‘the early stages of Malawi blossoming as an international education hub, serving Malawi, Africa and indeed the world.’

Sophie Sikwese, speaking on behalf of all graduating students, expressed gratitude to Unicaf University for a unique and very fulfilling experience. She said that students chose Unicaf University for a variety of reasons, including the options of online or blended learning, the generous scholarships which make studies affordable, the flexibility of the module system, and the great support. She noted: ‘The virtual classroom experience makes learning more engaging and interesting. Students feel they are not alone in their online learning journey, and are able to learn from the experiences of fellow students from other regions, countries, continents. Unicaf University has prepared us for the real challenges affecting the world today. Throughout our studies emphasis was placed by our tutors on applying everything we learned to real life situations’.

The Deputy Vice Chancellor for Unicaf University in Malawi, Dr Robert Ridley read the names of students graduating in three post graduate programmes: Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Organisational Psychology and Master of Arts in Education. Finally, the University’s Vice Chancellor proceeded with the award of the degrees.

Hundreds of graduates followed the proceedings of the Unicaf University online graduation ceremony via Facebook and posted photos and videos on social media expressing their excitement and sense of achievement.

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