Some thought had been given in the early 1950s to the establishment of a University college in Lusaka, but such proposals as there may have been were abandoned in 1953 with the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the related political decision to establish a University college in Salisbury (now Harare). Almost ten years were to pass before the question of a University for the then Northern Rhodesia was formally re-opened. This was done by the government which came into power in December 1962, and which for the first time consisted of a majority from the two nationalist parties, the United National Independence Party and the African National Congress. In March 1963, this Government appointed a Commission under the Chairmanship of Sir John Lockwood, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, to advise on the development of a University. In its report, which was submitted in November 1963, the Lockwood Commission unanimously recommended the establishment of a University in Lusaka.
In January 1964, the Government signified that it accepted the recommendations of the Lockwood Commission and within four months there was an inaugural meeting of the Provisional Council of the University, the body charged with bringing the University into being.
In July 1964, the former Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, a research institute with an international reputation for scholarly research and publications in the field of social anthropology dating back to 1938, came under the jurisdiction of the Provisional Council. In July 1965, Dr D.G. Anglin, of Carleton University in Canada, was appointed as Vice-Chancellor. A month later, the Oppenheimer College of Social Service was incorporated into the University at a time when extensive additions to its premises in John Mbita Road, in the Ridgeway area of Lusaka, were already well under way.
In October 1965, His Excellency the President of the Republic of Zambia gave his assent to Act Number 66 of 1965, and its commencement on 12 November 1965 of the same year brought the University of Zambia into legal existenced.
Under a reconstituted Provisional Council, recruitment of staff had been proceeding apace against the deadline set for the first intake of students, namely 17 March 1966. On that day the first academic session commenced at the Ridgeway Campus.
The President, Dr Kaunda was installed as Chancellor on 12 July 1966, in the presence of representatives of more than fifty other universities and some two thousand guests. The following day. The Chancellor laid the foundation stone for the University of Zambia on the Great East Road Campus.



The University began with three Schools: Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences - but as facilities developed and needs were recognised new Schools were added: Law (1967), Engineering (1969), Medicine (1970), Agricultural Sciences (1971), Mines (1973), Business and Industrial Studies (1978, at Ndola Campus), Environmental Studies (1981, at Ndola Campus), and Veterinary Medicine (1983).
In its first academic year the University enrolled 312 students. The numbers rose to over 1 000 in 1970 and ten years later stood at over 4 000. It was envisaged that eventually the total enrolment would level off at about 8 000 students. Current enrollment stands at 11500. Since such a number could not be accommodated, academically or residentially at the main campus in Lusaka, it was decided in 1975 that the University would be developed on a federal basis and that it would comprise three constituent institutions, one at Lusaka, one at Ndola the third at Solwezi in the North-Western Province. A new University of Zambia Act that came into operation in 1979 provided a definitive constitution for this federal structure. In anticipation of this development, and in response to the need to provide University training in the fields of accountancy and business administration, the University at Ndola opened in July 1978 with the establishment of a School of Business and Industrial Studies. The new Constituent Institution of the University of Zambia was accommodated at the Riverside Campus of the Zambia Institute of Technology in Kitwe, where teaching and residential facilities were readily available. But it was intended that the stay in Kitwe would be only temporary while physical planning, the mobilisation of resources and initial construction process got under way at the permanent site that had been acquired in Ndola.
   However, in 1987 the Act that ushered in a federal structure for the University was reviewed and consequently it was decided to abolish the federal structure. Two Acts were passed establishing two autonomous universities, namely the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University
Following the advent of the Third Republic in November 1991. Parliament passed the University Act No. 26 of 1992 which introduced important changes in the governance of the University. The 1992 Act provided for a titular chancellor appointed by the President from amongst distinguished persons nominated by the Minister of Education. Previously the President had been the Chancellor of the two universities. 
 Mr. John M. Mwanakatwe SC, a distinguished educationist, lawyer and former politician, was installed on 27th November 1992 as the first Chancellor of the University of Zambia under the act. With the building of the School of Veterinary Medicine (1983) with the assistance of the Japanese Government, some student hostels were built within the agreement. 
   In 1999, Parliament passed a new University ACT No. 11 of 1999, which provided for some major changes in the governance of the University of Zambia. It, for instance, vested the powers to appoint the University Council in the Minister of Education. It also reduced the tenure of office to the University Chancellor from Five to three years among other things.