AKU celebrates its founding vision as it turns 40

Aga Khan University (AKU), in only four short decades since its beginning, has grown to become an international institution with campuses and programmes in six countries that include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom.

The University’s academic agenda is diverse from medicine and nursing, to journalism, educational development, Muslim civilisations, arts and sciences, and more. AKU also operates a health system comprising seven hospitals across three countries.

Forty years ago on March 16, 1983, Aga Khan University was born out of the vision of its founder and Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan. It was on that day that it received its first Charter from the Government of Pakistan.

On that day, His Highness articulated the vision that has guided the University throughout its existence. He set forth its mission of “setting the highest standards possible, whether in teaching, in research or in service.”

Its goal of reconciling loyalty to international standards with service to those in need. Its aim of delivering an education “in the high traditions of intellectual inquiry” so as to equip young women and men with a “searching curiosity,” “disciplined habits of mind” and the ability “to use knowledge to identify and solve problems.”

He stated clearly that AKU would be “open to all comers, regardless of colour, creed, race or class” and that “the only criteria which will count for admission will be merit and potential for leadership.” Inspired by the pinnacles of intellectual achievement reached by Muslim scholars, he looked forward to seeing the University demonstrate that “the spirit of disciplined, objective inquiry is the property of no single culture, but of all humanity.” He urged AKU as well to reach across borders, “making wisdom available from one country to another.”

While the University dates its inception from the receipt of its Charter in 1983, that historic occasion was itself the culmination of a lengthy journey. From the day in 1964 that His Highness announced the AKU project to the inauguration of its hospital and campus in 1985, two decades passed.

A curriculum that would prepare graduates for world-class practice to address local challenges was devised. As His Highness noted in inaugurating the Aga Khan University Hospital and Faculty of Health Sciences in Karachi in 1985, AKU represented “hundreds of thousands of man-hours of debate,” “endless travels of experts,” “unstinting efforts” by project leaders and “a massive response” from donors and institutions across the world.

Close to two decades after its launch in Pakistan, AKU began a new chapter in East Africa with precursor programmes in nursing and teacher education in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya in the period 1999-2001.

It started with the establishment of the School of Nursing and Midwifery, East Africa, to deliver high quality, affordable and accessible work/study programmes for working nurses.

In 2004, the Medical College, East Africa, was set up to provide medical education in the region. This was a major contribution to the foundation of the University in the region. A year later, the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi was transformed into a teaching hospital to integrate academic functions with clinical services and provide the right level of training facilities for the Medical College and School of Nursing and Midwifery.

In 2021, Aga Khan University in Kenya received its Charter to set forth the University’s mission, which is to improve quality of life by educating individuals for leadership in the knowledge-based economy, by generating and sharing problem-solving knowledge and innovations in partnership with other institutions, and by meeting international standards of quality.

Four decades into its life, the impact of the Aga Khan University is plain to see. The University has awarded more than 19,000 diplomas and degrees – two-thirds of which have gone to women. Its graduates are leading change across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, from rural clinics and remote schools to world-renowned universities and hospitals.

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AKU faculty members are conducting cutting-edge research on everything from cancer and infectious diseases to the history of Muslim societies, using tools ranging from artificial intelligence to gene editing.

The AKU health system serves more than two million patients annually. In recent years, the University has been ranked among the leading universities in Asia, Africa and, in some fields, the world. Last year, it provided more than $30 million in patient welfare and student financial assistance to make an AKU education and AKUH health care available to low- and middle-income families.

With partners in 20 countries, it can bring together experts from around the world to work on challenges facing lower-income societies. Collaborating with government policymakers, schools, health facilities and health programmes is a major motif of the University’s work.

The story of AKU’s evolution from 1983 to the present constitutes an epic journey. From a single-country, single-hospital, health-sciences-focused institution, it has developed into a six-country, seven-hospital, discipline-spanning enterprise. Indeed, one-third of its students and one-quarter of its patients are in East Africa.

This growth is the result of an immense effort by faculty, staff, donors, volunteers and partners. It also reflects the enabling environment that has been created for the University by its many friends and allies. As His Highness observed in AKU’s early years, “developing a new university into an effective and respected centre of learning demands a far greater span of commitment and time than can ever be available from one man’s views, one man’s resources and the allotted years of one man’s life.”

AKU is profoundly grateful to all those who have made its success possible over the past four decades.

Forty years after its founding, AKU remains as inspired by its founder’s vision as ever, and as committed to bringing it to life as when he articulated it for the first time. The story of the Aga Khan University is far from finished. This year will see the launch of undergraduate programmes in medicine and nursing in Kenya. In Uganda, the University has begun the development of a campus in Kampala that will comprise a teaching hospital and academic facilities.

Fulfilling a longstanding goal, AKU is launching the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Karachi to provide an undergraduate education in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Its first students arrive later this year.

Ten years ago, during its 30th anniversary year, His Highness reflected on the University’s history. “Our goals were ambitious back in 1983,” he said. “And yet, if we could have glimpsed into the future then – if we could have forecast what this day would look like – I think we would have been very happy with the way the story has unfolded.”

Now and in the future, AKU will continue to pursue ambitious goals and to be guided by its founding vision. Setting high standards, serving local needs, rewarding merit, empowering women, imbuing students with a searching curiosity, connecting people across borders, and looking with pride upon the rich heritage of Asia and Africa ­– now and forever, these will be the keynotes of the Aga Khan University.

The author, Dr Sulaiman Shahabbudin, is the Vice Chancellor, Aga Khan University. Email: [email protected]

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