Aga Khan University:‘We are riding on a philosophy to recreate the University of East Africa’

Posted In Education, NEWS - By admin on Friday, March 13th, 2015 With No Comments »

Grow it, mine it, build it, or invent it: For Aga Khan University, books are the best way to curate change in civil society

Aga Khan University Chancellor The Aga Khan (Left) in academic procession with university President Firoz Rasul on March 2,

Aga Khan University Chancellor The Aga Khan (Left) in academic procession with university President Firoz Rasul on March 2,

On February 23 this year, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete granted a charter to the Aga Khan University — making it the first foreign institution of higher learning in the country.

Mr Kikwete, while handing the certificate to the Aga Khan at a ceremony held at State House in Dar es Salaam, said that, for years, the Government of Tanzania had enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) — which runs the university and other Aga Khan projects in the country — and added that there was room to do more.

The granting of the charter, Mr Kikwete said, opened a new chapter in improving the work carried out made by the AKDN and the government of Tanzania to improve the lives of residents.

However, he stressed, the charter was not just given out to the institution, but was a well-deserved achievement.


Aga Khan University Chancellor The Aga Khan (Right) awards a Bachelors of Science in Nursing degree to Roseline Akinyi Haya during the University's 15th anniversary in East Africa on March 2

Aga Khan University Chancellor The Aga Khan (Right) awards a Bachelors of Science in Nursing degree to Roseline Akinyi Haya during the University’s 15th anniversary in East Africa on March 2

That brief ceremony in Dar es Salaam opened up a world of possibilities for the region while at the same time giving more impetus to the AKDN’s drive to improve the quality of life for (particularly) East Africans.

The Aga Khan himself believes that the quality of life in East Africa would improve if civil society embraced quality and was more ethical, and this is driving the university’s bold expansion in the region.

“More and more, I am convinced that the key to improving the quality of human life — both in places that are gifted with good governments and in places that are not so fortunate — is the quality of what I describe as civil society,” says the Aga Khan.

He defines civil society as an array of institutions which are neither public nor profit-driven, but which are motivated by voluntary commitments and dedicated to the public good.

“They include institutions dedicated to culture, to public information, to the environment and to religious faith. And they include, very importantly, the fields of health and education.”

The hereditary spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, holds that quality civil society organisations are critical if human life across the world, but especially in the developing world, is to be improved.

A healthy civil society, he says, is a meritocratic one where ethics are honoured and excellence is valued. As such, he adds, “the great question confronting us here in Africa is how rapidly the institutions of a healthy civil society can be established and reinforced”.

This is a question he, as chancellor of the university, has assigned AKU to help solve as it advances and shares new knowledge.

The university has announced a $1.1 billion (Sh100 billion) expansion plan, the largest private investment in higher education in EA’s history. The expansion will spread to five countries and will include the establishment of eight graduate schools.

Riding the bullish youth bulge, EA is witnessing a pronounced quest for university education.


This manifests in the multitudes of energetic youth who pour onto the streets of its cities every evening trekking from evening classes, and the millions of dollars coming from entrepreneur pockets to set up private colleges.

But where there is a rush, quality suffers, and this may just be the differentiating niche for AKU.

The Aga Khan said Tanzania was a special place for AKU since his grandfather, while serving as Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community, made education a top priority and started the first Aga Khan School in Africa over 110 years ago in Bagamoyo.

“Like each of you, personally, the university also remembers its heritage on a day like this. That heritage is rooted in the rich history of Islamic intellectual accomplishment — including the work of my own ancestors in ancient Cairo 1,000 years ago, when they founded the Azhar University and the Dar-ul-ilm, the House of Knowledge.

“This story continued over several centuries, as Islamic centres of scholarship and culture involved and inspired people of many traditions and faiths. And that same legacy was on our minds when we began planning for this new Aga Khan University,” he said


Some of the graduates during the Aga Khan University graduation ceremony on March 2

Some of the graduates during the Aga Khan University graduation ceremony on March 2

East Africans today have quite a choice in university education. What distinguishes AKU?

AKU was conceptualised in the mid-1970s. The founders wanted to create a university in the developing world, for the developing world, and of international standards to improve quality of life.

Its focus has been in South Asia and East Africa, the places where our activities were more prevalent, and therefore where we had the most knowledge.

The university was set up to be elite without being elitist — that is, to provide high quality education without being exclusive.

The pluralism of the institution is very important. If you like, we are riding on a philosophy to recreate the University of East Africa, which in its days managed to bind the region together and had stand-alone campuses in the three countries, with each a unique centre of excellence in itself — law in Dar, engineering/medicine in Nairobi, arts in Makerere.

Hence we hope to grow with the East African region, and are working to set up a truly East African university.

Our distinguishing factor is that our focus on creating leaders demands that the students be not just the best in their profession; but also make it their burden to change the world.

The dream lives in Kibera, where one of our nursing graduates, Lucia Buyanza, went back into the community and worked to care for people living with HIV/Aids, then evolved the programme to also care for Aids orphans, including their education.

You’ve said today’s world is connected and complex. What implications does this have for higher education?

When we do market studies, the industry tells us that the universities are producing unemployable graduates. Many universities provide knowledge; we work to provide knowledge, understanding and application. Where most academic institutions are looking to produce job-ready graduands, we want graduates who create jobs.

A Cabinet minister in Uganda this morning told me the country produces 40,000 graduates every year but there are no jobs. This demonstrates clearly the extent of our region’s need, but a vast majority of AKU graduates are already employed.

We approach the teaching of problem solving at two levels in this connected, complex world — technology and social.

At the first level, we deploy technology to more efficiently apply rare talent. For example, a nurse in Mbeya or Mwanza can use the mobile telephone to transmit an image to a medical centre in Dar es Salaam and access specialist attention in a timely and efficient manner.

On the second level, people with common problems and/or issues are able to come together in one learning environment; for example, students from Tajikistan learning at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa.

This exchange programme is being developed further for all the campuses.

This is being pursued similarly at the faculty level, too. Recently, we shared an emergent insight that the first 1,000 days in a baby’s life are the most important for its development, including intellectual development.

Imagine the implications of this on infant care and on the old debate of how long new mothers should wait before resuming work.

Africa has its unique challenges and opportunities, how far has this informed how your programmes are structured?

Sub-saharan Africa, which is our focus, has a rich retinue of issues. In East Africa three factors stand out for us.

One, nearly 70 per cent of the population is of age 25 or so and below. Consider the jobs and opportunities that they need. The EA population is growing very fast, and is among the regions with the highest population growth in the world.

They will demand land, water, food, jobs, energy and more opportunities. What happens if you are not able to meet their expectations?

Two, EA has the potential of leapfrogging the traditional economic stages of growth that lead from agrarian-based traditional society through various other stages such as low-cost manufacturing and technology-driven, to being global knowledge providers.

EA has given the world M-Pesa, and Kenya is already a world leader in mobile money. This demonstrates the existence of the ability — and initiative — to look at new ideas in a manner not looked at before. Another example is Ushahidi. This is cutting edge. Our curriculum is therefore geared to the needs of EA.

Three, EA is the cradle of humanity. How can it conserve and develop its cultural assets? We need to ask ourselves how many international tourists return after making the initial visit? In Spain, one excavation site attracts one million visitors a year. Dubai has a strategy that gives it a 365-day tourist season every year. How do they do it?

Academia can be very isolated, even though they are part of a community; what measures is AKU using to ensure benefits accrue to its hosts?

In all our campuses we have spaces deliberately created to ensure that the larger society is a part of us, and the benefits are clearly mutual. The Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi will have a media park where local and world renowned media houses will find room.

The main campus coming up in Arusha will have a major research park. This will go for all places we set up in.

How and where will you get the faculty to deliver all this?

We cannot deliver this dream without a first class faculty. We are going for the best from all over the world, but we must start local.

What’s more important is our approach, which is more about learning than teaching. While teaching centres on the teacher, learning is student-driven.

We will also work deliberately to attract the African diaspora. Did you know that there are over 50,000 Africans with PhDs in the US?

Poverty is one problem EA continues to wrestle with, and it is now established that education is key. How does this factor into AKU’s work?

One of the most erudite people I know is the late Dr Fraser Mustard. He told me that a country can only create wealth for its people through four ways: grow it, mine it, build it, or create/invent it. This would be a good framework to use to fight poverty.

At AKU we focus on quality over quantity. Our story with nurses shows it.

Many of the nursing students, over the years, have come from poor backgrounds. When you trace them back and see the impact their training has had on the economic status of their extended families you begin to see a very direct impact.

We have also just trained 900 secondary school headteachers in Uganda.

You can work out the multiplier effect by looking at the number of teachers they supervise and further on to the number of students those teachers handle.

Another approach to fighting poverty is to bring up professional standards by targeting curriculum developers, doctors and also directly focus on practising individuals. Targeting working professionals has a very immediate impact on quality.

It is for this reason that our work, as spelt out by our founder, His Highness the Aga Khan, is driven by a philosophy of empowerment and partnership as opposed to philanthropy.

We spend money, but spend it on partnerships that help people improve their schools, water and sanitation, among others. No matter what you do, you always want to preserve people’s dignity.


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