Changes in Global Higher Education Since 1994 and Their Implications for the Future AKU

The higher education realm has inevitably been affected by the changes taking place globally on so many fronts. Particularly in the Global South, a transformation has taken place since the first Chancellor’s Commission reported in 1994. AKU’s position in that landscape has dramatically changed as well, from a small new institution focused on the health sciences in Pakistan to a respected university covering a wider range of disciplines with a multi-campus, multi-country presence in South and Central Asia, East Africa, and the United Kingdom.  

Among university leaders, there is understandably a wide consensus that future generations must be prepared to navigate challenges and systems that have yet to materialise. However, that pedagogical consensus on the importance of adaptability and resilience has not consistently produced experimental or inventive approaches to higher education; rather, the sector has often taken what might be characterised as a somewhat defensive and conservative stance, marked by the growing role of the private sector, increasing reliance on global benchmarking and reputation management, and an accent on meeting immediate labour market demands, particularly in STEM fields. A distinct isomorphism in the university sector is discernible.  

The Private Sector in Higher Education: Spectacular Expansion and Enduring Disparities 

The stagnation of public investment in social services in the last three decades of neo-liberal globalization has meant that most governments in the world are unable or unwilling to support higher education at the scale demanded by either prospective students or employers. The inevitable result has been the growth of for-profit businesses in higher education—investor-owned colleges and universities, test-prep companies, MOOC providers, etc.—that measure their success largely by their bottom lines. The incursion of these enterprises in North America has been modest, leading American and Canadian academics to be somewhat dismissive of for-profit education.[23] However, the sector is proliferating very fast in most of the rest of the world. Today there are many more private than public institutions, and the gap is growing. 

For example, in the Global South in 2018 there were almost 50,000 private providers, up more than 130 per cent since 2006, against fewer than 20,000 public institutions—an increase of just 12 per cent.[24] Large public institutions still account for the bulk of enrolments—public higher education accounted for 70 per cent of global enrolments in 2018 and the universities of Karachi, Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam each enrolled more than 40,000 students—but their share has been declining, due to the rising importance of private provision in the Global South.[25] This includes the emergence of a small but influential number of high-quality or ‘elite’ private, not-for-profit universities (notably in India and Brazil) that offer new models and innovative approaches to higher education.[26]

The non-state sector is quite complex, including both for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises. In the Global South, not-for-profit institutions are typically religiously affiliated or established by family foundations, as in Latin America and Turkey, and financing mechanisms range from partial state funding through socially conscious impact investing to dependence entirely on tuition revenues, ancillary fees, and other private revenue streams. However, governments in the Global South have been authorising the establishment of many for-profit institutions in part because they are unwilling or unable to meet the demand for access to publicly financed tertiary education. 

Thus, despite the spectacular expansion that has occurred in many parts of the planet in the past decades, severe enrolment disparities persist. This is especially the case in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where enrolment is 10 per cent and 26 per cent of the age cohort, respectively, compared to 41 per cent in North Africa and the European average of 73 per cent. For Pakistan, it is only 12 per cent. Unsurprisingly given the nature of the institutions being approved, statistics also show that a high proportion of students still belong to the wealthiest groups in society in both richer and poorer nations. The issue is not only one of access. Students from traditionally underrepresented groups also have lower completion rates. They are usually enrolled in less prestigious universities, which means fewer labour market opportunities and lower job outcomes. 

In short, equitable access to higher education and labour market opportunities are indispensable for easing inequalities and related social problems. Access is particularly important given the demographics of many nations in the Global South where, as noted above, a ‘youth bulge’ is growing to and beyond the age of university enrolment. However, rising cost-sharing and the high number of private higher education institutions in many parts of the world remain major sources of disparities in both access and success in university enrolment.  

Benchmarking and Measurement

In this context of rapid expansion of under-resourced private institutions, the dissemination of standards for quality assurance and accreditation is particularly important. Many national accreditation standards and mechanisms elsewhere in the world are borrowed or modelled on US practice. Meeting those standards—indeed, the very process of being measured against them— demands a serious institutional commitment of time and resources, and few institutions in the Global South are able or willing to make such commitments. Another key challenge with accreditation standards and mechanisms is that they do not sufficiently rely on outcomes, focusing instead on inputs and processes. Moreover, insofar as they seek to enforce established practices, they discourage innovation.  

We find similar issues with university rankings, where the growing influence of the private sector is evident even in the United States as US News and World Report, Princeton Review, and others provide ranking systems for ‘consumers’ of US colleges and universities. We also now see this trend on a global scale with the international rating of universities by organisations like Quacquarelli Symonds [QS], Times Higher Education [THE], and the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy/ Academic Ranking of World Universities [ARWU]. 

Both accreditation standards and international rankings, like most economically driven devices to assess competitiveness, rely heavily on quantitative measures. This approach privileges those aspects of education that can be counted: numbers of students and faculty, proportion of foreign students and academics, square meters of instructional space, credit hours required, publications per faculty member, citations per publication, etc. These are all worthwhile data. But they do not really measure education—indeed they are not even particularly good proxies by which to measure education. In so far as the global rankings measure anything comparable, it is research output, not teaching. (They also tend to favour research published in English, which biases outcomes to institutions in the North Atlantic.)

With respect to research outputs, while AKU performs admirably in some areas, it operates at a substantial disadvantage in terms of external funding. Consider, for example, that in 2023, the Biden Administration in the United States initiated a US$280 billion increase in science funding over the next decade for American researchers in a range of disciplines. The UK Government committed to a 35 per cent base increase in science funding by 2026, and Germany is well into its second decade of steady three per cent annual increases in research funding.  

Whether in Pakistan or East Africa, AKU must deal with scarcity of local funding to support its scientific and scholarly work. For example, it has been estimated that in 2017-18 the entirety of local funding available in Pakistan for health sciences research through the Higher Education Commission, the Pakistan Science Foundation, and the Pakistan Health Research Council was ~Rs. 350 million (about US$3 million at that time).[27] The Kenya Medical Research Institute [KEMRI], the health research arm of the Government of Kenya, receives about US$15 million annually and does not make grants to private organisations. 

Despite constrained support, AKU’s research outputs do elevate its standing when ranked against global peers in similar settings. However, the core problem remains that the outputs of research are relatively simple to assess, while assessing the outcomes of education is a longstanding challenge everywhere. At the time of graduation, it is often uncertain what skills graduates will need and use. Moreover, the metrics we use to assess, accredit, and rank universities rarely capture the growing sophistication and maturity of the students, the value that rigorous exposure to unfamiliar ideas and perspectives may have decades later when still newer ideas must be confronted, or the self-confidence and flexibility of mind that permits young people to rise over time to leadership roles in their communities. These disconnects pose challenges for AKU and every other university that aspires to educate leaders who will make a difference in these troubled and uncertain times.  

Novel Pedagogies and Purposes 

Even as globalisation has highlighted the variety of the world’s peoples and the benefits of their intermingling, the periodic and apparently growing nativist reactions noted above have made explicit commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI] increasingly common in business, government, and education. While in parts of the United States and elsewhere, academic institutions have recently come under attack for their efforts to redress historic inequities, universities have been at the forefront of recognising, and taking steps to foster, DEI. Many universities now feature chief diversity officers, DEI curriculum requirements, and training sessions on implicit bias as part of a growing diversity infrastructure. 

In the Global North, there is also growing recognition of the impatience of a digital generation with traditional university pedagogy. This phenomenon has been accompanied by the emergence of institutions and programmes that emphasise self-directed, experiential, and peer-to-peer learning. Co-op programs, with work-site placements, have become more popular, not least because they can make higher education more affordable if the placement involves employment or at least some compensation. Numerous programmes also exist to help student entrepreneurs start their own businesses. 

The sustainability of these innovations in AKU’s varied settings and programmes remains unclear given the heterogeneity of environments in which AKU operates, its varied programmes, and the divergent cultures and expectations of students and their families. Howsoever it is accomplished though, university pedagogy must in all instances provide students with the mental agility necessary to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. That includes the syncretic and problem-solving skills required to understand and respond to complex new challenges, and the intellectual curiosity that drives life-long learning so that graduates can stay abreast of their field of specialty and assimilate ideas from new fields as they develop. In short, educators and educational institutions must soften the boundaries between disciplines that have existed in the past and adapt their more specialised programmes to ensure that their graduates have so-called T-shaped attributes—both depth of expertise in a particular field, and breadth of cognitive skills to navigate an uncertain future. 

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities across the world are being transformed from scholarly institutions, concerned with intellectual pursuits on their own merits, or state resources dedicated to the formation of citizens and the development of nations, into small business or large-scale industrial enterprises, concerned with the pursuit of measurable contributions to economic life. This trend is reflected even in the public sector, as governments demand that universities support the ‘knowledge economy’, understood almost exclusively in terms of STEM[28] disciplines, and everywhere governments encourage meeting the demands of a market for high-tech skills. A focus on employability—often defined less in terms of local labour markets than a global fixation on new technologies—has infused the world of higher education as well as the regulatory context globally.   

Flexibility will be increasingly important not only in supporting research and learning across continents and across decades. Increasing mobility, combined with the growing realisation that education does not stop with a terminal degree, has led to an increasing wish for micro-credentials through which individuals could collect and continue professional development. 

In fact, the stereotypical undergraduate student at a four-year residential university is a vanishing minority of the students in the world today. In the US alone, the average college student is over 26 years old. Barely half of US university students attend school exclusively full-time and just over half of students complete a certificate or college degree within six years.[29] The COVID-19 pandemic amplified downward trends in full-time, undergraduate enrolment observed prior to 2020: Between fall 2010 and fall 2021, total undergraduate enrolment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US decreased by 15 per cent (from 18.1 million to 15.4 million students), with 42 per cent of this decline occurring during the pandemic. While total US undergraduate enrolment is projected to increase by nine per cent (from 15.4 million to 16.8 million students) between 2021 and 2031, the demographic profile of these students—and their global counterparts—and where and how they choose to study, will likely be quite different from their predecessors even a decade ago.[30]

This, and the increasing demand for continuing professional education, has led to the proliferation of ‘stackable degrees’, certificate programmes, and other non-degree or credit-bearing offerings. Almost all of these include a component of distance learning, whether in hybrid formats, asynchronous modalities, computer-aided instruction, or other features of the virtual world. The potential of increasing access to virtual learning is particularly potent in education in the Global South. 

Just as the traditional stereotype of the four-year residential college is no longer the typical student experience, so too the classroom has come to transcend its brick-and-mortar walls, not only through digital technologies but through novel pedagogies that accent ‘real life’ experience. Whether in internships, group consultancies in capstone projects, summer immersion experiences, or other modalities, students are increasingly expected to engage with the world of work and civil society as a part of their education. This engagement is expected to be mutually beneficial: students apply their ‘book learning’ in the field; employers and community groups benefit from the talent and insight of smart young people. Around the world, we see more engagement of communities, organisations, and other institutions in creating learning environments and in contributing actively to educational systems. 

This move beyond the walls of the ivory tower is at once a reflection of the reconfigured space of the university and the novel imperatives of the present era. To address the speed required for innovation and the fact that academia will be expected to provide solutions in real time, the balance between theory and practical applications may need repositioning in favour of more action-oriented teaching. These times and challenges are likely to call for a hands-on approach to working directly with sectors and constituencies that need support and cultivating teaching methods based on learning-by-doing.

Global Mobility, Distance Learning, International Networks

Globalisation in higher education has not only changed human spatial and temporal horizons in general; it has also produced rapidly rising numbers of international students (six million in 2019 according to UNESCO statistics), and a growing number of academics moving from one country to the other in pursuit of more attractive professional opportunities. University students in sub-Saharan Africa have become the most mobile tertiary students on the planet with twice the average share of students studying outside their home country.[31]

A growing number of universities in industrial countries have opened branch campuses and other kinds of research centres in developing and emerging economies, mainly in Asia and the Middle East. The durability of these arrangements has been uneven, but some of these campuses and centres have thrived for years. Partnership agreements between universities are far more common, but they too are of uneven quality and durability. Many North American and European institutions are now seeing themselves as nodes in networks of educational and research collaboration—the European Barcelona process was an early effort to harmonise degree requirements so as to permit easy mobility within the European Union—and there are increasing numbers of international collaborations, around professional degrees (the Global Public Policy Network), civic engagement (the Tailloires Network) and, of course, scientific and social scientific research (CERN, JPAL, Human Genome Project ).  A decade ago, Nature magazine reported that:

A fundamental shift is taking place in the geography of science. Networks of research collaboration are expanding in every region of the globe. The established science superpowers of the United States and Europe have dominated the research world since 1945. Yet this Atlantic axis is unlikely to be the main focus of research by 2045, or perhaps even by 2020. New regional networks are reinforcing the competence and capacity of emerging research economies and changing the global balance of research activity. [32]

The Aga Khan University’s presence in Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda represents an opportunity to attract international collaborative research projects as part of its research capacity-building strategy as well as to recruit more African students who would otherwise travel to Europe or North America. Properly managed, such collaborations should begin to redress the historical disparities in research partnerships—i.e., ‘theory’ generated in the North and ‘data’ in the South, with little or no attribution to the local research partners—and develop research agendas that reflect the priorities and purposes of the people of South/ Central Asia, East Africa, and beyond.

The mobility that permitted and encouraged institutional collaborations reflected the pre-pandemic higher education world’s acceptance that face-to-face teaching was the norm and also the only desirable mode of study (and teaching). Obviously, the pandemic both stalled in-person student and faculty mobility and stimulated digital education. The extent and timing of any rebound in elective student mobility—individual direct enrolment study abroad programmes, for example—is difficult to predict but many universities in the Global North are once again beginning to promote various kinds of study abroad experiences. 

Research collaborations can be effectively supported by digital communications technologies; remote digital learning may have left its infancy but at best is in an adolescent phase. The pandemic demonstrated that it can be done, and in certain circumstances, very effectively; but in many institutions, it remains associated with crisis education, suitable for pandemics, refugees, and other circumstances that limit access to in-person, face-to-face instruction. Over the course of time, however, and particularly as the strengths and weaknesses of Artificial Intelligence become clear, universities will inevitably deploy digital strategies to deliver instruction in a more flexible and accessible format.  

In general, digital learning increases the reach of educational institutions exponentially, makes access more democratic, allows teachers and students to tailor their hours according to other responsibilities, widens the scope of access to educational materials to almost limitless proportions, and means that any child or student with access to a connected device can learn and grow to their maximum potential. A defining issue within the higher education landscape over the next 25 years will be the merging of the digital and the physical—and the resulting impacts on university infrastructure and the ways in which institutions engage and work with its students, including strategies to overcome a significant, gender-based digital divide in the Global South. 

Research and Innovation as Revenue Sources

Alongside a focus on the production of STEM graduates, many governments in the Global North have emphasised the need for universities to be partners with industry in applied research, sources of commercialisable intellectual property, and incubators for start-up enterprises. This trend was given momentum in 1980 by the Bayh-Dole Act, which lifted the earlier requirement that the US government be the default owner of all intellectual property arising from federally funded research. Scores of universities in multiple jurisdictions have benefited financially from the commercialisation of discoveries made on their campuses or in partner research institutes. The inflow includes royalties and licensing fees, proceeds of sale of intellectual property, capital gains from sale of equity held in start-ups that are acquired or listed and traded publicly on stock exchanges, and major philanthropic gifts from faculty and alumni who have successfully commercialised research completed under university aegis. 

In reality, however, most university technology transfer offices in the US do not cover their costs. Instead, they create useful incentives for entrepreneurial activity on campus, including fostering small business incubators and accelerators that serve students, alumni, and local communities.[33] Partnerships for applied research arguably are more consistently beneficial. Most major research universities have a substantial portfolio of research that is sponsored by and/or carried out in collaboration with investor-owned enterprises. That said, these partnerships in general have been criticised as eroding the independence of institutions and constraining the academic freedom of faculty, research trainees, and graduate students. Specific conflicts can arise over directions of research, publication rights, and ownership of intellectual property. For institutions in the Global South, the limited number of industrial partners engaged in advanced research also constrains these prospects—a specific challenge for AKU as regards its portfolio of health-related research.  Moreover, where such partnerships are accessible, the company seeking them may not be focused on products and services addressing matters of greatest community need. In short, for institutions like AKU, the probability of large financial yields from university intellectual properties and related entrepreneurship is low and appropriate care will be needed in operationalising research partnerships with industry.  

These caveats aside, the opportunities for universities to contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship in the Global South are substantial. Low- and middle-income countries [LMICs] leap-frogged cable-based communications with the rapid adoption of mobile technology. Hubs in Africa and India have developed prosperous operations doing software development for enterprises in the Global North. It is likely that the energy sector will follow a similar trajectory with local solar and wind power and the emergence of large numbers of microgrids. Put simply, the future AKU’s commitment to impact through entrepreneurship may run the gamut from traditional investor-owned start-ups to large-scale programmes of social innovation with community partners.

Academic Freedom and Intellectual Integrity

The global threats to democracy, the growth of private, proprietary research and educational enterprises in the tertiary sector, the demands for measurable outcomes, and the accelerating speed of technological change all represent grave challenges to higher education institutions.  This means there is less academic freedom, less independent thinking in the pursuit of truth, less institutional autonomy, and less tolerance of research on socially sensitive issues (gender, race, decolonisation of the curriculum, etc.). Paradoxically, these developments also mean that the role of a multi-national institution with a commitment to pluralism has never been more urgent.    

Given its longstanding orientation to partnerships with North American, UK, and European institutions as well as its past emphasis on recruitment of trustees, university leaders, and faculty from those geographies, AKU faces both dangers and opportunities in this changing landscape. A growing movement in academia, and from diaspora scholars, has focused on decolonising global health and higher education. With a range of activities and discourse, this movement represents a push back against Western-driven educational and health imperatives. AKU can model how to resist both the legacy of Western imperialism and the temptations of nativist backlash. 

This requires particular sensitivity to local and regional histories. The clash between ‘globalisation’ and ‘nativism’ is as real in East Africa as it is in South and Central Asia, but with very different trajectories. In pre-independence South Asia, the British saw the university as central to its civilising mission. Universities were also seen as turnkey projects: no matter where in world an institution was, it did same thing. By the time the British came into East Africa, universities were seen as a problem, not a solution: they produced radicals, lawyers, and were centres of dissent. As a result, Africa had very few universities before independence compared to British-controlled India. Nigeria had only one university. In East Africa, there was only Makerere. There was a two-phased explosion of universities after independence in Africa. At first, universities were mainly public institutions, funded by the government. As noted earlier, in the second phase, and continuing to the present day, growth has mainly been in the private sphere.

Decades after independence, research into HIV-AIDS in Africa was driven disproportionately by international researchers, not local scientists. The COVID-19 pandemic provided encouraging signs of change in that situation, as South African infectious disease researchers made prominent contributions to guide that nation’s pandemic response and published very important research findings, including the characterisation of two major variants of concern that spread globally. Those achievements, however, were more the exception than the rule. While AKU responded strongly, few institutions in the Global South had the research resources, partners, or enabling environments to develop and implement innovative local responses to the pandemic. 

Given its operating contexts and fields of activity, the decolonisation movement may have implications, and opportunities, for the future AKU. In the present donor landscape, foundations and multilateral institutions have not seen direct investments in higher education as a good use of resources, but this may change as it becomes clear that climate and health are research and policy arenas than cannot be contained within state or even continental jurisdictions. At the same time, hyper-nationalist postcolonial governments and political movements can make difficult demands themselves (monitoring ‘foreign’ funding, mandating curricula, etc.), as AKU has seen in virtually all the jurisdictions in which it operates. Balancing these competing claims while sustaining the foundational values of academic freedom, pluralism, and integrity will not be easy, but it is both urgent and important for the world as a whole.

AKU in these Contexts: Navigating Uncertainty and Change 

All these observations suggest that we have entered an era of unusual uncertainty or, perhaps more accurately, a time in which the future seems unusually uncertain to us. Whether we are preoccupied by climate change or artificial intelligence, nativist war-mongering, or growing income inequality, nearly everyone concedes that the future is likely to be volatile, complex, and unsettled. The safety, security, and well-being of peoples around the world is in jeopardy.  

At the same time, new technologies and a reimagining of higher education—internationalised, decolonised, inclusive—give many reasons for optimism. AKU has the potential to be a model of that reimagining. It has operated with integrity and resilience in volatile contexts and served vulnerable communities in challenging times. The values and ethics that defined AKU’s past will serve it well in this uncertain future, and its Founder’s clarion calls for pluralism have never been more relevant.  

Against the backdrop of this fraught and puzzling landscape, and as part of a higher education sector struggling to keep pace with global changes, the current Chancellor’s Commission has determined that the 25-year horizon contemplated for its guidance is both arbitrary and implausibly distant. We turn accordingly to more specific guidance for a future AKU—principles that might inform decisions by Trustees and the Administration, delineation of opportunities and pitfalls, and, with no expectations as to their durability given our tumultuous times, some recommendations about priorities and programmes.​


[23] See especially, T. McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (New York: The New Press, 2018), which argues that profit-driven privatization of higher education is becoming an engine of inequality.

[24] K. MacGregor, “Higher education report charts rise of the Global South," University World News, 12 March 2022. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from:

[25] Ibid.

[26] P. G. Altbach, “The Quiet Global Revolution of Elite Private Higher Education," International Higher Education 115: Summer 2023. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from:!/action/getPdfOfArticle/articleID/3727/productID/29/filename/article-id-3727.pdf.

​[27] M.A.N. Saqib and I. Rafique, “Health research funding and its output in Pakistan," East Mediterranean Health Journal, 27:9, 906–910. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from: Note that the article appears to use valuations for the PKR against the US$ for 2019. We re-calculated using posted exchange rates internationally for 2017-18, the contemporaneous dates.   

[28] STEM refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with math standing in for computer and data sciences more generally. 

[29] New America, “Perception vs. Reality: The Typical College Student," Education Policy online resource, 2017, Retrieved July 26, 2023 from: See also: J. Freedman, “The Typical College Student Is Not A 'Typical' College Student (And Other Fun College Demographics Data)," Forbes, September 20, 2013. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from:

[30] National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Undergraduate Enrollment. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2023, from​

[31] W. Kigotho, “Sub-Saharan Africa leads the world on student mobility," University World News. 3 December 2020. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from:​

[32] J. Adams, “The rise of research networks," Nature 490, 335–336 (2012). Retrieved July 26, 2023 from:

​[33] R. Pérez-Peña, “Patenting Their Discoveries Does Not Pay Off for Most Universities, a Study Says," New York Times, November 20, 2013. Retrieved July 26, 2023 from: Also see for example: “Entrepreneurship at NYU," retrieved July 26, 2023 from: