Envisaging a Future AKU: Operational Planning and New Initiatives

It will have been evident thus far that successive sections of the Commission's report have progressed towards increasingly specific guidance: from general context setting to an overview of trends in the global higher education sector; and from overall considerations of the applicability and implications of the University's mission and values, to delineation of strategic planning principles with many specific applications as examples. In this penultimate section, we continue this progression, delving first into operational principles and their applications to multiple elements of the current and future AKU, and then setting out further guidance on new priorities for the University.  

Operational Principles and Applications

Interdisciplinarity and Knowledge Integration: The Arts and Sciences as a Case in Point

Questions to face future generations and the complex problems they will encounter cannot be resolved through any one discipline. It is imperative that we have a university with permeable boundaries that are easily crossed for students to combine majors and minors, with faculty who are comfortable as part of inter- and multi-disciplinary teams of teachers and researchers, and with courses that model integrated knowledge and its application in a range of settings. The Commissioners see this as an organising principle that must guide the future AKU. Reflecting its commitment to confronting global challenges and fostering ethical citizenship, AKU should embrace interdisciplinarity and knowledge integration in its teaching and learning, its research and innovation, and its service to society. 

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences will be welcoming its first intake of faculty and students in the Fall of 2023 and should be an exemplar of the above-noted principle. Launched but still nascent, FAS represents an enormous opportunity for the University. After all, how can AKU graduates change the world if they don't understand it? And to understand the world, they should have some knowledge of the natural world (along with quantitative reasoning), of the societal imperatives and institutions that govern modern societies, and of the historical, economic, and geopolitical contexts in which those institutions exist. It is this knowledge that enables societies to imagine alternative futures. Indeed, the capacity for critical thinking and constructive engagement serves as the basics of people having respectful, courageous, and open-minded interactions—and therefore as the basis for peaceful dialogues and collaborative actions.

By way of example, the same historical event can be taught through the lens of politics, geography, science, art, literature, music, economics, ethics, religion, or in rare bland cases, simply as an occurrence with little contextual connection. Scholars on the Commission emphasised that some of the most successful courses are those that blend multiple fields. FAS at AKU is well-positioned to take this multidisciplinary approach while advancing scholarship on issues that are germane to the contexts in which it operates.

These observations bring us back to the goal, articulated by the Chancellor and past Commissions, that a future AKU should evolve to include a liberal arts education among its programming.  It is worth emphasising that the term 'liberal arts' is a misnomer if 'liberal' is taken to refer to a political or economic orientation, or 'arts' is taken as constraining the curriculum to the humanities. The term instead denotes a pedagogical orientation; hence it is sometimes replaced with the more anodyne but more descriptive 'general education'. A liberal or general education does not preclude specialisation but requires meaningful exposure to a range of disciplines, with the goal of creating an independent-thinking, well-rounded, and socially engaged person. Our rapidly changing world instead demands not only skills but the creativity, adaptability, and intellectual flexibility that is fostered by a liberal arts orientation in undergraduate education. 

A Robust Virtual Presence

Today and in the future, the physical campus may not be as important as it was forty years ago. The pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated both the potential and the limitations of reliance on long-distance digital interchanges. This shift, however, has a rationale that goes well beyond pandemic exigencies. It reflects AKU's integration within the AKDN, its multiple campuses on different continents, the diverse and distanced communities it serves, its global reach, its many partners, and the growing capacity of available technologies. Accordingly, the Commissioners recommend that early consideration be given to the ways in which a future AKU may be more effectively structured and governed as a digitally networked organisation.

Given the geographies in which AKU operates and the financial constraints faced by many students, the University should take seriously the imperative to blend the digital and 'real life' in its education, research, and service programmes. Universities today are often siloed organisations with their subject-specific courses, rigid schedules, cohort-based progression, and strictures of physical location. In contrast, one could envision a world where any student could select their fields of study based on interest and aptitude, rather than prescriptive educational and societal norms. Students would also progress at their own rate in fields of their choice and combine subjects in novel and interesting ways.

The Commissioners appreciate the importance of socialisation with peers as part of the learning process, especially for undergraduate arts and science education and in many professional programmes. However, strategic departures from classroom-based pedagogy have the advantage of allowing teachers and instructors to reimagine the content and delivery of their classes. Instead of teaching the same curriculum on the same schedule in the same way year on year, teachers should prioritise active over passive learning and experiment with novel pedagogies. Educational institutions like AKU should identify the most capable and engaging instructors and record best-practice lectures and classes for a wide audience, while encouraging active learning in synchronous in-person study sessions.

Of course, virtual learning is not applicable in contexts such as surgery and critical care, but much of the academic and foundational learning in healthcare and education could be undertaken through distance learning technologies. The endpoint would be a blended approach, maximising active learning, while moving most reading- and lecture-based components online. The Commissioners recommend that AKU review its educational offerings to determine which segments of the curricula should take place in person, and which could be accessed through online synchronous and asynchronous teaching. AKU's reach and impact would be greatly expanded by such an evolution. And while issues of access to connectivity will pose a problem in some of AKU's core communities, multi-purpose and connected learning spaces sponsored by the University could resolve much of this problem in a cost-efficient manner.

For AKU such an approach would break down the barriers between campuses and cohorts, mitigate geographic duplication, and provide access to the best faculty and classes, be they in Nairobi or Karachi or elsewhere. Furthermore, students with an interest in diverse topics could combine fields of study in new and innovative ways, leading to interdisciplinary collaborations across science, technology, and medicine—as well as with and between the humanities and social sciences.

To be clear, meaningful challenges remain with a blended in-person and virtual educational environment, such as ensuring the quality of educational outcomes, managing admissions, gaining accreditation for Degrees and Diplomas, and maintaining both academic standards and equitable access given differential uptake of digital technology. All these and other issues must be carefully considered before AKU adopts such blended-learning systems. However, in a context where the physical location/residence of faculty and students becomes less relevant, universities such as AKU could greatly improve their access to faculty members from around the world and educate a student population that spanned many countries and regions. Such reach would be hugely beneficial to the countries where AKU works, and to the people who live in them.

A large focus of the first Chancellor's Commission, and a preoccupation of the first 40 years of the University's development has been its physical presence and facilities, reflecting the Chancellor's deep understanding of how architecture contributes to quality of life and the educational experience. As noted earlier, over the next quarter-century the priority given to the physical campus is likely to change given the importance of remote learning and virtual instruction, and the potential for AKU to expand its digital educational offerings beyond full-time degree programmes. In that event, AKU will need to consider how its physical spaces have developed, how they are being used today, and how they will need to evolve to reflect the needs of an increasingly important virtual university community. In particular the University will need to correct its systematic under-investment in the maintenance of its estate to ensure that the distinctive features of its campuses and its high-quality buildings are not degraded. Allocating more funds to maintenance will also constrain the funding available for new initiatives.

A Networked, Learning Health System

Strategic partnering and network building, both longstanding strengths of AKU, can and should be enhanced by leveraging digital connectivity and by much closer integration with the powerful network to which AKU already belongs: the worldwide Aga Khan Development Network. These operating principles are particularly relevant to the future of health services within AKU. 

In particular, with the appointment of a senior executive from the Aga Khan Health Services as President of AKU, the stage is set for much closer ties between AKHS and the hospital and clinic operations that are governed and managed under the aegis of AKU. From the standpoint of health professional education, immersion in primary and secondary care settings more prevalent in AKHS has major pedagogical advantages over adherence to the traditional model of concentrating experiential learning in tertiary referral centres that are technology intensive and specialty dominated.

Expansion and improvement opportunities within AKU's existing operations are limited but could include offering a greater number and variety of laboratory services beyond AKU, continuing to expand outreach clinics, and—subject to licensing restrictions—enabling doctors to provide telemedicine services in radiology and pathology globally. ​While access to capital may be a challenge, building out smaller hospitals in smaller centres also merits consideration given the pedagogical advantages noted above. Closer integration with AKHS may also be a key to more sustainable and equitable operations in East Africa.

Drawing on examples from the Global North and South alike, AKU and AKHS could consider developing a non-profit health insurance product/scheme for the East African communities it serves—potentially in collaboration with AKDN-affiliated insurance companies and micro-insurance banks. Such arrangements could reduce financial barriers to access while generating additional revenues for AKU. 

Additional advantages of a more integrated system include enhanced access to services, both in person and virtually, along the continuum of care and across life stages for enrolees; promotion of team-based care with health professionals using their full range of skills;  empowering individuals through improved health literacy; earlier identification of risk factors to prevent disease; supporting community health interventions that address social determinants of health; and developing capacity for climate resilience in both the system's own services and in the communities it serves.

Looking downstream, the Commission repeats its earlier observation that demographic shifts are afoot even in the comparatively young populations of the settings where AKU currently operates.  Thus, policies and strategies to care for ageing populations will become a priority, given further urgency by the vulnerability of the aged to the exigencies of global warming. Informed by insights from new schools of population health, AKU-trained scholars, scientists, and health professionals should lead the development of new models, systems, and policies for the Global South that will be culturally appropriate, context sensitive, and congruent with healthy aging as well as provision of excellent health and social care to older individuals.

Substantial developmental work would be needed to design and launch this type of networked enterprise. However, across the world, the most successful healthcare systems are those that integrate and manage operations with a view to providing continuous, high-quality, cost-effective, and accessible care for the chronic conditions that are becoming ever more common as populations everywhere proceed through the demographic and epidemiologic transition already underway in most nations in the Global North.

By integrating its network's offerings and strengthening digital record-keeping, AKU Health Services will be better situated to conduct innovative original research as well as translate research findings from abroad into optimal care for the local communities that AKU and AKHS aim to serve. And by shifting its translational research activities towards such local applications, AKU will also meet institutional objectives of equity and inclusion as outlined above, even as it qualifies for research grants and contracts from institutions and enterprises eager to understand the effectiveness of specific healthcare interventions across the diverse populations served by an integrated system.

A Networked Institution for Lifelong Learning

Almost thirty years ago, the first Chancellor's Commission urged AKU to exercise caution in the realm of diploma programmes and related re-skilling/upskilling initiatives. It described these offerings as “at the lower end of the range of post-secondary professional" for a university that aspires to international significance. However, the Commission also acknowledged the need for flexibility to respond to exigencies of its operating context, citing the major contributions that the School of Nursing had already been able to make through its diploma programmes.[38]​

Today, in recognition of the fact that the world of work is changing rapidly and that all professionals need to update their knowledge, competencies, and skills on a regular basis, it is very clear that AKU should expand provision of professional development and continuing education for retraining and re-skilling.  

The Commissioners emphasise that this initiative has wider implications than ensuring distanced access to its extant degree programmes. An active institutional response to the lifelong learning imperative demands new programmes, new diplomas, and degrees (including more nimble credit generation modalities identified earlier, as well as recognition of competencies acquired online or through past work experience), and new pathways combining periods of study at the university and periods of study in a work setting. In the latter regard, AKU has access to an extraordinary resource for experiential learning and professional development given the myriad activities in diverse locations undertaken by the AKDN. 

There is evidence of increasing interest from political bodies and professional bodies globally for these smaller but accessible forms of study, including from other AKDN institutions and agencies. The nature of the study journey should be expanded by providing continuous study for adult learners and continuing professional development [CPD] via micro-credentials. The latter element is particularly relevant from the standpoint of equity and diversity. In both Central Asia and Pakistan, a new generation of women that left the workforce to raise families is now interested in returning to work, but they lack access to skills training and credentials to facilitate that step.

This broader digital initiative also has positive implications for strengthening the fabric of AKU as a high performing, networked, and integrated institution. Greater opportunities for professional learning and exchange across campuses would strengthen AKU's own human capital by further developing the intellectual community of students, staff, and faculty alike. This may contribute to staunching the flow of academics and health professionals who leave the emerging countries where they trained for reasons of professional development, including opportunities to upskill and expand their intellectual horizons. An increased emphasis on providing such opportunities in their home countries could help in preventing this damaging loss of highly skilled personnel.

We also see significant opportunities to link lifelong learning to first-degree education, especially in its medical and nursing programmes, where AKU could set clear expectations that a student's first professional training is part of continuum that would extend beyond graduation and into their professional life. This could also, in part, mitigate the concern noted earlier that programme growth in these fields has not kept pace with population growth in AKU's operating environments, thereby diminishing the University's ability to impact and influence quality of life.

While financial considerations should be secondary here, lifelong learning delivered online to individuals employed in diverse sectors has potential to generate fee revenue for AKU. Above all, investment in quality lifelong learning aligns squarely with the mission and values of the University. 

Knowledge Integration through Research, Experiential Learning, and Innovation

Around the world, the importance of experience-based learning is increasingly recognised well beyond the clinical contexts in which it has long been practiced. AKU has ample opportunity to extend its curricular offerings and ensure that all students get 'hands-on' experience in their field of study. Its geopolitical and socioeconomic contexts are diverse, and, as noted already, the AKDN in itself offers a range of experiential learning opportunities that could be developed to mutual advantage with AKU. 

Building capacity in the sciences, and educating leaders in these fields, would make a significant contribution to the countries and regions where AKU is present. Teaching sciences in a framework which is grounded in and directly relevant to South and Central Asia and East Africa would allow the stakeholders most directly concerned not only to lead research and develop strategies in these fields, but also to test and disseminate their findings in applied, real-time conditions. At the minimum, AKU can begin training on the principles of measuring and reducing carbon emissions, estimating sustainable solutions for resource use as well as means to protect the environment as relevant to each sector.

That said, it will be difficult to build science capacity or generate expert syntheses of science-based information for wide use without some spires of research excellence at AKU. At present, the health sciences are by far the most active disciplines generating research findings under the AKU banner, with the University widely recognised as a leading research institute for maternal, newborn and child health [MNCH] and nutrition globally. Currently, the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Division of Women and Child Health, and the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health together attract approximately US$20 million dollars of extra-mural grant money annually, which represents 70-80 per cent of all research funding at AKU. Annual total research output in international journals with an impact factor is 800-900 publications, the vast majority from the Medical College, Pakistan, with MNCH-related publications accounting for the most impact. Much of this MNCH work has directly resulted in policy wins and implementation—exactly as might be hoped given the values of AKU and the integrative ethos endorsed above.

While there are other noteworthy strengths in health sciences research at the Medical College in Karachi, and encouraging evidence that faculty at the School of Medicine in Nairobi are now mobilising more research funding, the Commission is sobered by the constrained funding available for research in South Asia and East Africa as summarised earlier. Other challenges to high quality health research at AKU include limited core or intra-mural funds for research projects, a very small graduate student body, lack of postgraduate doctoral programmes, difficulty in recruiting and retaining research faculty and technical staff, modest administrative research capacity, import policies which impede undertaking clinical trials, and difficulty in obtaining reagents, supplies and equipment. For clinical faculty, the ability to earn much higher revenues from clinical work compared to risky research careers also creates significant disincentives.

Some of these latter barriers may be less relevant to research in other disciplines, such as those represented in ISMC. However, it is clear to the Commissioners that strategic selectivity about research priorities is essential with, as already emphasised, a clear focus on applied research grounded in challenges facing the communities that AKU services, and advance consideration of the available partners and funders. Simply put, with new initiatives looming in Arts and Sciences, and the Commission's proposed new directions in Climate Change/Sustainable Development, and Population and Environmental Health, AKU cannot afford to recruit faculty who arrive with unsupportable expectations of research support or whose lines of inquiry are incompatible with the relevance and impact values of the institution. The Commission was struck by the fact that AKU remains unclear about the extent to which faculty are expected to do research to advance in the ranks, how applied research bordering on knowledge translation and creative professional activity might be fairly evaluated, whether and how it will derive research priorities from assessment of the needs of partners and adjacent communities, and how it will define unique foci of comparative advantage and strength for enhanced recruitment and investment. All these matters seem to require early and ongoing attention. For the longer-term, the Commission recommends that such assessments be systematised: AKU should develop and regularly update a strategic roadmap for research activity on its campuses and in its healthcare facilities, paying particular attention to partnering and funding opportunities as well as community needs assessments, and regularly seeking expert advice and reviews to guide its research efforts and investments.    

The creative abilities of the next generation of students and faculty—and perhaps even small-scale entrepreneurs among alumni or community members—could also be nurtured and harnessed if the University were to develop a convergence-oriented innovation centre.  This centre by design would be wider angle than traditional university incubators focused on start-ups targeting various marketplaces. It would also nurture social innovations and enterprises and be as interested in ideas and services for civil society as in filing patents with a view to monetising a discovery by AKU scientists. In this respect, the Commission observes that many universities have created incubator facilities with a view to rapid revenue generation. These aspirations are unrealistic unless there is a surrounding ecosystem with serial entrepreneurs and abundant risk capital. The centre we envisage may, however, foster the emergence of such an ecosystem, and can have a meaningful impact in many dimensions beyond licensing revenue or lucrative equity holdings in successful start-ups.

Returning to earlier themes of interdisciplinarity and knowledge integration, a convergence-oriented centre can provide opportunities for students and faculty from different disciplines to work together. Among other advantages, such a centre can be a magnet for collaborative work with both social purpose and more traditional market-facing enterprises. These partnerships will create a flywheel effect along with giving students opportunities for experiential learning. The Centre may also be useful as a testbed for important policies related to intellectual property, commercialisation, and protection of academic freedom in collaboration with industrial partners.

As always, universities by their nature are most effective when focused on people, not patents, and on talent, not technology. One of the key roles of AKU and similar institutions in the Global South will be to educate leaders who understand the available technologies and can innovatively adapt them to local contexts an​​​​d resources. Social entrepreneurship and social purpose enterprises are often relevant avenues for such deployment; the Aga Khan family of institutions itself is a shining example in that regard. One AKDN initiative with high potential for further AKU collaboration and a resource for its students and graduates is Accelerate Prosperity.[39]

In sum, appropriately planned and resourced, an innovation centre could catalyse cross-disciplinary creativity and entrepreneurship in the AKU community through seminars, workshops, and incubation pods. It could also provide valuable support to innovators as they seek uptake of their ideas, services, and products by a variety of sectors.

New Priorities: Healthier Populations on a Healthier Planet

Before turning to new priorities, the Commissioners out of an abundance of caution will repeat: AKU's reputation has been built based on excellence in health professional education (nurses and physicians, including postgraduate specialisations for both professions), health care services, some spires of excellence in health care research, and highly effective programmes for teacher training and development of educational leaders for primary and secondary schools. These programmes all have great relevance and strong impacts. Protecting their quality must be a priority. More generally, university research and teaching should be firmly grounded in demonstrable demand, realistic capacity assessments, and as always, commitment to AKU's mission and values.

In the same spirit, new launches already in train must be carefully and selectively nurtured. The very new undergraduate medical education (MBChB) and undergraduate nursing education (direct-entry BScN) programmes in Kenya have the major advantage of emerging alongside a well-established postgraduate medical programme and a rigorous nursing programme that has granted practice-qualifying diplomas for 20 years and latterly offered specialty diplomas in key fields. However, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Pakistan in many ways is sui generis, and its success is crucial to the reputation of AKU. Only after that programme has had several years of operations would it make sense to contemplate a similar operation in East Africa.

There are, however, two new fields for expansion that the Commissioners strongly endorse—climate change and sustainable development, and population and public health. These two fields are massively relevant to the Global South and strong candidates for support by multilateral agencies as they take root. They have the additional advantage of areas of synergistic intersection with each other and with multiple other disciplines already represented at AKU, consistent with our guidance about growth by cross fertilisation and 'budding', even as they have ample room for distinct elaboration and growth over time. 

Our earlier review of the global context underscored the threat posed by climate change and the salience of work in this field to the mission of AKU. This is a cross-cutting imperative that bears on all academic programmes including research, is already driving the reconsideration of the environmental footprint of AKU's varied operations, and, in its powerful intersection with population health and healthcare, exemplifies the ideal of integration of streams of knowledge as an organising principle for the future AKU. 

The Commissioners do not recommend that a Faculty of Environmental Science suddenly be stood up at AKU, for several reasons. First, from a scholarly standpoint, the University in many ways is just starting out on this front. It is true that advances in science, technology, communications, and data science are clarifying both the magnitude of the threat and the broad pathways to mitigation of some of the most serious effects of climate change in the decades to come. While AKU cannot and should not seek to become an institution with a major upstream focus on advancing earth science analytics and related technology, it can and should build on existing strengths. A focus on climate resilience and local mitigation would foster closer integration with the new Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Pakistan and the extant Faculties of Health Sciences in Pakistan and East Africa. Programming in sustainable development could also be facilitated by collaboration with AKDN and a variety of local agencies. Thus, with apologies for the double entendre, organic growth strikes us as the sustainable way forward, with multiple exciting initiatives set in motion, perhaps organised in time-bound research centres and curricular initiatives, cross-fertilising over time, and ultimately coalescing under the umbrella of a multi-sited school or faculty. 

​We turn now to brief consideration of educational and research capacity in the broad realms of population and public health. The relevance of these fields has obviously been underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast to a strategic initiative in climate change and sustainability, there is already a substantial supportive matrix of faculty with relevant expertise in two Faculties of Health Sciences, and potential for rapid enlistment of professional master's students with strong employment prospects. That matrix, intriguingly, could extend to helping establish AKU's climate change initiatives if a public health school were to be launched with a wide-angle vision of the confluence of planetary and population health.

Global warming, unpredictable weather patterns, droughts, floods, and fires are already having profound effects on the health of many communities. Moreover, the emergence of new pathogens with pandemic potential such as SARS-CoV-2 is being accelerated by human encroachment on and disruption of natural environments. AKU is well positioned to lead the Global South in developing the science to anticipate, prevent, and mitigate the consequences of climate change for the health of populations interlinked with attention to the broad social determinants of health and illness. We accordingly propose that new initiatives in this field be entitled Population and Environmental Health, or as an alternative, be subsumed under the broad rubric of Planetary Health.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences should be expected to—and indeed staffed with an eye to—contributing to these initiatives as they all develop together. Local climate adaptation and resilience, as noted above, can also be facilitated by insights into in the social, economic, and political forces on which FAS will be developing expertise. Over time, the statistician in Population Health may teach a course in FAS, and also consult on study design to an East African team seeking to compare the yield and soil effects of different modes of regenerative agriculture. The philosopher in FAS may teach the ethics of development in a centre focused on responsible environmental stewardship, or work with colleagues in the Faculty of Population and Environmental Health on the epistemology of misinformation during the next pandemic. A development economist working in a sustainable agriculture unit situated in Arusha may teach virtually in FAS in Karachi and collaborate with a population health node in Nairobi or Kampala to delineate the cost-effectiveness of an urban health outreach programme. 

The broad competencies of a liberal arts education will thus be highly relevant to galvanising changes at all levels required to slow the pace of global warming or at least mitigate its local impacts. One might imagine a future AKU as the go-to institute for the training of educators and scholars who embody the knowledge and the innovative strategies to mitigate the environmental crises that the Global South is facing. Likewise, AKU/AKDN healthcare systems in East Africa and South/Central Asia could become living laboratories for innovations in health service delivery and health professional education focused on meeting community needs. AKU's outstanding record of scholarship through outreach work in maternal and infant health is a strong case in point.

The siting, structures, and trajectories of these new initiatives bear brief consideration here, with the caveat that siting was not considered in detail by the Commission as a whole.  Schools of public health in many countries follow widely accepted accreditation standards, tied to the granting of professional Masters' degrees for public health practice. While AKU may initially choose to eschew this formalism, it may be prudent to fall in line at some future date. This points toward earlier establishment of a new School of Population and Environmental Health inside one of the extant Faculties of Health Sciences.

Fortunately, such schools are usually home to a wide variety of other disciplines that bear on the health sphere and health equity, such as medical sociology and the study of broader social determinants of health, health economics, and healthy public policy. This disciplinary breadth points toward the first instance of population and environmental health being situated in Karachi for maximum synergy with the new FAS there. A further advantage is the pre-existence of a Department of Community Health Sciences, which could be brought into the new School along with its environmental health programme. This siting leaves more breathing room for the Faculty of Health Sciences in Nairobi to get its new MBChB and BScN programmes successfully launched—not a small task for the next six years.

On the topic of bandwidth, however, it should be noted that AKU in Pakistan will have its own challenges concurrently securing the standing and sustainability of the new FAS and launching a new School of Population and Public Health. East Africa accordingly seems more propitious as the initial siting for several centres addressing diverse aspects of climate change in relation to sustainable development. The scales arguably are also tipped in that direction insofar as the geography of AKU's nodes in the region lend themselves to wide-ranging field work. Another major asset in East Africa is the Arusha campus, which has enormous potential as a field station and site for experimentation with regenerative agriculture and related sustainable practices. Furthermore, over 50 per cent of the African continent's population depends on agriculture for a livelihood—a massive vulnerability as climate change progresses.

In the decades ahead, AKU should aim to be home to major initiatives in population/public health and climate change/sustainable development in both South/Central Asia and East Africa. For now, however, AKU has an extraordinary opportunity to prioritise new and synergistic fields of study that will be critical for the health and well-being of the communities it serves, and to provide its students in different faculties and schools with access to an impact-focused education unlike any other current offerings by other institutions in its operating contexts.  

New Priorities: Pluralism Internalised

Many of the world's greatest global universities were strongly rooted in faith traditions, and AKU should be no less confident in its foundational identity as a “university of and for the Muslim World". The University has always been open to all who are qualified to learn and teach within it, and its Founder has been an inspiring champion of pluralism throughout his many decades as leader of the Ismaili faith and community.

Indeed, this history, together with its position in the Global South, gives AKU an important opportunity to refine its identity by incorporating the array of differences in its operational contexts; perceptions of affinity and difference within the Muslim world; the inclusion of countries with growing Muslim minority populations, including jurisdictions in Europe and North America; and AKU's position within the wider Aga Khan Development Network. An important component of the connection between AKU's identity as a university for the Muslim world and its future direction is the scope, role, and mandate of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations [ISMC]. In establishing that Institute, the Chancellor foresaw the complexity of these issues in today's world.

In this spirit, an innovative and effective way of clarifying AKU's identity might be the introduction of a common university-wide pluralism curriculum. Among global institutions of higher education, AKU is uniquely positioned to serve as a model for a curriculum affirming that the ability to productively engage with diversity is a crucial life skill for the educated citizen in the twenty-first century.

AKU can be justly proud of the diversity of its faculty, staff, and students. However, diversity alone does not constitute pluralism; pluralism is an ethic of active engagement with diversity,[40] in effect bridging diversity and inclusion. A pluralism curriculum would permit students from diverse backgrounds across the university's multiple campuses to learn with, and from, each other, while enabling faculty from different disciplines to collaborate beyond their subject specialisations and engage with students and faculty from other disciplines, connecting their work to the language and history of decolonisation, approaching the subject not solely as a moral imperative or museum project, but one that continues to be animated by ongoing debates and contestation. Such an initiative can help ensure that even students who are receiving highly specialised education remain 'empathetically open' to others and equip and empower them as global citizens and citizen leaders to become agents of moral and ethical change in civil society.

The pluralism curriculum could be linked to related initiatives within and beyond AKU, such as the global structure of the AKU Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning; the Outcome Based Education (OBE) Approach being promoted across AKU; and various initiatives on community-based and socially engaged learning. In addition, the AKDN, including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the University of Central Asia—as well as the Global Centre for Pluralism—could be a significant collaborators or partners in this initiative.


[38] The Future of the Aga Khan University: Evolution of a Vision. Report of the Chancellor's Commission, 1994, 53.

[39] A joint initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development's Industrial Promotion Services, Accelerate Prosperity promotes entrepreneurship, supports the creation of innovative business models, coaches promising young entrepreneurs, offers networking and mentorship opportunities, and accelerates business growth in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. See https://accelerateprosperity.org/. 

[40] D. Eck, “Pluralism Project celebrates silver anniversary," Harvard University Gazette, 19 September 2016.