Aga Khan University Turns 40 and Celebrates its Founding Vision

Aga Khan University Turns 40 and Celebrates its Founding Vision. PHOTO / VERA SHAWIZA

By Dr Sulaiman Shahabbudin, Vice Chancellor, Aga Khan University

Dr Sulaiman Shahabbudin, Vice Chancellor, Aga Khan University. PHOTO / VERA SHAWIZA

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 7 hospitals across 3


Forty years ago, on March 16,

1983, the 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

enquiry 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 and

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 begun 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

kicked off 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


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. 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

2 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.

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