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Saturday, 28 February 2015


Firoz Rasul, president of the Aga Khan University.
The president of the Aga Khan University, which just announced a $1 billion expansion plan in East Africa as it marks 15 years in the region, spoke to Churchill Otieno on the thinking driving this investment.

READ: Aga Khan University to invest $1bn in East Africa


East Africans today have quite a wide choice of 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, of international standards to improve the quality of life. Its focus has been on South Asia and East Africa, 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 standalone 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 EA, 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 are not just the best in their profession.

We 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. Most academic institutions are looking to produce job-ready graduands. We want graduates who create jobs.

READ: Why EA graduates are ill-equipped for global job market

A Cabinet minister in Uganda 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. On 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, there was the sharing of 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 for infant care and 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 East African population is growing very fast — this 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, East Africa 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 to being global knowledge providers.

East Africa 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 East Africa.

Three, East Africa 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?

Academics 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.

READ: Tanzania grants the Aga Khan University charter

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 to attract the African Diaspora. Did you know that there are over 50,000 Africans with PhDs in the US?

Poverty is one problem East Africa 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 knew was 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 this. 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 at the number of students those teachers handle.

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

It is for this reason that our work, as spelled 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.

The East African

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