Higher education and COVID-19: How Aga Khan University has risen to the challenge

A strong commitment to their founding principles and a deep understanding of the communities they serve helped shape AKU's pandemic response.

Among the founding principles that were set out by the Chancellor, was that AKUshould be able to serve [the] populations in which it is based in enduring ways… And that role can only be meaningful if the impact we are making is one that solves problems that these communities have or are dealing with. And in order to solve these problems, if we can bring to bear, both local knowledge and best practice that we have heard many times being mentioned, then we are doing a great service to these populations.” – Firoz Rasul 

As an institution established to provide quality education, innovative research, and world-standard health care in developing contexts, Aga Khan University (AKU) was well-positioned to respond to the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firoz Rasul, President of AKU, spoke to us during our Mind the Gap digital event about the role the university played during this crisis, and how it is a critical time for the university not only to help understand, but also address the issues that this pandemic has caused.

At its inception, a core principle of AKU was delivering health care at an international standard, no matter how difficult the environment.

“We are a private, not-for-profit university that runs hospitals, but we are a small part of a public health system,” said Firoz. “We are in the developing world, where the public health system is fragile, is inadequate in many ways, and unable to serve the populations where we are.”

Nurses and midwives during a training session on COVID-19 preventive measures at the Kahama Hospital in Tanzania. Photo credit: AKU


To address the pandemic, AKU focused on assisting, empowering, and supporting public health systems in the countries where it operates, and leveraged its relationships with other universities and hospitals to understand the disease and mobilize resources.

In low-resource settings, innovations were often necessary to quickly adapt and improvise creative solutions to a lack of medical supplies. In Pakistan, for example, a tele-ICU network was created in collaboration with the Gates Foundation, so that any doctor with a critical patient in remote Pakistan could be connected to specialists and experts when needed.

One of the opportunities that the pandemic presented, according to Firoz, was in research.

“One of the things that we realized very quickly [was] that the COVID crisis is a level playing field,” he said. “There’s an equal opportunity, if you like, no matter where you are in the world, to be able to uncover or discover something about the disease as much as anywhere else.”

AKU’s long-term commitment to the countries in which they operate has fostered a deep understanding of the people they serve. Coupled with their high standards of research and testing, the university was selected to participate in clinical trials for vaccines to share with and contribute to the global understanding of the impact of the vaccine on different age groups, ethnicities, communities, and geographies.

Dr. Beth Waweru, alumni of AKU’s School of Nursing and Midwifery in East Africa, attends to a patient in the renal unit in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: AKU


This pandemic has also illuminated a hidden gender crisis, as the negative consequences have disproportionately fallen on the shoulders of women. The United Nations estimates women currently make up about 70% of the global workforce, though opportunities for women to engage in high-level professions in health are often limited. Another core mission of AKU was to help develop, empower, and encourage women to pursue careers in health care by enabling women to study at university and by being flexible in operating regulations to recognize the multiple roles women have in personal and professional spheres.

There have been women in significant leadership roles shaping AKU’s response to COVID-19, and Firoz believes that over time, the representation of women will continue to grow, partly due to a younger generation more supportive of women.

“Over time,” he says, “you will see many more women rise to the senior management position in the organization and lead AKU.”

Watch our full conversation with Firoz, hosted by Khalil Z. Shariff, Chief Executive Officer of Aga Khan Foundation Canada:

The full transcript is available here.

With support from: