Azim Premji University (APU) is created with a specific social purpose. Five batches of students have passed out of the university. This may be an appropriate time for a public reflection on the challenges in building such a university. These are the reflections of an academic of the university and should not be taken as the official views of the management.

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Azim Premji Foundation and its Choices

APU is an integral part (and a division/unit) of the Azim Premji Foundation. The foundation which came to exist in 1999 made a few choices in its beginning: It decided to work on improving school education in India. This was based on the understanding that `elementary education is “the most” important subject which the country needs to focus on’ since it is `at the root of so many issues before India — such as poverty, low literacy levels, health, nutrition and excess population’[1].

Many people who are concerned about the status of schooling in India would start an `ideal’ school. However, the foundation has not taken that path based on the realisation that it is not going to make any significant difference in the schooling system of the country as a whole. Instead, it has decided to work with government schools. This is highly sensible since the majority of children (especially those coming from under-privileged backgrounds) in India use government schools. Working with governments is not an easy task but the foundation has continued to do so steadfastly.

Genesis and Design of Azim Premji University

While working on school education, the foundation has realised the scarcity of reflective practitioners in the domains of education and development in the country who can make a real difference on the ground. Though the foundation is in a position to train such practitioners without starting a university, the need to award degrees/diplomas (and the difficulties in working with another university for this purpose) has encouraged it to start own university.

Like the choices made by the foundation at its beginning, the initial choices of the University are also important. For example, if the university starts a highly competitive teacher-training program with an intake of 50 students for which 5000 students apply, those who pass out are more likely to end up in elite private schools. This happened with IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) in India – the students who came out of these institutes found more rewarding to migrate to the United States of America.  If the purpose is to create practitioners who can a make a real difference in the public education of the country, it should be attempted at scale and with a focus and quality appropriate to them.

Similarly, if the university creates another highly competitive program for development researchers, they may get jobs in multi-lateral institutions but then it may not be able to create those practitioners who will be on the ground and addressing issues of under-development and ill-governance, especially in those territories where their presence is needed badly. All these have encouraged the university to increase the intake in its degree programs as much as possible within the constraints of the infrastructure available.

Challenges in the beginning

Creating a university with a specific social purpose is not a goal that can be realised easily. Getting adequate number of well-trained faculty is the first challenge. However, the university has been somewhat successful in attracting a number of academics who are well-trained in different subjects. Its brand name and location in Bangalore may have been advantages in this regard. Those people who have joined the university are also concerned about social issues in general and the welfare of students who reach the university from difficult backgrounds.

However, there are other challenges. Academics find it difficult to visualise and work towards impacting development/education practice at scale. Even when practitioners join the faculty, most of them may have the experience in running a good-quality private school. Scale or the preparation of students who can work with governments or communities may not be part of their thinking.

Academics may interpret social purpose in different ways. It could mean to some, giving a share of seats of a highly competitive program, to students coming from underprivileged backgrounds. It may mean to others, starting a good-quality liberal university in India where the university system as a whole faces a number of constraints.

Social change or development is not a desirable word among sections of social scientists who are immersed in post-modern or post-development discourses (originating mainly from the experience of developed world). They tend to overlook (the importance of addressing) the mundane and pre-modern issues such as open defecation, not sending girls to school, higher levels of infant-mortality and so on, which continue to be crucial in the country. There are educationists who are (trained to be) sceptical of mainstream schooling and its expansion to all sections of society whereas the major problems in the country include the dropping out of children from schools and the non-achievement of even minimal levels of learning by the majority of students.

The preparedness of conventional academics to create reflective practitioners is open to question. The knowledge embedded in academic texts and research articles needs to be interpreted to enable students to apply it in real-world contexts. For example, the reading of political theory should enable students to assess the functioning of the local government or school management committee in a specific context. Given the nature of academic training and limited practical experience, academics in India may not have adequate exposure to the `knowledge for practice’.

Achievements so far

With all these challenges, APU has made slow and steady progress towards its goal. It is remarkable that the management hasn’t lost hope in creating the university that it has envisaged in the face of these serious challenges. The fact that five batches of students (each with 200 to 300 students) have passed out and that they are absorbed by the educational and development organisations in the country indicate a notable achievement.  Most of these organisations work in the under-developed regions of the country and are involved in making a difference in the educational/social situation on the ground.

We could see these organisations appreciating the role of `reflective practice’ in their domain. This has made a few of them to start retraining their employees with the help of APU. One such initiative with a major NGO in the country is going on. The university could establish linkages with a sizable number of field-level organisations and these have helped in field-training, internships and finally, the placement of students. The social purpose of the university is recognised by potential students and they don’t see APU as one among the normal educational institutes of the country.

Challenges ahead   

Despite these achievements, the university continues to face serious challenges in realising its goal. Though its admissions team reaches out to potential students from all social and economic backgrounds of the country, much more needs to be done in this regard. There is also an interesting phenomenon here. Though it has been successful in attracting girls (as much as boys), an increase in the share of girls is also tilting the overall socioeconomic background of students towards the middle-class. This is a reflection of the under-achievements in schooling and college education of (and other constraints faced by) girls belonging to under-privileged sections of Indian society.

The students from urban and middle-class backgrounds may not like to continue to live and work in relatively underdeveloped regions of India for a sufficiently long period and they may look for jobs in cities. On the other hand, boys and girls from such regions may not get admission in the university or may not be able to cope up with an academic program in English medium.

Teaching in graduate or post-graduate courses in local languages can be challenging (though most of the teaching in arts and science colleges in small towns in India is carried out in these languages). There may not be enough learning materials in local languages and hence the APU has started a major initiative for the translation of such materials. Well-trained academics in India are not yet comfortable with the notion of an appropriate quality of education (the one meeting a specific social purpose) that includes teaching in local languages.

As noted earlier, reflective practitioners cannot be created through teaching academic texts and research articles. This requires a literature dealing with the use of theory to understand real-word issues and innovative thinking on how to make the change happen in specific contexts. Or there is a need to develop theory-informed, applied and action-oriented knowledge. Ideally such knowledge is to be created through the collaboration between academics and practitioners. However there are multiple barriers (including trust deficits) against the building up of fruitful collaborations in this regard.

Working with governments to improve the public-education system of the country (the primary goal of the Azim Premji Foundation) requires not only the knowledge of good educational practices. It requires perseverance, an ability to deal with people of different capabilities, incentives/interests and ideological orientations, and also a willingness and determination to make the change happen. It may also require the readiness and ability to work with parents and communities. How do we create these capabilities through an academic program on education is an open question.

The real success of the Azim Premji University depends on its ability to address these challenges.

[1] From a speech made by Mr. Azim Premji in 2002