I got a call from a friend a few days ago. A boy known to him got admission in both Azim Premji University and TISS, Hyderabad. The boy is a bit confused and needs some advice. Hence I was compelled to have a long conversation with this boy. 

Many students, despite all the information available in the internet, make ill-informed choices in terms of education, and then they would be in a difficult situation. This student is also not very different. He has completed under-graduation in engineering but found this subject and occupation uninteresting, and hence is looking for other options. He has joined a coaching program for civil service examinations before writing the entrance tests of Azim Premji University and TISS. 

This incident encouraged me to think about the kind of students who would find the education in Azim Premji University useful. I am summarising my thoughts in this essay. There are two points of caution. These views are about the post-graduate program in development and education to some extent. Secondly what I write below are my personal views and need not reflect the views of the management of the university. 

One question that I confront about our PG programs is whether these would help students to write civil service examinations. My suggestion is that students should not join our university if their plan is to write this examination. There are a number of reasons. Writing this examination may require intense preparation in specific subjects. Our programs do not focus on specific subjects like sociology or economics in that detail. Moreover, when students are enrolled in these programs, they will not get any time to prepare for the civil service examination. Hence joining our university would mean a simple postponement of the plan to write this examination for two years and the need to start it again from the beginning. On the other hand, it is much better to join a sociology or public administration program in a conventional university like the JNU if the plan is to write this examination. Specific subjects are taught in greater detail and staying in Delhi would give easier access to a number of coaching institutes. It may not be that difficult to combine post-graduate education and preparations for civil services examination there. This is true also for other recruitment examinations for a job in the government or public sector organisations. 

Another question that I get is whether our post-graduate programs enable students to do a PhD and become researchers and college/university teachers. In my view, the post-graduate program in development is not adequate for a student preparing for a doctoral education. A student who pursues PhD should have a thorough understanding of the theory and method of a particular discipline and a fairly good training in research methods. The focus of MA Development is to create reflective practitioners, and different subjects are taught not in great detail, and a major part of the time is used to impart practical skills and provide an exposure to field realities and the functioning of field organisations. This training is not enough for an immediate transition to a PhD program. (There is a scope for a different PhD program and I will discuss that in the later part of this essay). 

In essence, those who are attracted to civil services and research (or academic) careers are likely to be disappointed after going through the post-graduate programs on development and education. Who will benefit from these post-graduate programs then? Let us take two sets of students based on their socioeconomic background. 

Let us consider a boy or girl from the lower-middle class or poorer background from rural India. What could be the jobs that this boy or girl get normally in the absence of an education from Azim Premji University? They may do an under graduation (and possibly a post-graduation) from a local college, and may become a teacher in a government or private school or an employee in the government or a non-governmental organisation in rural areas which are not very different from their home villages/towns. These boys and girls can benefit immensely through the education from Azim Premji University. They would get a much better quality education, exposure, and an ambience that would enable the building up of appropriate networks and a broadening of their understanding of social reality. They may not lose materially and may get decent jobs in non-governmental organisations and corporate social responsibility arms of private firms with salaries comparable to that of similar positions in the government. 

Does it mean that Azim Premji University is not suitable for the boys and girls from middle and upper-middle class families and that too from urban areas. That is not the case. There are some students from these middle-class backgrounds who are genuinely interested in pursuing something different than conventional professions like medicine or engineering. They may be interested in our post-graduate program in development or education. That can give them a good exposure to theory-informed development or education practice. This education can also facilitate their placement in an NGO or a CSR arm of a private firm or a quasi-governmental or new generation mission-mode public organisation that is involved in one or other aspect of education or development. A set of education students may take up jobs as teachers in alternative private schools or education-tech companies. 

What could be the longer term career growth of these people?  I will list down a few possible trajectories for such students coming from the middle-class background. 

  1. A share of such students may grow up in one or other NGO or CSR arm of a private company or a quasi-governmental organisation, or a philanthropic foundation and they may see such a career growth meaningful.
  1. Some of them may work in one of these organisations for 2-3 years and then may start their own non-governmental organisation or an alternative school. There is a probability of success or failure here like any in other entrepreneurship. 
  1. There could be a few others who may pursue higher education after working in these organisations for 2-3 years. Their work experience would be useful in different ways. It gives them a first hand exposure to the development/education challenges in India. Such a work experience is valued  for different kinds of education whether it is an MBA or a PhD program in reputed universities, especially in the USA. Business schools value such experience and these students can diversify into typical management careers in for-profit or not-for-profit organisations after the MBA. Those who want to pursue a PhD at this stage should start with another post-graduation in one of the conventional subjects like sociology, economics, and so on, and then they can pick up a research problem that is informed by their experience in development or education. If PhD is pursued, it can lead to researcher/academic positions, though getting an acceptable job of this kind is not that easy these days. However these options are suitable only for those boys and girls who have no compulsion to settle down immediately and who can sacrifice incomes for a number of years. Some of them may need financial support from parents or may have to take loans to pursue higher education. These may create problems for many youngsters in India. 
  1. There is a set of students from middle-class backgrounds who may not like to take up one of the three options mentioned above. They may find living in a relatively underdeveloped part of India without urban facilities even for 1-2 years very difficult. (This can be an issue for Keralites who may have to work in other Indian states. The rural areas of Kerala have urban facilities.) The salary that they can get from such jobs may not be attractive according to their expectation or aspirations. They may not be that motivated to pursue a career growth in the NGOs and they many not be entrepreneurial enough to start their own organisation. They may not be academically, emotionally or financially prepared to pursue another higher education. They, like most Indian adults, may want to have a decent job, marry and set up their family in a comfortable place as early as possible. All these people are likely to be disenchanted with the PG programs on education/development in Azim Premji University. 

It  is better to have an understanding of the possible trajectories and the ones which are suitable for one’s aspirations before pursing such a higher education program. There are a number of students who are not sure of what they want to do, and try one or other education program without any purpose.  They would end up in deep trouble after such an education. Their incorrect choices are harmful not only to themselves but also to their families and the society as a whole. We need to think about different ways to address this information problem.