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Cover Story
Azim Premji University: Exemplary gift to Indian education

With the Azim Premji University all set to receive its first batch of students on July 11, excitement is building up within the country’s academic community about this unprecedented education-centred philanthropic initiative of media-shy Bangalore-based IT billionaire Azim Premji who has earned a global reputation as a man with the Midas touch. Dilip Thakore reports

With the Azim Premji University all set to receive its first batch of students on July 11, excitement is building up within the country’s academic community about this unprecedented education-centred philanthropic initiative of media-shy Bangalore-based IT billionaire Azim Premji who has earned a global reputation as a man with the Midas touch.

The decks are being cleared in an 80,000 sq. ft. leased property with nine classrooms, 7,500 sq. ft library, seminar rooms, cafeterias, laboratories and cricket oval, of the People’s Education Society in Electronics City, a suburb of Bangalore, which will serve as the temporary campus of the Azim Premji University (APU) — the most ambitious education-centred philanthropic initiative in the history of post-independence India — to receive its first batch of 200 postgraduate students on July 11.

Conterminously, even as this inaugural batch of students begins studying APU’s specially designed two-year Masters programmes in education, development and teacher education, work has begun on construction of APU’s own state-of-the-art 2.6 million sq. ft built-up area campus on an 80-acre plot in the suburb of Sarjapur, 13 km from the head office of the IT (information technology) software development and consultancy services blue-chip behemoth  Wipro Ltd (gross revenue: Rs.27,124 crore in 2009-10), routinely ranked among the world’s largest IT corporates, and the contiguous headquarters of the Azim Premji Foundation (APF, estb. 1998).

With  APU, which has been on the drawing board of APF for over a decade finally set to take wing this summer, excitement is building up within the country’s academic community about this unprecedented philanthropic project of reclusive Bangalore-based IT billionaire tycoon Azim Premji. That’s because Premji has a global reputation as a man with the Midas touch.

Since he was pulled out of his undergraduate engineering programme at Stanford University in 1966 following the untimely death of his father Hashim Premji who had established a fairly successful hydrogenated oil refining business under the name and style of Western India Vegetable Oil Products Co, Mumbai and diversified into the then nascent computer hardware assembly and software development businesses in the early 1980s, Premji has transformed Wipro Ltd into a US$6 billion multi-national listed on the Bombay, New York and NASDAQ stock exchanges with an employee headcount of 112,925 from 70 nationalities. Today Wipro runs 72 global delivery centres in 55 countries offering IT-enabled services in finance, retail, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare, energy and utilities, technology, telecom and the media.

Therefore the not unreasonable expectation within the Indian intelli-gentsia is that APU will bloom into a beautiful tree (Mahatma Gandhi’s famous description of ancient India’s education system) of higher learning, and emerge as a model for the overdue transformation of India’s 553 univ-ersities and 31,000 colleges characterised by crumbling infrastructure, obsolete syllabuses and curriculums, indifferent faculty, irrational tuition fees and short-changed students. Indian academia urgently needs a 21st century model university to serve as a template for institutions of higher learning.  According to a NASSCOM-McKinsey World Institute study (2005), 75 percent of graduates of the country’s 3,500 engineering colleges and 85 percent of arts, science and commerce graduates are unsuitable for employment in globally-benchmarked business enterprises.

Against this backdrop of a dysfunctional higher education system sliding into a deep morass, Premji’s hugely generous $2 billion or Rs.8,846 crore endowment which offers the promise of a new world-class university featuring the best administrative systems of a globally successful transnational corporation (Wipro Ltd), has aroused enthusiasm in all sections of society. On April 7 last year, the fractious Karnataka state legislative assembly passed a special Azim Premji University Act, 2010 giving the all-clear to the country’s first education-focused private university “to promote, conceptualise and bring about a paradigm shift through develop-ment of outstanding leadership, research knowledge and ideas for education and allied development sectors”.

Within Indian academia there’s palpable relief that even if belatedly, long-neglected issues such as research and development of rigorous syllabuses and curriculums for teacher training and development, nurturing teacher educ-ators and capacity building in primary, secondary and higher education will get expert attention. Likewise, within society in general which is only too aware of the dismal failure of the Central and especially state governments to deliver quality education, actualisation of the long-awaited APU proposal has generated fresh hope of greater involvement of India Inc with Indian education.

This is becoming incrementally necessary because although heads-in-sand government educrats seem oblivious, there’s a swelling exodus of children from  free-of-charge govern-ment schools — even though they offer free mid-day meals, uniforms and textbooks — to fee-levying private schools because learning outcomes in government schools are abysmal. As it is, India’s 200 million-strong middle class has almost entirely boycotted the government K-12 system with over 40 percent of urban children and 24 percent of rural children attending the country’s recognised 294,562 private schools including 175,885 financially independent (aka unaided) primary-secondary schools.

For the small minority of knowledgeable monitors of India’s moribund public education system despairing over the fact that over Rs.200,000 crore is poured annually into government schools with little to show for it by way of knowledge creation or learning outcomes, the roll-out of the long-pending Azim Premji University is welcome relief. Not only because the focus of APU (as it has been of the Azim Premji Foundation for the past decade) will be on public, i.e government education, but also because there was considerable skepticism whether this ambitious and unprecedented initiative would ever get off the drawing board.

Such cynicism is hardly surprising. The plain truth is that unlike business leaders of the pre-independence era such as G.D. Birla, J.N. Tata. Lala Shri Ram etc, who promoted great instit-utions of learning such as the Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani (estb. 1929), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (1909), the Shri Ram College of Commerce (1926) and Lady Shri Ram College (1956), New Delhi, post-independence India’s captains of industry have exhibited little enthusiasm for education causes, despite being saddled with the highest in-service training costs worldwide. Therefore there was widespread cynicism about Premji — whose frugality and puritan ethic attracts snide comments from new genre leaders of Indian industry who pride themselves upon effete epicurean-ism and conspicuous consumption — ever actually getting the APU proposal off the ground.

This pessimism was not entirely unwarranted. Although Premji had made clear his intention of becoming involved with reform of the country’s primary education system as early as 1998 when APF was registered, since the foundation got off the starting block in 2001, its operations have been below radar. Although APF spokespersons claim that “since 2001 the foundation has engaged with over 20,000 schools and 2.5 million children across 13 states through a committed workforce of over 250 professionals and hundreds of paid volunteers in the field,” information about the actual work and outcomes of APF (which doesn’t publish annual reports) have not been broadcast with the foundation’s management content to let state governments with whom they work, take credit for its achievements. What is known is that APF works with government primaries, to whom it doesn’t provide infrastructure develop-ment aid, ICT hardware or education material, and that its focus is on teacher training and development (see box p. 38). Nor has Premji’s media-shy personality helped to cast light on the activities of the foundation. The only interviews he has given in recent times have been to business journalists with little awareness of India’s complex education system and terrain.

Nevertheless there’s no denying that unlike other over-hyped leaders of India Inc, Premji has made the connection  between the low productivity (and high in-company training costs) of Indian industry and the downward trajectory of public education, particularly foundational primary education whose infirmity afflicts the education continuum all the way into India’s also-ran colleges and universities which don’t figure anywhere in the global league tables of the world’s best instit-utions of higher learning. Commendably, this insight into the national malaise that is rock-bottom shopfloor and field productivity prompted registration of the APF in 1998 and its operation-alisation in 2001.

Undoubtedly Premji’s decision was influenced by the global philanthropy movement which is flowering world-wide, even if it is in bud in contemporary India. In 2006, billionaire American investor guru Warren Buffet pledged the transfer of four-fifth of his personal wealth estimated at $45 billion (Rs.202,500 crore) to the education and health-focused Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to which the IT billionaire and Microsoft promoter-chairman has already donated $36 billion (Rs.163,800 crore) and has promised 85 percent of his personal fortune estimated at $54 billion (Rs.243,000 crore) during his lifetime. Therefore Premji — who by virtue of his 86 percent equity stake in Wipro Ltd (market capitalisation: Rs.113,700 crore) is rated by the US-based Forbes magazine as the second richest (after Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani) individual in India with a personal net worth estimated at $17.6 billion (Rs.79,200 crore) — judged the time was right to confer his valuable and exemplary gift of the country’s first education and develop-ment university upon the nation.

On December 7, 2010 in a letter addressed to the Azim Premji Trustee Co. Pvt. Ltd, Premji “irrevocably” transferred 2.13 million shares of Wipro Ltd held by him, then valued at Rs.8,846 crore ($2 billion) to the endowment management company with a directive to utilise its dividend and interest income for attaining the aims and objectives of APF, and specifically promotion of the Azim Premji University. This is the largest ever donation for promotion of education in the history of post-independence India and dwarfs other endowments made by contemporary philanthropists such as HCL founder chairman Shiv Nadar (Rs.580 crore), Ratan Tata (Rs.220 crore to Harvard University); G.M.R. Rao (Rs.153 crore) and Anand Mahindra (Rs.45 crore to Harvard University).

“We believe that good education is crucial to building a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. We want to contribute significantly towards improvement of education in India, and through that towards building a better society. All our efforts, including the university that we are setting up, are focused on the underprivileged and disadvantaged sections of our society. Our experience of the past ten years (in APF) has motivated us to significantly scale up our initiatives across multiple relevant dimensions,” said Premji in a formal statement issued at the time (see interview - There's been a national failure).

Yet even if after having endowed  the largest private philanthropic corpus in Indian history, Premji — who in his other avatar as chairman and chief executive of Wipro recently reshuffled the company’s top manage-ment as he struggles to maintain the company’s position as one of India’s top three IT software majors and least needs any interference from either the leviathan Central or state governments in his business affairs — is inclined to be cautious and politically correct, Dileep Ranjekar, chief executive of APF, entertains no doubt that the university which begins its innings on July 11 will radically transform India’s education landscape. With Premji’s massive endowment of Rs.8,846 crore which will earn at least Rs.800 crore per year by way of market capitalisation, dividend  and interest, Ranjekar believes that APU is all set to emerge as the most well-funded education institution in Indian history with Rs.500 crore budgeted for first-phase infrastructure development, Rs.40 crore per year by way of faculty remuneration and generous means-tested student subsidies.

When we move to our new campus in 2014, APU will be established as a globally-unique fully-fledged education and development university with degree awarding powers, excellent faculty, state-of-the-art campus infrastructure, and best education research and curriculum development facilities worldwide. APU’s faculty will comprise the country’s most respected and experienced professors of philosophy, sociology, law, govern-ance, education and communications. When the first phase of our campus is completed in 2014, it will provide wholly contemporary residential accommod-ation for 4,000 students learning in fully wired  open-system interactive class-rooms with each student provided with a laptop with full connectivity. More-over APU will offer the world’s most researched and best curriculums, and learning and assessment systems. Our expectation is that after they graduate, APU alumni will be revolutionary, socially aware and highly motivated change agents within Indian education and society,” enthuses Ranjekar.

The USP (unique sales proposition) which distinguishes APU from all other higher education institutions in India and arguably worldwide, is that it is a dedicated education university, unlike universities such as Harvard, Columbia etc which boast schools of education and other disciplines (law, business, medicine, govern-ment etc) as constituent specialist institutions within the parent varsity. In this case APU is the education-centric university which will promote specialist schools in related disciplines under its umbrella.

“APU is perhaps the only university worldwide promoted with the objective of education research and development. However we are aware that education should be defined widely and that it is intimately connected with issues such as health, livelihood, governance and environment and ecology. Therefore while our prime objective is to research and apply ways and means to improve learning outcomes in government K-12 schools, during the past decade since APF became operational, we have learnt this objective won’t be achieved unless we also train and develop professionals competent to address related issues such as child nutrition, environment sustainability, rural governance and vocational education. Consequently APU has been shaped as an education and development university with the mission to improve learning outcomes in K-12 education by also improving the ecosystem which supports the government school system in rural and urban India,” says Anurag Behar (42), the youthful co-chief executive of APF and vice chancellor of APU.

The general consensus is that the logic behind Behar’s surprise appoint-ment as vice chancellor of this momentous and perhaps globally unprecedented enterprise — it was widely expected that a highly respected academic would be invited to take charge as the first vice chancellor of APU — is that Premji accords prime importance to the new multi-million dollar university being managed and administered with corporate efficiency, rather than in the style of Indian universities which are run like lackadaisical government departments. An alumnus of NIT, Trichy and XLRI, Jamshedpur, Behar has excellent corporate credentials, having acquired valuable business management experience in GE (1993-2002), shaped by the legendary Jack Welch into one of the world’s most superbly managed multinationals, after which he learned business management Premji-style in Wipro (2002-10) as chief executive of Wipro Infrastructure Engineering prior to being handpicked by the billionaire tycoon to steer the megabucks APU in its formative years.

“It was a revelation for me to learn that Canada which has a population of 35 million produces 2,500 education postgraduates per year as against India’s 200. Therefore our prime mission is to produce an annually incremental number of education experts highly trained in curriculum development, learning assessment, technology management and pedagogies delivery in all major languages, for Indian education. Within the next six years we will be contrib-uting 2,000 highly-trained education postgraduates per year to Indian educ-ation. They will be well-remunerated, globally respected education profess-ionals motivated to undertake field work and will have a huge multiplier effect upon the government school system in particular,” promises Behar.

Although Premji and the top brass tend to define the aims and objectives of APU quite broadly as encompassing education and development, the university’s first choice of subjects — Masters programmes in education, development and teacher education — indicates that the prime focus of this first-of-its-type varsity is teacher education and development, an area of darkness in Indian education. While professional qualifications are mandatory for all teachers in government schools and colleges, the task of training, develop-ing and motivating teachers has been entrusted to hastily-promoted poor quality state government-run teacher training colleges and lately equally decrepit private B.Ed colleges which in reality are little more than degree factories producing low-calibre graduates who have plunged learning outcomes in government K-12 schools to new depths — as testified by the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) of the Mumbai-based NGO Pratham, which conducts an annual audit of learning outcomes in rural primary schools in 522 districts countrywide. Consequently despite an estimated over Rs.200,000 crore being invested in primary education annually by the Central and state governments, contemporary India has very little to show for it by way of improved learning outcomes. The recently published ASER 2010 highlights that 47 percent of  class V children in rural primaries can’t read and comprehend class II texts while 64 percent can’t manage simple division sums (see special report ‘ASER’s  shocking primary learning report card’, EW March).

Therefore Premji and the top brass of APF and APU have accorded top priority to devising strategies to upskill and improve the productivity of the country’s 5.5 million teachers employed in 1.25 million government primary schools which ungraciously host 60 percent of the country’s 220 million children enroled in primary education at the start of every academic year. Their logic is that radical improvement of learning outcomes in government primaries will trigger a positive chain reaction within the education system all the way into the country’s 553 universities and 31,000 colleges, and transform the national education landscape.

“Strangely and regrettably, indep-endent India has failed to develop a strong teacher education system. Hastily-promoted teacher training colleges, either run or owned by politicians, have transformed the B.Ed and diploma programmes into job-oriented vocations for recklessly certified and unmotivated teachers. Simultan-eously, organisations such as NCERT (National Council for Education Research and Training) and state-level SCERTs have failed to develop rigorous teacher training and development curriculums and programmes. Moreover until very recently, government teachers were very poorly paid.

“As a result of all these factors, the teaching profession became a sanctuary for incompetent professionals. APU will demonstrate ways and means to radically transform this teacher training and development scenario. We have assembled high quality faculty who will combine high-end research with field practice to set new standards and benchmarks not only in APU but also in ten affiliated state and district teacher training institutes which in turn will establish two model K-12 schools with government equivalent budgets in each district to demonstrate improved classroom learning outcomes. The promotion of APU is likely to prove a tipping point in the history of Indian education,” says Rohit Dhankar, a veteran educationist who trained under the globally-renowned educationist David Horsburgh, and promoted the well-respected teacher development and alternative school education NGO Digantar (estb. 1987), and has signed up as the first professor of education at APU.

The APU management’s deter-mination to wake up and skill the country’s 5.5 million government school teachers who have attained notoriety for slacking and poor productivity, is also evidenced by the varsity’s multi-purpose University Resource Centre having already kick-started an ambitious ELM (education leadership and management) pilot project to provide leadership training to 56,000 head masters/principals in Karnataka state. Under this programme, government primary school head-masters will receive 20 days training spread over 15 weeks in APU’s School Development Institutes in all 31 districts of the state. The best 400 among them will be appointed school leadership development facilitators (SLDFs) and provided 82 days training. And of the 400 SLDFs, the best 60 will be selected for 200 days training to qualify as School Leadership Development Master Facilitators.

“Our research into the working conditions of government school teachers indicates that even the most committed among them suffer numerous problems beyond and outside their classrooms. Therefore our strategy to improve teacher productivity and learning outcomes in primary education is not only to provide them continuous in-service training, but also to address their problems from a classroom exceeding perspective. We believe this two-prong strategy will build capacity within the currently demotivated teachers community and inspire them to give their best to their jobs,” says Sashi Nair, an alumnus of IIT-Madras and IIM-Bangalore who acquired valuable experience in high quality education delivery while working with NIIT (1987-91) and the Institute of Advanced Technology, Nairobi (1991-2005), prior to signing up with APU in 2005, where he has been designing ELM and in-service teacher training programmes set to be rolled out this summer.

Intelligently, the top management of APF — Premji, Behar and Ranjekar — who conceptualised and planned APU, has taken pains to shape it into a multi-disciplinary university rather than a superior teacher training college. As such the new high-potential university has a charter to define education liberally and has ab initio introduced a two-year Masters progra-mme in development to “prepare high calibre development professionals, field experts and social entrepreneurs”.

On July 11, 50 college graduates, most of them with work experience in education and inter-related domains, will be admitted into this programme. “APU’s Masters in development degree programme will go well beyond the MSW (Masters in social work) programme offered by most universities. We have devised a unique syllabus and curriculum which will shape our students  into well-informed develop-ment practitioners — all-rounders equipped with a good blend of theory and practice — who will be equipped to translate the macro-economic policies of the Central and state governments into micro-level development projects in the field. Ideally APU postgrads will work with government and NGOs at the district and sub-district levels as also in the state and district level Azim Premji Institutes promoted by APF,” says Dr. Sujit Sinha, an alumnus of IIT-Kanpur and Princeton University and senior faculty member of APU’s innovative Masters in development programme.

According to Dr. Reshmi Mitra, an alumna of IIT-Kharagpur, Harvard Business School and Babson University (USA) who served a long stint (1987-2009) as faculty at XLRI, Jamshedpur  prior to signing up with APF two years ago, and who has helped design the curriculum of APU’s Masters in development study programme, this course will produce professionals equipped to address inter-related issues beyond the classroom which impact the quality of education delivered in the country’s 1.25 million government primary schools. “These include mother and child health and nutrition, livelihood issues, governance of local institutions and environment and ecology sustainability. Our objective is to develop our students into creative change agents aware of macro-level policies with the capability to create conducive environments for delivery of high quality primary and secondary education in government schools, especially in rural India,” explains Mitra.
      
Widespread awareness of the importance of applying and testing the university’s research output and pedagogies in the field, promises to distinguish APU from the country’s run-of-the-mill 533 universities where faculty members tend to conduct half-hearted research studies and publish esoteric papers which are promptly consigned to the archives and forgotten. Blending theory with practice and applying research is the valuable legacy of the parent APF to the new university. Over the past decade, APF has not only heavily researched Indian primary education but has applied its propr-ietory research to introduce several path-breaking initiatives in government schools across the country. Among them: APF’s accelerated learning, Vidya Chethana, learning guarantee, child-friendly school computer-aided learning, migrant labour children education and re-launch strategy initiatives (see section on Azim Premji Foundation initiative).

A good example of the education innovations transferred from lab to field by APF is provided by the two ECML (education for the children of migrant labour) elementary schools established by the foundation in Bangalore. With rare insight and compassion, faculty of the foundation noticed that children of migrant labour working on building sites in the garden city which has been experiencing a building boom for several decades, are deprived of early childhood and primary education because their parents rarely reside in one location for more than 150 days as they move in search of work. “The challenge before us was not only to develop appropriate curriculums for children in the 0-12 age group but also to stimulate their desire to learn. Therefore bearing in mind the transient nature of their parents’ work, we designed our own textbooks-free, activity-based curriculums for children of differing ages. In our two on-site schools established in part-nership with construction companies in Bangalore, we not only provide age-appropriate education to prepare migrant construction workers’ children for primary school, but also look after their health, hygiene and nutrition needs. Over the past three-and-a-half years we have enroled over 900 children of all ages with excellent learning outcomes. In the process I believe that we have developed an ECML model which can be implemented across the country,” says Dr. Shalini Sharma, an anthro-pology postgraduate of Lucknow University with a doctorate in develop-ment studies from Mysore University who heads APF’s path-breaking ECML initiative.

With generous funding assured — the corpus endowed by Premji upon the parent APF is likely to generate a humungous income of Rs.800 crore per year for the foundation and APU — assembly of a stellar cast of globally-respected faculty engaged in deep research of education and inter-related disciplines and over 58 Azim Premji Institutes and 200 affordable K-12 schools in ten districts countrywide ready, willing and able to supplement, test and apply research output of APU, the commencement of classes in APU is a historic event which heralds a turning point for the renaissance of Indian educa-tion. Given its blue-chip corporate parentage, careful conceptualisation and focused objectives, the Azim Premji University is all set to emerge as a model institution of higher education for governments at the Centre and in the states to emulate.

In a tribute to Premji in Time magazine which has included him in its shortlist of the world’s 100 most influential people (May 2), Microsoft chairman Bill Gates comments: “He (Premji) is setting a remarkable example for those who have benefited so enormously from India’s economic expansion and are looking for ways to give back.”

That’s valuable implicit advice from a leader of American industry and the world’s most generous philanthropist to the captains of Indian industry. India Inc needs to heed it and practice enlightened capitalism in its own and the larger national interest.

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