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Anurag Behar: ‘We are socially committed and clearly non-commercial’

‘We are unusual as a university and attractive'

Civil Society News, New Delhi

The Azim Premji University was founded five years ago to contribute to achieving a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. Its founders were clear they wanted to strengthen nation-building and enliven the social sector. It was to be a university with a higher purpose beyond fees and degrees, and the rat race of employment.

But how does one translate idealism into reality? The founders began by defining their mission and vision in great detail. Next came the programmes, beginning with their core strengths in education and development. They handpicked teachers, enrolled diverse students, designed practical curricula and opted for an unusual pedagogy.

Over the years, the Azim Premji University has acquired an edge of its own. It has an attractive identity. It provides its students and faculty an unconventional space within which to learn and teach. It allows them to go beyond classrooms in search of knowledge and experience.

The university has undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It has five schools: the School of Education, School of Development, School of Policy and Governance, School of Liberal Studies and School of Continuing Education. Its campus is a hub of cultural activity. Students who graduate have found jobs in the social sector.

“Universities the world over are sometimes called ivory towers because they get disconnected from the reality outside their campuses. But we aren’t disconnected from reality,” Anurag Behar, Vice- Chancellor of the university, said in an interview to Civil Society.

The Azim Premji University was founded five years ago. How far has it succeeded in achieving its stated objectives?

If in 2011 or 2012 somebody asked me whether I would be happy with where we are today, I would have said, Yes. That’s the brief answer to your question.

We set out to establish a university that is basically focused on contributing to the social sector. In 2009-10, when we started ideating, it seemed a very challenging task. First of all, where would we get faculty? We wanted to launch lots of high-quality programmes in education because they did not exist in our country. The second issue was where would our students come from and what would happen to them once they graduated?

Today, five years later, we have an extremely talented faculty. We have students too. Six batches have been admitted and four have passed out. Most important, pretty much every student from the MA Education and MA Development programmes has been placed on campus in a job in the social sector — the reason we started the university.

The faculty is so important. How did you find people who would teach?

You need to look at some fundamentals and some basics. First, we are an unusual university. We have this social commitment. In a country of our size, whatever the paucity of faculty or talent, a purpose of this nature attracts people. That has been our most important strength. There are lots of good people around. Unfortunately, it’s not like there are lots of good higher education institutions similarly committed. So when people hear of what we are doing, it seems attractive.

Second, while the university started in 2011, the Azim Premji Foundation’s work in school education predated it by more than 10 to11 years. So people knew we were into improving public education and they knew our ideological stand. Our 10-year history in school education established a certain clarity among people regarding what we were about. They knew we were not a new organisation setting up shop.

Those 10 to 11 years gave us a very good asset — a network of friends across the world of education. Illustratively, the first 10 to 15 people we recruited, we had known for years. We were very fortunate that they joined us because some of them are outstanding people. They have stayed with us.

But obviously you needed more people. Did you find them in the larger university system or did you discover them outside academia?

It was a deliberate strategy to ensure that we recruited a mix of people who were from the university system and people who were practitioners. We were apprehensive that this would be difficult. But it didn’t turn out to be that way. In hindsight, if you look around in this country, how many institutions are socially committed and clearly non-commercial? So this deep social commitment combined with the non-commercial nature of what we do is an attractive proposition.

We could recruit because teachers and practitioners were ready to do this elsewhere but did not have the opportunity perhaps. Or the opportunity was a very isolated one. If you are a sociologist interested in school education and you are in a university, you are alone.

But in the Azim Premji University you will find a bunch of sociologists, anthropologists, economists, all interested in school education. So you will find an ecosystem of likeminded peers. In academia this is very important. It’s not just about not getting the opportunity.

Practitioners are those who have interacted directly with teachers in the public school system and have worked with NGOs and civil society organisations for maybe 20 to 25 years. They see the university as a platform that multiplies the effect of their work.

So one of the benefits of your university has been to codify experience?

I wouldn’t use that phrase. All education is an attempt at codifying experience. Because our university is so focused on the social sector, in terms of curricula and overall culture, we strive to ensure we are deeply connected with the world of practice.

I’ll give you a few examples. All three of our master’s programmes have a very large amount of fieldwork. Students do 16 weeks of fieldwork and also spend every Wednesday in the field. It has been built into the curriculum and is taken very seriously. Fieldwork is credited and mentored.

We encourage our faculty members to engage with the world of practice. I think it’s one of the things they find exciting here. You can teach, do research and go work with some NGO. So that’s an integral part of work.

There are people in the social sector with rich experience and knowledge, most of it disaggregated because it is all a part of rolling action.

It’s a huge issue. What we are trying to attempt is to develop deep-thinking practitioners. We don’t want practitioners who won’t think and thinkers who won’t practise.

We want our students to go out there with the capacity to think, question, analyse, build thoughtfully.

A lot of effort must have gone into shaping the curriculum. What was this phase like?

From the very beginning we were deeply devoted to the idea of ensuring our student body is diverse. We were very clear that we didn’t want a university where all the students came from a reasonably privileged background. Now that has many implications.

You will then have students from elite colleges in Delhi and students who have five to 10 years of experience. But you will also have students coming from Tonk, Sirohi or Purnea, students who have studied in a school in Hindi. Diversity has implications on how you design your curriculum.

How was the curriculum for the programmes designed? 

Step one is the purpose of the university. If the purpose is social commitment, then what programmes will bring it to life.

We spent a fair amount of time thinking about the programmes we should build. We looked at various kinds of specialisation in the world of education — early childhood education,  special education, school organisation and so on. Why do you need such programmes? Because they are pretty much non-existent in the country. You need teacher education programmes, and BEd programmes because there are very few good ones around. So there were various reasons that drove various programmes.

This step is critical. Universities and academic institutions don’t spend enough time thinking about what programmes to start. We came up with a priority list. The first two we thought we would start were the master’s in education and the master’s in development — a grounding in liberal education.

We didn’t want our programmes to become technocratic tools where you learn five techniques and try and implement them. You need to have the ability to think through things. We thought through the nature and character of the programmes.

And the students?

The next step was to understand the kind of students we would be getting. You can’t get a relevant curriculum without understanding that. The choice that faced us was whether to restrict ourselves to students with a background in humanities, philosophy, social sciences. Had we done that we would have had students with a basic understanding of social issues and their dynamics. We would have then developed the curriculum differently.

But we didn’t do that. Lots of young people end up studying physics or whatever. It’s not always a choice they have made. It’s a social determinant. How can you close the option to a young person who studied engineering but really wants to be in education? So, knowing the nature of our country and the way education choices are made, we allowed the eligibility criteria to be an undergraduate degree in any discipline.

Now, if your students come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, it has deep implications on the curriculum. Then you have to introduce students to the basic philosophical, sociological, economic, political ideas in education and give them a grounding. That became an integral part of the curriculum.

In fact, our students find this deep immersion in the politics, economics, sociology and  philosophy of education most exciting and challenging. The curriculum isn’t divorced from fieldwork but integrated with it.

Then you move to the specifics in that field, whether it is education, pedagogy, the history of education and so on. The programme prepares you so that you can really go out and work in various kinds of roles.

We also saw the need for certain kinds of specialisation. So in our core programmes in education and development, students can choose to specialise in early childhood education, school organisation and management, curriculum, pedagogy, development of livelihoods, public health and so on. You can also just do a balanced degree programme if you don’t want to choose a specialisation.

How is pedagogy organised?

That depends on your educational philosophy. If your intent is to develop thinking, autonomous individuals with capacities that are not just cognitive but ethical and social, it will reflect in your pedagogic environment.

For us the classroom environment is dialogic. It is exploratory and rooted in reality. When you juxtapose this pedagogy with a very diverse student body, the classroom environment becomes challenging. You have students who know English, and those who don’t. You need to make sure you are really using the student body itself as a resource.

Most of our students who have graduated speak in admiration of their teachers and the diverse student body that gave them a learning opportunity which would not have been there otherwise.

How do you use your student body as a resource?

Let’s take one example which is often overlooked in higher education. You ensure that a lot of your work is group work. You don’t just listen to a lecture and take notes. The group is designed carefully. You have a person from Purnea, someone who worked in the IT sector, a graduate from an elite college, a girl whose parents are landless farmers…a group like that creates a dialogue that is completely different. Pedagogically, the university experience in group work – assignments, fieldwork — is very important.  The faculty engages with the group to make sure it functions.

A lot of work is also about reflection, reading and understanding.  The teacher is aware of the diversity in class. So if you have a student from a deeply conservative background her perspective on gender equity in school may be different from a student from a privileged background. Faculty members will help to bring that out. This is an art and comes from a certain commitment to society.

If you have a vibrant student life with cultural programmes, as we do, that again brings diversity to the fore.

What kind of jobs do your students get?

Almost 99 percent have joined the social sector. I don’t think more than two to five percent have joined the for-profit corporate world. Within the social sector they do diverse work ranging from on-the-ground work with school teachers to domain work in public health and education, programme management, and research and documentation. 

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