June 15, 2013

A different model- Azim Premji University


The trend of very kind people in Bangalore continues! Yesterday I had a very pleasant meeting with 3 people from Azim Premji University; S. Giridhar, the Registrar, Padma Nayar, who does admissions, student support, and career placement, and Gladwin Joseph, a professor and ecologist (with interests in sustainability and human ecology). APU is probably the most distinctive university I have encountered here, and I really look forward to following their progress as they grow. They're 2 years old, having just graduated their first cohort in their 2-yr master's program (they offer a master's in education and a master's in development).
The Azim Premji Foundation has a depth of experience in school (primary and secondary) education; they've had people on the ground working with the public school system for 10-15 years around the country. The University is building on that experience, and training people who can contribute to educational reform and development. They're taking all of their experiential knowledge and building it into an academic program; one which is designed to take students not just straight out of college but also those with work experience. The admissions process relies in part on an exam which tests English language skills (all programs are currently taught in English though they hope to add two additional languages in coming years) and knowledge of current affairs; social issues, political, cultural, even sport. Does the applicant keep up with the problems and challenges facing Indian society? There is also an interview, where faculty interviewers look for two main traits in the applicants: commitment to social change, and an inclination towards higher education. They acknoweledge that a formal degree program may not benefit everyone; some practitioners do just fine; so they are looking for that interest in context, in-I assume- knowledge creation (I'm putting words in their mouth a little here). They do also have a diversity index that they use to ensure a range of socioeconomic status, geography, gender, religion, etc. etc., but they do *not* include prior grades/academic performance. So they're  not going to have a "typical" student body. Giri has, I think, a wonderful perspective on innovation in higher education, best learned from his own words.
Students are very active- and proactive; they started all sorts of discussion groups, they organized programs for the children of migrant laborers who have a camp nearby (to get them vaccinated, to invite them to festivals or events the students are sponsoring where they're fed, etc.), organized evening study sessions (which were actually movie parties where they used the netbooks each student is given, the broadband internet access they get, and the classroom projectors to download and watch movies- hey, not every second can be spent with noble purpose!) We ended up talking a lot about student support; they are working with students from a wide range of backgrounds, and as they are growing they are concerned about their ability to really provide what students need. They're extremely open- both Giri and Padma came from corporate backgrounds but speaking to them had a very different feel from conversations with some of the other business oriented folks who have ended up engaged with universities here. There's definitely not a standard "academic culture" feel, but neither is there a "corporate" feel (I'm using both of those in the sense of a slightly negative stereotype). Some of it is just that they're small, but there's a very open, collaborative feel, with students heavily engaged not perhaps as full partners but with a very real voice. They're willing to figure things out as they go along, try things, keep what works, change what didn't. There's a real sense of shared purpose; that everyone really is working together towards a common goal. OK, they also seem to have really amazing resources from the Azim Premji Foundation; not having to worry about that makes a huge difference. They don't seem wasteful in the least, but when there are important but costly needs (student scholarship, work-study jobs, the aforementioned netbooks, etc.), those needs are met.  
I spent a while, when Giri and Padma had gone on to other tasks and meetings, speaking with Gladwin. He was for many years involved with leadership roles at ATREE; the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (which brought him in touch with Peter Raven...small world! Well, I suppose it's more that Peter's world is very big). He's been doing some exchange programs with US institutions where students come out, visit some of the ecological research stations here, and do some project. I think he's right, that the most powerful of those programs would have Indian and American students working together...and ideally be fully reciprocal; each group visits the others' country and sees landscapes and ecosystems they're unfamiliar with. I know WashU students have benefitted greatly from the Winter Institute that Gautam Yadama (School of Social Work) runs in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; it would be interesting to see what models are possible.   Gladwin was kind enough to invite me over for dinner with his family; his wife is from Oregon. It was a wonderful and relaxing time, the conversation was consistently interesting (their teenage daughter Shanti was insightful and engaging!) and I greatly appreciated the chance to get out of the city proper for an evening.