Universities for a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society: Lessons for and from Azim Premji University

There have been various experiments in higher education in different parts of the world to address social challenges beyond the practice of the affirmative action. An assessment of these may help us contextualize the experience of the Azim Premji University during the eight years of its existence. This is the objective of this paper and through this process, it identifies the challenges a university that aims to address social issues may face.

Inclusion representation


Countries, such as India, face various challenges in terms of social and economic progress and despite positive developments, poverty and underdevelopment persist. The economic growth has benefitted a relatively small section of society. Nearly one-fourth of the population continues to live in absolute poverty. The two significant features of India’s underdevelopment are, one, social groups like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC, ST) are over-represented among the poor and the marginalized1 and the ill-effects of historically-shaped gender discrimination still reflect on the education and employment of women. These have led governments to follow affirmative action, that is, the reservation of seats in higher education for these groups. However, it has been realized that the policy of reservation may not adequately address the challenges faced by these social groups. This is also evident from the current status of the SCs and STs in India2. Is it possible to use the platform of higher education, specifically, of a university, to address some of these challenges faced by India and some other countries? These challenges could be regarding the overall development, which in India would require addressing the specific issues of inequality.

The Azim Premji Foundation focusses its efforts towards improving the access to, and quality of schooling for all children, especially in states that are lagging behind in terms of human development. The goal of the Azim Premji University, which is organically linked to the efforts of the Foundation, is to address social issues that are here and now’ (such as the need to provide quality schooling for all). The university does not espouse knowledge development for its own sake3. It propounds knowledge-development and other activities, only as long as these contribute to its primary objective of addressing social issues.

There have been various experiments in higher education in different parts of the world to address social challenges beyond the practice of affirmative action. An assessment of these may help us contextualize the experience of the Azim Premji University during the eight years of its existence. This is the objective of this paper and through this process, it identifies the challenges a university that aims to address social issues may face.

Evolution of universities: A brief overview

Universities are institutions for advanced learning and in the early universities, this meant making a better sense of the world around’4. While such advanced schools’ in non-European settings taught the high culture, received doctrine, literary and/​or mathematical skills of their political or religious masters, with little room for questioning or analysis’, the universities that came up in medieval Europe were conceptualized as school of higher learning combining teaching and scholarship and characterized by its corporate autonomy and academic freedom’ (Perkin, 2007). The early European universities used philosophy (from Aristotle onwards) and religious writings to understand and interpret nature and society. Since some of these universities were set up much before the industrial revolution, development of science and technology or the achievement of industrial development were not part of their objectives. In fact, these conventional universities had, for a long time, resisted incorporating research or the creation of new knowledge as part of their core purpose. The attempt to combine teaching and research in a university setting was part of a later development5.

Industrialization and modernization changed the expectations from universities. After a long period of discord, provision of skills came to be accepted as an important feature of university education6. Thus, universities also became institutions for creating highly-educated people who could be employed in different kinds of organizations and for generating knowledge (including technology). This is how enabling economic development became an important outcome of higher education.

Universities have contributed directly to the betterment of a small percentage of the population (those who could complete school education and could get the benefit of higher education) and to the welfare of society, as a whole, in an indirect manner. People with higher education, engaged in governmental and non-governmental organizations, with their knowledge and social awareness, contribute to the welfare of the less-educated sections of society in many ways. The economic development facilitated by higher education is also assumed to have some trickle-down benefits. However, this could be minimal in those countries which have failed to ensure that the majority of people (who are not direct participants of higher education) have the capabilities to benefit from economic development.

There were efforts in different countries of the West to ensure that the majority of the population benefits from the industrial and economic development. This led to policies for the universalization of school education and improvement of vocational training. Through these interventions, the percentage of the population which acquired basic qualifications and capabilities to get into universities increased. This compelled these countries to extend and invest more in university education, thereby, allowing meritorious students from the lower middle-class and poorer sections to also access it. Though only a very small percentage of the population was using higher education in the colonies in the early 19th century, universities became hubs for public debates on colonialism and national freedom. This could have contributed (somewhat inadvertently) to the movements for independence and the emergence of leaders leading these and ready to head independent/​national governments.

One pattern that emerges from this evolution of universities, is the development of a normative framework based on previous forms. There was resistance to the incorporation of research’ in universities, which may seem surprising now since the dominant form is one of research universities, today. The persistence of a normative framework based on previously existing forms impacts the imagination and realisation of newer or alternative kinds of higher education, including that which the Azim Premji University espouses. We take up this issue in detail in a later section while discussing the challenges being encountered by this university.

It is evident that the contributions of conventional universities have not been adequate in meeting the social challenges in different countries. Despite the efforts to spread the benefits of development to wider sections of society, specific social groups have remained marginalized, like the racial minorities in the United States. The conventional strategy could extend the benefits of higher education to a very small section of students from the marginalized social groups. Therefore, universities in different parts of the world began to take the affirmative action of reserving seats in higher education for the poor and the underprivileged7.

Affirmative action as a way to address the issue of inequality

It is true that affirmative action has benefitted a small section of the underprivileged to get admission in higher education institutes and through that to gain the benefits of educated employment8. Evidence from India (Bertrand et al, 2008) too indicates that those who got admission through this affirmative action came from the lower economic background (from the very margins) while those from the privileged social groups were denied admission due to this policy. However, there are major limitations of affirmative action/​reservation policy in India and other developing countries. A majority of children belonging to socially and economically underprivileged groups do not complete school education9, and hence, they cannot avail of university education even with the benefit of reservation. The challenges they face during schooling because of their backgrounds may reflect in their performance in higher education/​universities.

Also, while taking affirmative action, no attempt is made to change the content and pedagogy of education. For example, the STs or the indigenous people would benefit better from an education that relates to their social context, and teachers who are trained to provide it. This, in turn, requires changes in the curriculum and pedagogy of teacher education. Keeping these factors in mind, there have been attempts to create universities or higher education institutes that can address these social issues in a more direct manner.

Community Colleges

A set of community colleges were established in the United States, from the beginning of the 20th century, to address the limitation of conventional universities in which children from the marginalized groups (such as the racial minorities) could not get admission even if they completed schooling10. This was obviously due to their difficulty in competing with children from the mainstream or dominant social groups. Those who wanted to retain the elitist’ nature of the universities, suggested the creation of a different model to meet the needs of these marginalised students. In this model, the first two years of the college education was shifted from the universities to local community colleges’. These colleges had two purposes, first, to prepare students to enter conventional universities; and, second, to impart vocational skills so that the students could be job-readied.

Over time, it was noted that the second purpose took precedence over the first and only less than half the students who entered community colleges, opted for higher education. Hence, community colleges in the United States became a part of those institutes that created skilled workers from the less-privileged groups to take up jobs in the formal sectors of the economy.

Similar efforts are being implemented in other parts of the world. A set of colleges have come up in Brazil to meet the needs of specific socio-economic groups, such as rural landless’ people11. These groups comprise, predominantly, of blacks and the indigenous people. It is not incidental that such experiments in Brazil have received a major thrust as part of the political mobilization of the underprivileged groups, which are managed by their organizations. However, these experiments, though laudable in their objectives and sincere in their efforts, may not get adequate resources, since a greater part of the resources allocated for higher education would go to conventional universities which cater to the relatively better-off sections. Hence, the alternative ones may fail to meet the objectives of either preparing the students to pursue a university education or of giving them a terminal vocational qualification suitable for a job in the modern economy.

In considering the relevance of community colleges in the context of India12, the following observations point to why the model may not be suitable.

  • If these are seen as those providing terminal vocational education, then these may become similar to polytechnics and other non-university technical institutes that already exist in the country.
  • A major problem faced by the poor and the marginalized groups in India is the non-completion of schooling, in which case, community colleges would not be of use to them.
  • The percentage of students who complete higher-secondary school education and cannot get admission in a regular college (if they want) is not very high in the country. This may be due to the existence of a large number of colleges (affiliated to universities), and the reservation of seats for the underprivileged groups. There are also a large number of privately-managed professional colleges. (In fact, some of these colleges have been forced to close down because they do not have enough students). All these colleges teach almost the same subjects and syllabus — probably in a less rigorous manner — as a unitary or stand-alone university in India.
  • Among those who pass out of higher secondary schools, there is a marked tendency to get into a degree college rather than a technical institute which awards a diploma or certificate. The nature of India’s economic development which depends on the growth in the service sector, and is characterized by the stagnation of manufacturing, could be one reason for this high demand for conventional colleges.13
  • Though it cannot be substantiated with data, the persistence of Brahmanism may also encourage even the so-called lower castes to withdraw from jobs that require hands-on, manual skills and to prefer white-collar jobs. As noted by a colleague14, Brahmanism is an attitude which we see across the whole pantheon of castes’!

Inter-cultural Universities

This is a relatively new model that has emerged in the 21st century to address the limitations of conventional universities15. It was started in the Latin-American countries, primarily, to include the indigenous people in the ambit of higher education. There are many challenges in facilitating the higher education of this group. First is their historical under-achievement’ based on the standards of formal/​modern school education. There is also their demand for an education which is socially and contextually relevant, and which does not compel them to reflect poorly on their own cultural traits and indigenous knowledge. The conventional universities have tried to assimilate these groups into the mainstream industrialized society without much recognition of their specific features and challenges. The need is to visualize an equitable and sustainable development’ of these people considering their intrinsic features and the imperatives of the human society, as a whole, and to design a higher education that is in tune with this vision.

Inter-cultural universities are expected to provide culturally-relevant education not only for the professional development of people from indigenous or marginalized groups but also for the development of their areas/​regions. The basic features of an inter-cultural university are: a) it has as its main objective the training of professionals and intellectuals committed to their regions, b) it establishes research as central axis, c) its educational offer is developed based on the needs and potentialities of the region, promoting a flexible curriculum, d) the students are not selected by academic criteria, and e) it establishes a close outreach relation with communities and/​or regions’16. One of the degree programs offered in such universities is the BA in Inter-cultural Management for Development’.

It is not easy for inter-cultural universities to realize their goals. These universities are expected to have a research agenda that should be inductively developed by students and teachers starting from local and regional problems’, and, which are relevant to the regions and closely linked to the local actors’17. There are problems in integrating this research with the teaching in universities. Moreover, there is a gap between the teachers in the university who are immersed completely in classroom teaching and the external community expert’ who is frequently reduced to an out-of-class information source’ for students18. The teachers of the university conduct community-related research by selecting themes based on past disciplinary training (anthropology, agronomy, and so on) rather than from the collective or societal needs. The teaching of methods and skills required for the inter-cultural professional’ are taught by teachers who may not have the actual experience of using such methods/​skills.

Inter-cultural universities provide important lessons to a country like India which has nearly 10% of its population as the so-called, STs, that is similar to the indigenous groups in Latin America and elsewhere. These communities face the twin challenges of not doing well on the yardsticks of formal education, and such education not enabling them to reflect on and be rooted in their social and cultural context. Hence, their integration into mainstream society makes them marginal and vulnerable. The lessons from inter-cultural universities provide useful insights into the planning of an appropriate education for this group.

However, the concept of inter-cultural universities may not be suitable for India which faces challenges in providing appropriate education to several different social groups. There are groups, such as the SCs, whose main challenge is not the socio-cultural distance from the mainstream society but the persistence of vulnerabilities due to the historical oppression by the social elites. A majority of them continue to be poor in economic terms too. Sections of the so-called, backward castes’ too encounter a similar situation. There are other groups including certain religious minorities, people living in remote parts, and so on.

There are girls in India belonging to various caste groups who have been subjected to severe discrimination in education. There are also social norms that dissuade women from taking up paid employment and thereby, increase their vulnerability. Hence, there is a need to address the challenges encountered by a number of different marginalized groups in a university in India if it is to address the issues of underdevelopment and inequality. Moreover, all students in the university (apart from those from underprivileged groups) have to be oriented to the need, and capacitated with appropriate skills, to address these social challenges. The research and the generation of knowledge in the university also need to be oriented to meet the same social purpose.

Colleges producing social workers and rural managers

There are colleges and institutes in India that produce professionals who work towards social development. Institutes like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) educate students to be social workers; some others, like the Institute of Rural Management and Anand (IRMA), train rural managers to take up positions mainly in cooperative enterprises19. These institutes have acquired a good reputation over time, stepping up the competition for admission and thereby, making one or the other kind of screening necessary. Since screening measures are inevitably based on educational achievements or on the ability to crack entrance examinations, they lead to a situation where most of those who get admission come from the relatively affluent sections. These also include students of the so-called underprivileged social groups who have availed the benefit of the affirmative action. The aspirations of this class of students, in general, is to get a well-paying job in the modern economy (possibly in urban areas) when they pass out of these reputed’ institutes. This has led to a situation where most (and the brightest’) of these students take up jobs in corporate organizations as managers of people or of distribution in rural areas. Most of them may not take up jobs that directly address the challenges encountered by the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

Challenges a university interested in social change may face

By considering the experience of various universities and institutes of higher education which are aimed at inclusive and sustainable development, one can identify a set of challenges that a university attempting this will need to address for it to realize its vision.

  • Selecting suitable students: It is difficult to assess beforehand whether a student will become an agent’ of social change or not. It is also not certain whether students will become such agents through an education program. There can be limitations to the indoctrination if this is attempted through education. There can be a section of students among the affluent, who may be interested in improving the living conditions of the poor and the marginalized while many among the latter (admitted through affirmative action) may only be interested in getting well-paying jobs, and not necessarily in addressing the development challenges of their own social groups. As noted earlier, the reputation of the university and the consequent competition among students to get admission may not facilitate the creation of agents of social change. What are the strategies to be adopted to ensure that admission is given to potential social-change agents? How to target or identify suitable candidates?
  • Admission of students from poor and marginalized social groups: There would be a percentage of students from the poor and other underprivileged groups who seek and, with favourable treatment, get admission in universities. They may pursue mainstream education (probably with some difficulty) and may benefit from educated employment in the modern economy. They may not have (and it is wrong to assume that they should) any additional concern to address the challenges faced by other people belonging to their communities. Hence, a strategy of admitting students from the underprivileged groups may not serve the objective of a university that aims at addressing the issues of underdevelopment and inequality.
  • Suitable curriculum and pedagogy: There is also the question of curriculum, pedagogy and learning experiences necessary for students to acquire appropriate knowledge, skills and attitude so that they contribute to social change. There is not enough clarity or consensus on this. The combination of disciplinary knowledge, practical skills and efforts to modify the personal orientation of students, has to be established. However, it is clear that the teaching and training would need to incorporate a reflective understanding of the reasons for the persistence of underdevelopment, and practical knowledge for making a desirable change. This would require context-specific and practice-oriented learning materials developed to align with the stated purpose. (The academics in conventional universities rarely develop or use such materials.)The manner in which universities have evolved historically has created a situation where social change or addressing the issues of marginalized sections of society need not be the goals of a university. To some extent, this is reflected in research too. Research in a conventional university need not have an explicit social objective. It is this culture that is internalized by most academics since they too have received education from conventional universities. It would be difficult for them to reorient themselves even if they become part of a university that has a direct social purpose.
  • The need to go beyond the critique of modern economy: Academia has generated substantial literature critiquing the negative impacts of economic growth and modernization, in general. The power structures of (and ideas and knowledge generated in) higher education have also been examined critically. The formation of inter-cultural universities or community colleges is part of this articulated understanding of the elitist nature and other limitations of conventional universities. However, there is a need to go beyond this critical reflection and develop literature on alternative knowledge that would enable improvement in the life of underprivileged groups. The glorification of the indigenous knowledge of suppressed or marginalized groups, and a desire to avoid the imposition of the knowledge of the oppressor’ will not be adequate for this purpose. There is a need to co-create new knowledge that, in effect, empowers the underprivileged.

It is in this context that we analyse the practices of and challenges faced by the Azim Premji University in the following part of this essay.

Azim Premji University

The parent organization of the university, the Azim Premji Foundation has been in existence and has worked towards improving school education in several Indian states since 2000, in cognizance of the fact that under-achievement in the schooling of the majority is a severe constraint in the betterment of their life situations. According to the Foundation, a desirable social change in the country requires quality schooling for all’.

The Foundation started deliberations on starting a university in 200420. The proposal came primarily from S C Behar, a member of the governing board of the Foundation. The initial idea was to have a model educational institute (school to university) to demonstrate good quality education to the country. The concept note for the university that he prepared in 2004, consisted of the idea of a special university that is practice-oriented and has a direct social purpose, along with a conventional university of high quality. There were certain ambiguities in combining these two ideas. However, on deliberations, the trustees of the Foundation decided not to go ahead with that plan, since the Foundation had only just begun to intervene in the domain of school education in the country.

However, after working in the area of school education for a few more years, the leaders of the Foundation became increasingly concerned about the lack of quality teachers in India. The quality of teacher education in the country was dismal and a majority of the teacher-training colleges lacked well-trained educators. There were not enough trained persons in the District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs), which design and implement the in-service training of school teachers. The field institutes of the Foundation also faced a severe shortage of talent. Hence, the need for creating a large pool of well-trained people who could contribute to different aspects of school education was felt. Consequently, the Foundation’s governing board accepted the idea of a talent training/​creation institute in the domain of education in 200721. The need to award diplomas or degrees to the trainees led to the conception of a university. An Act passed by the legislature of the Karnataka state led to the formal genesis of the Azim Premji University in 2011. The most important strength of the university is the financial resources available to it through the substantial endowment of the Azim Premji Foundation. Hence, it does not have to pursue an agenda which is different from its original goal in order to generate money from other sources (including the students).

The plan envisioned a seamless relationship between the university and the Foundation’s field institutes22 and for this to reflect in the design and delivery of programs and courses. The other objective was the creation of education activists, analysts and policy-makers; and to train field workers, volunteers, and government servants. The goal was to attract students from underprivileged backgrounds and motivated students from the middle-class and affluent sections.

However, there were a number of challenges, especially in the beginning, and these are not dissimilar to those encountered by the alternative models of universities mentioned earlier. One of the challenges was the expectations created by the name university’ though its original purpose was to create (or train) reflective practitioners in the domain of education and development. The broadening of the mandate (unintentionally) may sometimes encourage organisations to focus less on its immediate social purpose, and such cases are not unusual in India23. Despite these, the university could put in place certain practices that are in tune with its goal and vision. Some of which are highlighted here.

Achievements and Practices

  • The majority of students who pass out of the university take up jobs in non-governmental, governmental organizations or the corporate social responsibility arm of private companies, which attempt to address the social challenges in the country.
  • Field practice has become an integral part of the training imparted at the university. Post-graduate students spend nearly four months with organizations working in the domains of development and education.
  • The field institutes of the Foundation which work towards quality schooling for all’ and the university which develops talent for this purpose, collaborate in a number of ways. Field institutes serve as the training ground for students, and academics from the university contribute to the programs designed and implemented in the field institutes. The School of Continuing Education and the Resource Centre carry out a number of programs to support the mandate of the field institutes, also in states where the Foundation does not function.
  • The students of education need the support of a number of schools to facilitate their teaching practice. For this purpose, the university works with a set of schools in and around Bangalore. Though this is a common practice in all colleges of education, it is usually a one-way with the colleges of education using the schools for the practice teaching. However, the Azim Premji University contributes to the academic excellence of the schools it works with by conducting in-service training programs for their teachers.
  • There are a set of faculty members in the university who combine academic research and teaching to contribute to social action in the domain of their research. For example, those working in the Centre for Urban Sustainability.
  • A few non-governmental organizations use the university resources for enhancing the capacity of their employees. The university is open to such collaborations.
  • There are some courses in which the students interact with field practitioners and design intervention programs.
  • The University Practice Connect initiative establishes a connect between the university academics and field organizations to develop reflective documentation on practice. These documents not only contribute to the knowledge-sharing among organizations but also serve as learning materials for the students of the university. As part of this initiative, the faculty of the School of Education develops narratives on the practices of exceptional school teachers who are attempting to make schooling more inclusive and these narratives can be used as materials for the training of teachers and other professionals in education.
  • A few academics are involved in a process of research that can provide practical insights on how to address different challenges in the domains of education and development in India. They collaborate with the Foundation’s field institutes and other field-level organizations for this purpose. Various publications brought out by the university are also useful for practitioners.
  • The university provides a platform to bring together not only academics, but also practitioners in governmental and non-governmental organizations, and community representatives to address specific social issues. For example, such a platform was created to address the challenges in the education of Adivasi (indigenous) children.

Persisting challenges

Though there are specific practices which are in tune with the vision and the goal of the Azim Premji University, there are difficulties in enhancing its potential as a university with a direct social purpose. Some of these are:

  • The normatively desirable form of a university, currently, is one of the research universities, like the Ivy League universities in the United States. Almost all universities want to be like one of these, though there could be a significant gap between reality and the ideal. However, this normative ideal creates different kinds of hurdles for a higher education institute like the Azim Premji University which focusses on social issues that are here and now’. First, most of the academics are generated from conventional universities. Their expectations and culture are also shaped by these. The societal expectations from a university are also based on that of typical research-based universities. Recently, there was an effort in India to grant greater autonomy to promising’ universities. However, the expectation is that these universities would demonstrate higher levels of achievements in terms of global institutional rankings (which again is driven by the expectations that are from a research university). There is not enough clarity among higher education circles on what could be the indicators of best performance’ for a university which attempts to address social issues directly. The understanding of the kind of institutional structures and autonomy that are required for such a university is also inadequate. Though the financial endowment available to the Azim Premji Foundation enables it to pursue its goals autonomously, to a great extent, it can be constrained by a regulatory environment which is shaped by the expectations from a conventional, research-based university.
  • Though most students who pass out of the university take up jobs with field-levels organizations that work in the domains of education and development, a majority of them move out within a couple of years, looking for jobs in urban and other privileged settings (possibly in the social sector). Any university which attracts more applications than the available number of seats has to screen candidates on the basis of certain transparent, objective and fair criteria. This may lead to the use of competitive examinations and/​or the ability to articulate in English (in India). However, it is very likely that those who can excel in these exams come from relatively privileged sections of society. Even if a section of students from underprivileged backgrounds is admitted through affirmative action, they may also aspire for jobs that do not meet the social purpose of the university.
  • The medium of instruction in higher education in India is English, which has been adopted for historical reasons, and also due to the fact that there is no other common language that is spoken by a majority in the country. However, only a very small section of students acquire proficiency in English through school education. Hence, if this language is adopted as the medium of instruction in the university, it may work against the admission and learning of students from underprivileged backgrounds. On the other hand, there are several hurdles in using other languages in higher education since all members of the faculty are trained in English, and the learning materials used in higher education are not available in other languages. Though the Azim Premji University has started an initiative to translate learning materials in Indian languages, it is yet to reach a stage where these can be used as the medium of instruction in higher education.
  • There are academics in the university who are willing to go beyond their conventional roles and contribute towards research and practice that are aimed at social change, but the need for such a shift is yet to be internalized by the majority of the faculty. This may be partly due to their lack of exposure and partly due to a reluctance to see the opportunities in this regard. There may not be an openness to learn and acquire proficiency in those aspects that are not part of conventional academic work. There could be certain fundamental problems in the training of social scientists that may make them indifferent to a practice. The lack of orientation to such a practice does not mean that they perform well in terms of conventional academic research. For certain structural reasons (we discuss some of these in the following section), the majority of academics may not perform well in terms of the quantity or quality of research in many universities in India and other developing countries. Hence, a possible (not-so-desirable) equilibrium of a university which intends to have a social orientation could be one of not enough research’ and not enough orientation to social purpose’.
  • Though the university has appointed a set of practitioners as faculty members, this attempt has not helped the development of an organic connection between theory and practice. This could be partly due to the limitations of the academics. However, practitioners too, have limitations, such as having strong ideological preferences that may not be informed by the empirical reality and there can be difficulties in changing these preferences. There could be an implicit hierarchy between theory and practice (especially due to the caste system in India) and this may encourage not only academics to neglect practice, but also practitioners to be theoreticians’ without an adequate understanding of the evolving knowledge-base in academic literature. Like the limited openness to learn on the part of academics, there is a similar problem with the practitioners too.
  • The problems discussed above are aggravated by the kind of disciplines, such as school education’ and human development’, that the Azim Premji University needs to focus on, given its social purpose25. If we consider subjects like medicine and engineering (or management) a close connection between theory and practice are expected. In these professional programs, like medicine or engineering, the practitioners have higher power’ financially and socially and also a higher role in the way their discipline evolves. In the case of medicine, a good professor, in most cases, could be a good practitioner (surgeon or physician). Managers in corporate organisations have greater economic power than professors in management schools. However, this is not the situation in school education’ or development’. The main practitioners of school education – the teachers are socially and financially far less powerful than the professors in teacher-education institutes or universities. Though the latter, who may constitute philosophers, sociologists and psychologists, are less likely to have a grip over the profession/​practice of teaching school children, they may determine what is to be taught to school teachers. Moreover, school teachers have almost no role in policy-making on education which is dominated by government officials, economists and educationists, whereas, the medical doctors and engineers are likely to have a greater role in the policy-making in their respective domains. Most of the development practitioners – like the members of non-government organisations or the implementers in government departments – are also like school teachers with fewer powers than development researchers and academics. The ultimate effect of this disparity in the domains of education and development is that higher education can be driven by the perceptions of academics who may not have an exposure to the practical reality, and those who practice school education’ and development’ have no role in deciding the nature of education for such practitioners.
  • As a result of these reasons mentioned above, there are not enough efforts towards developing appropriate learning materials for the education of reflective practitioners in the domains of education and development. Though there are a number of courses offered to students (and there is no scarcity of such courses since each faculty member has an interest in offering more courses), most of these are based on theory or cases from elsewhere and not on the basis of context-specific, practice-oriented learning materials. It is also difficult to monitor teaching to see whether teachers use such learning materials. Moreover, many academics are not very willing to generate learning materials on their own, which limits the practical relevance of their teaching.

The Way forward

There is a clear need to use higher education to address the issues of poverty, inequality, discrimination and unsustainability. However, as noted in this article, there are historical, institutional and structural constraints which work against reorienting universities towards a social purpose. What are the desirable ways to overcome these constraints?

There is a need to create public discourse on the need for and the role of universities, such as the Azim Premji University. This is necessary to create awareness among policy-makers in higher education about the need to think of different performance indicators and regulatory instruments which are suitable for such universities. This debate is also important for academics to perceive these universities as part of a much-needed global effort to use higher education to address crucial social issues in a direct manner.

There is an equally important need to encourage academics in the university to work towards the realisation of its goals and vision. Normally, the pressure to change an institution comes from three sources. It can come from external users. There are such pressures on universities in India too. There is a demand for admissions on the part of those who may not be able to compete with others (for genuine reasons). There is also a demand for the distribution’ of teaching and other positions within universities. Governments put pressure by limiting the allocation of financial resources. The ideological preferences of the ruling party also creep into the choices made by universities. However, we have not seen such an external pressure changing the nature of a university to make it capable of addressing the social issues mentioned earlier.

The second source of pressure is through the hierarchy of the organization or through the use of extrinsic incentives (rewards and punishments). Conventional universities use such hierarchical pressure to see that academics perform in various ways (like the publication of articles in peer-reviewed journals), and these may encourage them to follow these imposed’ norms. Those who cannot meet the requirements are pushed out. However, these are not successful in all cases26. Hence, one can see a number of conventional universities in India that are not performing well even according to their own stated purpose or standards.

One reason for the limited impact of the hierarchical pressure is the autonomy’ enjoyed by academics. Even if the authorities attempt mechanistic ways to limit the autonomy (like the marking of attendance of faculty in the university), it is difficult to monitor and control the core activity of academics – that is, teaching. The evaluation of students may not be effective in this regard since they may not know the knowledge/​skills required in their future work. It is important to consult employers in this regard, but incorporating their feedback into the curriculum and pedagogy could be a tedious task without the cooperation of the majority of teachers. It is also difficult for non-academics to monitor and regulate research outputs.

That takes us to the third source of pressure, and that is self-motivation. It has to play an important role in academic work. This is one reason why we see conventional universities moving towards different equilibrium points. There could be a few highly-rated universities where the majority of the academics is highly motivated and this may lead to the production of impactful’ research. There are others in which there may not be much emphasis on research. Moreover, the presence of a number of highly-ranked conventional universities (in terms of research) may require an enabling economic and social environment, and it may not be very easy to recreate such an environment in every locality. Hence, the real challenge is to develop a culture in the university whereby the majority of the academics internalize and work towards the intended social purpose.


1. Poverty among the STs was about 47% and the SCs, 37%, whereas that among the upper castes was only 16% based on an estimate made in 2010. See, Thorat, A. 2010. Ethnicity, Caste and Religion: Implications for Poverty Outcomes, Economic and Political Weekly, December, 18, 47 – 53.

3. The Survey on Higher Education carried out by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), the Government of India in 2015 – 16, points to a Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education of the population, as a whole, at 24.5%, that of SC 19.9%, and of ST at 14.2%.

4. The efforts to generate knowledge for the sake of knowledge could be valuable and may yield some unexpected benefits to society. However, the Azim Premji University does not want to focus on this as a matter of prioritization and also due to the fact that there are many other universities in pursuit of this purpose.

5. For a short history of universities, see Perkin H. (2007) History of Universities. In: Forest J.J.F., Altbach P.G. (eds) International Handbook of Higher Education. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 18. Springer, Dordrecht.

6. This was part of the tradition brought by Humboldt in Germany, and a model accepted later in the USA.

7. This is formally stated as part of Robbin’s report in the UK. See, http://​www​.lse​.ac​.uk/​e​c​o​n​o​m​i​c​s​/​A​s​s​e​t​s​/​D​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​50​Y​e​a​r​s​A​f​t​e​r​R​o​b​b​i​n​s.pdf

8. In 1973, the Office of Civil rights of the Department of Housing, Education and Welfare, USA, amended its regulations to authorize affirmative action’ to overcome the effects of conditions’ which resulted in limited participation by members of particular racial or ethnic groups. This has encouraged the colleges and universities to increase the low numbers of students of color enrolled’. See West, M. S. (1998) The Historical Roots of Affirmative Action, Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, 10, 2, 607 – 630.

9. For a review of studies mainly from the US context Holzer, Harry J. and Neumark, David. Assessing Affirmative Action. Journal of Economic Literature. September 2000, 38 (3), pp.483 – 568.; Some systematic evidence from India is available in Bertrand, Marianne; Hanna, Rema and Sendhil Mullainathan. Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence From Engineering College Admissions in India. NBER Working Paper 13926. April 2008.

10. For a description of the schooling status, see Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. 2016. Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press.

11. For a review of the status and prospects of community colleges in the USA, see https://​www​.ets​.org/​M​e​d​i​a​/​R​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​/​p​d​f​/​P​I​C​C​C.pdf

12. There are not may write-ups in English on this experiment. However, it is touched upon in Princeswal M., Butler U.M. (2014) Brazil’s Landless Movement and Children and Young People’s Participation. In: Tisdall E.K.M., Gadda A.M., Butler U.M. (eds) Children and Young People’s Participation and Its Transformative Potential. Studies in Childhood and Youth. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

13. There are a set of institutes which are designated as community colleges, mainly run by the Church in different states of south India.

14. Eichengreen and Gupta (2011) note that employment elasticities are highest in Group II and Group III services and that they are higher for high-skilled than low-skilled workers. Of course, there is a convergence in terms of the skill content of labour, in both, services and manufacturing. This could be due to the fact that the sub-sectors of manufacturing which do well in India are relatively higher-end than the so-called lower-end manufacturing which is relatively stagnant.

15. John Kurien, Visiting Professor, Azim Premji University.

16. For a detailed description of such universities, see Laura Selene Mateos Cortés & Gunther Dietz. How Intercultural is an Intercultural University’? Some lessons from Veracruz, Mexico, Revista Lusófona de Educação, 31, 125 – 143.

17. Quoted from (p.128) the reference cited in footnote no.10

18. P.132, ibid

19. P.133, ibid

20. One can say that medical colleges which create doctors contribute to social development but most medical colleges may not differentiate between the needs of the poor and vulnerable, and that of the mainstream society in their education process.

21. This part is based on a discussion with Dileep Ranjekar, founder CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation.

22. Degrees can only be conferred by a university or institutes affiliated to universities. Hence, the Azim Premji University (APU) was established as a private university.

23. This part is based on a discussion with S C Behar.

24. A colleague, Rajaram, notes such a situation in the case of training schools created under the Department of Atomic Energy in India.

25. This was observed by Anurag Behar and his observation is informed by the Foundation’s extensive field-work, involvement in policy-making, and also his own involvement in the university system.

26. The difficulty in using such incentives to discipline academic labour is discussed in The Need to Strengthen Government Schools in India — Azim Premji University.


This document has been prepared by V Santhakumar in consultation with a number of people, including Anurag Behar, Vice Chancellor, Azim Premji University. There was an attempt to write about the early experience of the Azim Premji Foundation based on interviews with Dileep Ranjekar, S. Giridhar, Indu Prasad, S C Behar, Anant Gangola and Umashankar Periodi, which is in draft form and informs this essay. Gunther Dietz, and Manuela Guilherme enhanced our knowledge of inter-cultural universities. The paper also benefitted from different experiments in Brazil, and a number of people including Izabel Zaneti, Monical Nogueira, Ana Tereza, Cimone Rozendo and others have helped to gather information in this regard. Santhakumar acknowledges with thanks the comments received from Manoj P, Registrar, Azim Premji University. John Kurien, Suraj Jacob, Rajaram Nityananda and Nimrat Kaur have given extensive comments on the draft of this article when it was circulated among the faculty. Ashok Sircar also shared his views. Anna Vignoles and Howard Gardner who read the draft, have also made a few observations. However, Santhakumar alone is responsible for this version and errors, if any.