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Enter, the education professionals

Higher Education, Philanthropy

Sandwiched between the tall dazzle of Wipro’s steel-and-glass offices on Sarjapur Road in Bangalore, and its chairman Azim Hasham Premji’s tucked-away-from-prying-eyes expansive private residence, stands a modest two-storeyed building. Against the backdrop of thick woods, surrounded by falling leaves, the diminutive building paints a rather dreamy picture. The style is exposed brick, tile and green-blue glass. A small sign at the gate announces the Azim Premji Foundation.

This is the operational headquarters of Azim Premji University, India’s very first education university—a grand, not-for-profit institution whose ambition is to revolutionise India’s education system. In line with Premji’s yen to create something that has a multiplier effect in the ‘real India’, the ideas being churned inside the building aim to set off an upheaval in the country’s stodgy education arena.

India has a severe dearth of education professionals. Not teachers, but professionals who can create curriculum, educate teachers, understand challenges in assessment, examinations, technology and policy. And unlike management schools, engineering and medical schools, India does not have a single university to produce education professionals. That’s where the Azim Premji University comes in.

“We understood that teachers are key transformational agents in the classroom. To scale up India’s education transformation, we needed a university to educate the teachers,” says Anurag Behar, co-CEO of the foundation.

Here is why that is critical: within the next few years, one in four of the world’s new workers is expected to be Indian. Global economists cannot stop holding forth on India’s young demographic and the dynamics of its huge labour force. That is quantitative might, alright. But what about quality?

When it gained Independence, India had about 130,000 schools. Today, the country has 1.4 million schools with 210 million students. The system employs seven million people. It is, by far, the largest education system in the world. But the colossal growth has had an unsurprising side-effect: a lot of schools, but very poor quality of learning, churning out the unemployable. Many class IV students, studies show, can neither spell nor read. No less than a tornado could shake the lacklustre field that is school education in India.

Enter India’s richest tech billionaire, Azim Premji. Who else could take on an idea that corporate strategists would discard in a nano-second as utterly, financially unviable? It’s rather ironic that India’s first education university is being set up by a Stanford University electrical engineering drop-out, often been compared to another famous Harvard non-graduate, Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

About a decade ago, even as Indians roiled on about the soaring stock market wealth of India’s tech barons, Premji brought together his trusted Wipro lieutenants to tell them: the business of business is not merely to make money. A debate raged in the team about whether wealth could set off social reform.

AHP, as his colleagues know him, was unambiguous: I would rather give to a 100 people than give to one. In his typical connecting-the-dots style, he concluded that improved education for the disadvantaged would facilitate a just, humane and equitable society. That would ultimately become the university’s stated goal. The Azim Premji University will come up on a 100-acre campus on Sarjapur Road, hold 4,500 students when complete in four years, and leave plenty of room for expansion. Two former Wipro executives, Dileep Ranjekar and Anurag Behar, are co-CEOs of the foundation that will govern the university. The first batch of 200 students will start enrolling in March this year and classes will begin in June in a make-shift campus building.

But none of this came about overnight. Nine years ago, the foundation began working with state governments, partnering NGOs and supporting projects. Its work spanned nine Indian states, 20,000 schools and touched 2.5 million children. Despite such enormity, the foundation’s work mostly stayed under the radar. “Right in the beginning, AHP was very clear that we are not in this for publicity or to take credit. Our satisfaction will come if change happens,” recalls Ranjekar, who formerly headed Wipro’s human resources.

In Karnataka, the foundation’s efforts were to bring about examination reform—moving from rote-based exams to competency testing—in a sample of 6,464 schools. In Rajasthan, its work on localising the national curriculum resulted in workbooks for 78,000 schools. In Uttarakhand, a teachers’ training programme covered 1,600 schools. By deliberately taking on large-scale projects and demonstrating that innovative solutions can be tried within the system, the foundation broke away from the NGO mould.

Several years after driving these programmes, the goals started crystallising. So, a hundred years after Jamshedji Tata set up the premier Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the university to educate the educators came about, with the Karnataka government approving its formation two years ago.

It was unusual for several reasons. Other than permission to launch the university, the foundation wanted nothing else from the government—no land, no grants, no largesse of any other kind. “Indian private capital has not gone towards such a social purpose as building an institution for decades, maybe even a hundred years,” says Behar.

When he transferred $2 billion worth of shares to fund the project, Premji reiterated, “Good education is crucial to building a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society. All our efforts, including the university we are setting up, are focused on the underprivileged and disadvantaged sections of our society.” He has not spoken on the subject since.

Today, the co-CEOs, Ranjekar and Behar, handle joint responsibility of the operations of the university. Pune-based architect Christopher Benninger is designing the campus on 100 acres of land off Sarjapur Road, less than 15 kilometres from Wipro’s headquarters. Ground breaking is four months away.

In five years, the university will have 5,000 employees, making it among the world’s largest non-profits. It will offer programmes and conduct research in education and examination reform and train professionals in the education and development sectors. It will create quality content for continuing education and distance learning.

All arrogant ideas, you would think. But not so bigheaded if you consider the university’s backer and his company’s pedigree. Many forget that Premji turned around his family’s vegetable oils business into one of the country’s top-rated technology firms.

In a few years, the university will offer a wide canvas of courses—post-graduate degrees in education management, doctoral programmes in leadership and governance, post-doctoral programmes in curriculum design, specialisations in the pedagogy of science, math, social sciences and languages, specialisations in education technology, teacher education and assessment systems. When the campus comes up, the university will annually roll out an impressive cadre of 2,000 education experts.

Parallely, the university will run a field programme spanning seven states. Students will receive hands-on training at 50 district model schools, demonstrate best practices in far-flung places such as Tonk in Rajasthan and Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, and collaborate with thousands of government-run schools across the country.

The big scale-up is already presenting some challenges. In a country with almost no bank of education experts, the university has had to take on academic practitioners, returning Indians and even foreign education experts. But the excitement is palpable at places like Columbia University in New York, where the university is scouring, when Behar and other executives talk about the “university with a social purpose that will contribute to building a new India”.

Investing in education: change and effect

To launch and run the eponymous university, the Azim Premji Foundation recently got a Rs 90-billion endowment from the reticent Premji. Premji has said little on the subject, but his strikingly-generous gift makes him the first Indian billionaire to make a large commitment to the cause of improving Indian education for the underprivileged.

But in his donation of 8.7 per cent of his equity, or 213 million Wipro shares, cynics saw a move synchronised to meet new stock market regulations that require founder-entrepreneurs to bring down their stock to sub-75 per cent levels. While the stocks are now endowed to the foundation, the voting power vests with Premji.

It is deep-rooted in the Indian culture to set aside all wealth for the next generation rather than using it for social good, says Venky Raghavendra, a former Chief Philanthropy Officer of the charity, American India Foundation, and a philanthropy space veteran of the last two decades. But that is changing and the current generation is beginning to think of a ‘now’ impact, he says.

Premji’s largesse is unrivalled, but others like Shiv Nadar of HCL and Sunil Mittal of Bharti have preceded him in the field.

By their own admission, many first-generation Indian entrepreneurs attribute their success to a solid education, says Saurav Adhikari, senior adviser, Shiv Nadar Foundation. “By investing their wealth in education, they are seizing upon its transformational power, much like the one that propelled them in their formative years,” says Adhikari.

Sunil Mittal of Bharti has built a new system of over 200 schools to provide free but superlative education to the rural poor. Mittal has said he wants to help kids break out of the ‘generational poverty cycle’.

Nadar of HCL pledged last year to give 130 million dollars to education. Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Foundation is planning a 6,000-acre university in Puri. Others like Ambani run high-end schools but nobody has attempted the mass multiplier effect that Premji is hoping for.

Until recently, the philanthropic track record of India’s billionaires has been cheerless.

Quite inexplicably, rich Indians have been liberally doling out to famous overseas universities. Ratan Tata gave away $50 million to the Harvard Business School. Anand Mahindra donated $10 million to the humanities school of the same university. Premji’s tech peers, Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani, have also made bountiful donations to American Ivy League schools.

Education as a social cause is beginning to find favour amongst India’s rich. They see education as empowering and liberating and with great emotional appeal, says Raghavendra. Now, if only India’s flourishing entrepreneurs could spin success out of their giving in the same way they do out of their businesses, the phrases real India and new India could come to mean the same thing.

Saritha Rai, Indian Express, January 9, 2011

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