Azim Premji Foundation (APF) is a major NGO in India that began its operations in the early 2000s in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It was started and funded by the IT giant Mr. Azim Premji who decided it was best to invest in the school education of India if he were to give away his huge wealth for the purpose of charity. APF was registered as a Private Limited company in 2000, and later in 2001 it was registered under the Section 25 of the Indian Companies Act of 1956. The Companies Act, 1956 was amended in 2000 so that trusts which get tax exemption and those which hold shares in a company can now get voting rights instead of the earlier provision where the voting rights of such trusts were stripped off and voting was entrusted with a public trustee appointed by Government of India. While the new provision in The Companies Act, 2013 too does not strip the trust of voting rights, in 2019 the Azim Premji Trust is reported to have not received voting rights following the transfer of Mr. Premji’s share to the corpus of the Trust. Instead the voting rights in Wipro remain with the Premji family, which will ensure that the family will have final say with respect to both Wipro and APF. APF also started Azim Premji University (APU) following the BJP government in Karnataka’s decision to encourage private enterprises to set up universities. In the next half-a-decade the Karnataka government passed 13 private university bills, including that of APU, and none of these bills faced any debates in the legislature, nor were any opposition members present during the passage.
The Foundation has been undertaking commendable work in the school education of many state in India and have played a supporting role in the drafting of the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, which was made following the controversial NCF 2000 of the NDA-I. The NCF 2005 has been regarded as a significant achievement in terms of emphasis on child friendly learning methods and attention paid to the locale of the child and the school. It also emphasized a more liberal view of Indian history and made textbooks that valued the development of a civic citizenry in India. The likes of the late Prof. Yash Pal and Prof Krishna Kumar led the NCF 2005, and APF’s contribution is mentioned in the Acknowledgements section of NCF 2005 and this is in light of its contribution in organising seminars in collaboration with various state governments (p. v of NCF 2005). APF is acknowledged before any other organisation and this rank in the order of formal acknowledgement places it among the most important ‘consultant’ outside of the drafting committee.
The school education field of India witnessed significant changes in the second half of the 2000s and a large number of NGOs with the support of big business and banks began to enter the public school system of India. These corporate NGOs began to change the urban education landscape of India by bringing in principles of New Public Management within the governance of public schools in urban centers like Mumbai, Delhi etc. and began to re-organise policy making in line with corporate thinking. At the same time they changed the perception of ‘social-work’ from a traditional charity work undertaken by committed individuals or groups to that of a professional activity undertaken in strict managerial post-Taylorist framework of the late-capitalist production process. Young graduates compete with each other to secure a position as an overworked and underpaid temporary worker in remote parts of the country or in the slums of the city. The brand value of the corporates backing the NGOs make it possible for the better off among these youth to sell their experience of hardship for a university seat in prestigious universities or a well-paid position in a corporate company. The NGOs in turn sell the quality and social background of these youth to their funders to secure further funding and lobby for coveted positions in government planning.
While APF was a brand apart from these other NGOs – in the sense that it was one among the few which did not require to seek funding every financial year – it was deeply embedded in the working of these NGOs through its university – APU – that it began in 2011. The students of APU get internship in these NGOs and they get placed to these NGOs after their course. The alumni of the university of APF holds important positions – both in the administration and in the field level – in these NGOs, and the university in turn sells its brand through the labor of its students and alumni to the government and public. The faculty members of the University form the new fluid post-modern subject who navigate different workplaces – stretching from universities to NGOs to think tanks to co-operatives to government bodies – across space and time and play important role in the overall new educational field of India.
The case of the new NEP 2020 and APF
The first committee to make a new NEP was formed under the former Cabinet Secretary T S R Subramanian and the process began in 2015. The recommendations of this committee was made available for feedback, but due to differences within stakeholders and changes in the leadership of MHRD, the government formulated a new Committee under K Kasturirangan to create the new NEP for India. The 2017 circular of MHRD mentions the members of this committee and an addendum which is now (31st July, 2020) missing from the MHRD website apparently talks about the ‘coopted’ members of the Committee for the draft NEP. When the Draft NEP 2019 was released, the name of Anurag Behar, the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and VC of its University, finds mentioning. In 2019, interestingly Mr Azim Premji had visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur to pay tribute to late Golwakar, one of the prominent early chiefs of the organisation. The CEO of Mr. Premji’s Foundation finds mentioning as a Member of the Drafting Committee of the Draft NEP along with Leena Wadia of the Observer Research Foundation, a major NGO think tank that brings together big business, academia and governments across the globe in one platform.
The formal membership in the Drafting Committee of MHRD is a significant upward mobility for APF which was playing a mere consultant role during 2005, when public universities and academicians who were directly engaged in education played a major role in drafting the NCF 2005. APF has now been literally found to be writing the educational policy of the country that will decide the future course of action of education affecting more than a billion people. And interestingly enough the VC of APU does not have a doctorate degree – a norm that is followed in almost all Universities in the world – and have degrees in engineering and business. While degrees might not reflect the talent or interest of an individual, considering the condition of higher education in India, this becomes important as the VC is one among the four members of the Drafting Committee entrusted to write the new education policy for a billion-plus people. The official summary of Draft NEP introduces APF CEO as a ‘Professor’ (p.37) and asks the billion people to believe in this title when he hasn’t really taught in any college or hasn’t ever engaged directly in any pedagogical activity. His qualification is that he manages the wealth of an IT giant for certain philanthropy. And is the boss of a thousand plus workers who actually labor in real situations in various parts of India. While the Indian Government has the authority to appoint suitable individuals as they deem fit for the purpose of the new NEP, and it is not the aim of this piece to point fingers at an individual, these background checks of the process along with the fact that big business is now really investing in the education field across the world raises some important concerns.
And nowhere else can one find the manifestation of the inclusion of Big Business and the shifting discourses in higher education than the new NEP 2020 approved by the GoI. What role does big business play in the policy landscape of India is best reflected in how the principles of corporate management and post-Fordist dispersal characteristic of production process in late-capitalism runs throughout the course of the document. While the document as such has steered clear of RSS agenda of saffronising, or the more controversial Hindi imposition, it did pay some respect to certain RSS positions, albeit more as lip service. This lip service is more along the line of culture and fundamental duties while serious swadeshi and anti-privatisation emphasis of organisations like Swadeshi Jagran Manch have been sidelined. This ensures that the policies does not affect big business or privatization and satisfies the Hindutva elements in the party.
The starting emphasis of NEP 2020 is its categorical emphasis on support systems that facilitate learning. Thus learning outcome becomes the central organising principle of the document and this might be informed from the experience of APF that works in some of the most backward locations in India. Most students cannot read basic texts, and in such a situation what is the point of building institutions that assume that the students have basic foundational literacy and arithmetic skills? That is a logical point. But the emphasis on learning outcome – in terms of measurable accepted skills, where measurement might not imply the traditional standardized form or evaluation for the sake of evaluation – pushes the other questions to secondary level; mainly how will this learning be organised. The clever organisation of NEP 2020 is such that if one agrees with the basic principle – namely that learning is the aim of education – of NEP, one would logically follow that the existing system is in efficient or incapable of delivering this basic principle.
The realization that automation is pushing people across the world towards unemployment and heightened uncertainty, and the corollary position that education should equip the students to deal with this exemption from production process is in fact the only logical position any document can propose during post-Fordism. The new workforce will be competing with the rising power of the machines, and to effectively do that, all of the human capabilities compartmentalized during the era of industrial production under the Planner state model has to be brought together. Labor has become truly functionally simplified and any skill that the worker possess can easily be taken over by the machines. There is no need of specialization as specialized work can be done by a machine. What is needed is a workforce which is obedient to the command of neo-liberal capital and in whose disposal all the sensuous and creative capacity of the human kind is provided with as a capsule in the form of multi-discplinary education. Thus more than learning itself – learning to become citizens or learning to become skilled workers or learning to resist etc. – the idea that learning to learn become central. Because the students cannot stay alive in post-Fordism with mere information, because information has become democratic and are deposited in the virtual world, an education policy in 2020 can only do what is obvious; pretending to help the students through the apparent destruction of old forms of institutions and creation of new forms.
But this destruction of the institutions of the Planner state model has already happened. The policy is just catching up. In fact the tragedy is that while post-Fordist dispersal has truly freed workers from specialsations, the old forms of organisation of production persists. Thus while it makes no sense to have specialized centers like IITs or JNUs because the necessary labor that humans contribute in modern production has been displaced, they are remodeled so that they exist, along with new private and philanthropic institutions, to continuously provide the socio-technical division of labor through which the state itself recomposes itself. Thus the new institutions that the NEP propose – new in terms of completely new or modified old institutions – are all aimed at cross-disciplinarily. Precisely because the post-modern subject of late capitalism – like the employees of APF and APU – are expected to perform a range of new tasks. The teachers of APU for example should teach, should publish, should do field work, should conduct advertisement campaigns, should act as personal mentors to young people and should find happiness in what they do; all while following a non-disclosure of salary statement. They will be evaluated by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market personified in the form of APF and the managers. Thus while they are competing against their colleagues so that they will not be fired during the next appraisal, they should also be multi-disciplinary so that when the company fires them they are equipped to find a new job not yet taken over by machines. This principle of APF and APU and all the corporate run institutions and companies is reflected from page one to the last page of NEP 2020.
Only this flexibility – and nothing else – matters for Big Business and the new NEP 2020. All that appears in other forms of Sanskrit imposition or making India a global power or liberal choice option for students or emphasis on early literacy or push towards universal enrollment or 50% enrollment in higher education is just farce. One can leave after first, second, third or fourth year of college and in the production of contemporary it is indeed the case. Qualifications does not say anything anymore because it doesn’t matter in the corporate workplace of Wipro if an engineer is good in mathematics. What matters is if the worker – designated with a name ‘engineer’, that needs to qualified with so many other variables like class, caste, gender and other social hierarchies – can communicate with other worker so that the machine runs uninterrupted. If the student leaves in year one or two or three or four doesn’t matter. Because the skill of the worker that he is supposed to have learned from higher education is displaced anyway. Higher education has long been devoid of content. Not just higher education, but the general life itself has been devoid of content following the dispersal of the factory into society. And companies are benefitting from this. The billionaires of the world has been seeing their wealth multiply manifold. Big businessmen are now pre-occupied with charity and helping the poor. Why is it so? Because everyday life – mere existence – has become the site of direct accumulation. Even in our free time we work for Facebook or Google or Amazon. The biologisation of human body has made it a further rich ground of accumulation in the form of big pharma and big-tech companies. The pension funds and salaries and welfare funds lubricates the shares of big banks and corporations.
For modern production in its current variant the only thing that matters is that we merely live. And all other forms of its benevolence or democratic spirit has been gone. It is gone precisely because it is no longer needed for capitalist accumulation. The NEP 2020 made sure that it talks about the well wishes of the ‘true philanthropic private’ entities and how it is important to include them in the educational field of India.
Just imagine the case in which the ‘democracy’ is in. A billionaire starts a trust in which he has complete control. He then enters the policy domain as a supporter. Then he appoints his secretary who is not technically qualified by the norms of the same educational system to write the policy of a nation consisting of more than a billion people where he makes the state write that activities like his should be encouraged. While this piece only talks about one big corporation, it is implied that corporations have truly integrated themselves with governments now whose role is merely to govern – without asking questions and forever thankful of the benevolence of billionaires.
The last point was made not to push public universities to be the drafters of the NEP or that government now should be made answerable to questions. Rather it is precisely to say that we are in a condition of existence where we are seeing governments and big business as one. We can no longer separate our boss and our minister. They are becoming quite literally ONE.
The only option is to choose between continuing this treatment meted out to us as those who do not matter qualitatively but only matter quantitatively in terms of how much profit our living can give the billionaires against our death, or to take matters into our hands and destroy the representative mechanism which sell us in the façade of representing us. This destruction cannot be imagined in terms of entrusting ourselves in new managers of the state or companies; rather it should be imagined as something that we do in our own terms, in terms of the proletariat that we have not yet become. Not to capture state power or vote an apparent democratic party. Rather to see through mechanisms of representations and question oppressive regimes through which our continual exploitation is ensured by Big Business.