Preparing for a crisis and contributing to the response

Medical schools all over the world have taken on the additional burden of treating COVID-19 patients. Researchers in pharmaceutical and related sciences have contributed to the development of vaccines. But what about those which have contributed to human and social developments related to COVID-19?

Azim Premji University in Bangalore has a specific social purpose of creating reflective practitioners in the domain of education and development.

This is an integral goal of the Azim Premji Foundation, a major philanthropic organisation which runs the university and field institutes in 50 relatively less-developed districts of India in order to improve school education, as well as a philanthropic initiative to extend financial support to non-governmental organisations for the purposes of social development.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Nearly 400 postgraduates pass out of the university every year and the majority take up jobs in non-governmental, philanthropic and similar organisations which are active in the domains of education and development.

COVID-19 response

The Azim Premji Foundation has committed nearly US$135 million towards the humanitarian and health crises arising out of COVID-19. This money is used to regularly provide food to thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods or incomes as well as materials and equipment to government hospitals in under-served areas.

Azim Premji University has contributed to these efforts through the collection of data and information to analyse the extent of deprivation among different sections of vulnerable groups (such as migrant workers) so as to provide timely support to them or to bring their plight to the attention of governmental and other agencies; and has vetted funding proposals from different field organisations.

A group of university members became part of SWAN (the Stranded Workers Action Network) 2020 – ‘a group of volunteers connecting relief to workers stranded across India due to the COVID-19 lockdown while documenting their experiences’. The former students of the university played an important role in taking the foundation’s donations to those in need.

The university has also funded a set of research proposals, most of which assess the effectiveness of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by governmental and non-governmental organisations.

It has taken other academic initiatives too. Its online platform called University Practice Connect encouraged researchers and others to write and publish documents reflecting on the responses of different governments to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenges to education, especially online education which has become unavoidable during the pandemic, were assessed in another series of publications.

Academics have a role to play when it comes to critically observing the actions of the state and other powerful actors, and such critical reflection is important during the pandemic too. The faculty of Azim Premji University have written several articles in newspapers and on social media reflecting on the actions and omissions of governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To some extent, Azim Premji University is unique since it is funded fully by the Azim Premji Foundation, which works across 25 states and 450+ districts of the country with over 400 partner organisations. Some university students and faculty are integrated within the cross-functional teams of the foundation and work on the ground to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

There are more than 65,000 people who are teachers at government schools who collaborate with the field institutes or functionaries of partner organisations of the philanthropic initiative. They help to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and to provide an on-the-ground pulse of what is really happening. These ground-level assessments are carried out periodically and shared informally with governments to help inform their actions.

In sum, the activities of the foundation create the demand and space for the university’s contribution on the one hand and help to generate the required data and information on the other hand.

The university’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic shows that a university is able to contribute to social actions in emergencies if it is collaborating closely with organisations which provide financial resources and carry out actions of humanitarian assistance and with other organisations on the ground. It also demonstrates the importance of universities having social connections in the communities where they are embedded.

The need to prepare the ground

The contributions of a university during a pandemic require adequate preparedness on the part of the academics. This preparedness has multiple dimensions. Humanitarian actions require a certain speed and the information and knowledge support for such actions needs to be provided in a timely fashion. This may require certain changes to the pace at which academics normally work.

The social issues arising from a pandemic may require lenses from multiple disciplines and an interdisciplinary approach. This may require an adaptation on the part of academics who are engrossed in their disciplinary frameworks. It is difficult to collect all relevant information during such emergencies and hence conventional research methods may not be appropriate and adequate.

So research methodologies may need to be adapted too.

Universities are known for public debate and student-led actions at times when societies face threats to democracy and human rights. Public critique is an expected social response of universities. However, pandemics such as the COVID-19 one require not only criticism but also constructive action.

There should be a culture within universities that values appropriate and timely responses to pandemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of such a culture, those universities which pursue liberal or social science education may be at a loss during such crises.

On 27 January 2021 University World News, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, will be bringing together experts and practitioners from across the world from the International Association of Universities, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program in an online webinar to discuss: How can universities improve their social impact? You can register to participate here.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University, India. His blog can be found here.