Penn GSE Faculty, Fulbright Fellow Helps Transform Higher Education in India

Sharon Ravitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and a newly appointed Fulbright Scholar, is changing India’s educational systems through partnerships and research. 

Ravitch’s fellowship will enable her to spend eight weeks in India, continuing her research with Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He also serves as the chair of its Center for Public Policy and Governance and the director of the National Corporate Social Responsibility Hub

Last fall, Kumar was a visiting scholar at Penn through the Center for Advanced Study of India, which is how the two met. 

Since then, Ravitch, who earned her Ph.D. from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 2000, and Kumar have worked on research, design, data collection and analysis informing corporate social responsibility, or CSR, efforts in India. 

The kind of research they are conducting is known as “participatory,” meaning that they are gathering information and insights from people who agree to participate in one-on-one interviews and group discussions. 

For the past six months, Kumar and Ravitch have brought changes to India’s higher education sector, building on Kumar’s previous work on Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, a national higher education campaign. 

RUSA, a federally sponsored reform program, incorporates a “bottom-up approach” designed to address access, equity and excellence in state higher education systems across India’s 29 states and six union territories. It gets to the heart of finding out what leaders in colleges and universities need and then works to pair resources.

“Every higher education institution is now required by the federal government to participate in organizational and professional development through RUSA,” Ravitch says. “It’s truly exceptional.” 

Ravitch and Kumar are also working on India’s National K-12 School Reform. Their work will guide policy, courses, seminars and online resources geared toward a new model of intensive, ongoing professional development for K-12 educators across India. But, first, they have to find out what India’s teachers and educational leaders want and need through their participatory style of research. 

“We are going across the country, doing needs-resource assessments with people in multiple contexts: urban, peri-urban and rural, various socioeconomic and cultural groups, regions struggling with insurgencies and people from different social classes,” Ravitch says. “India’s federal government is funding this project and that’s unprecedented. They’re trying to change the game. It’s an honor to be a part of this.” 

By engaging multiple stakeholders in meaningful ways, she says the team is working on a model that contributes to new possibilities, first in India and then in the sphere of international development. 

“Our work upsets the impositions of traditional development efforts,” Ravitch says. “It works to interrupt the neo-colonialist status quo of development in and beyond India.” 

She says that their work involves affected communities and views them as the foundation for informed, sustainable and collective action. 

“It requires a partnership that leverages the resources of both Penn and the Tata Institute and builds upon the great depth and breadth of wisdom already at work in India,” says Ravitch. 

The higher education and K-12 reforms she says are “seismic moves” that have caught the attention of the most prominent members of India’s Parliament and Prime Minister Modi. 

“We met privately with Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Priya Dutt and Milind Deora to share the developments of RUSA, which was an exciting step in the process,” Ravitch says. 

In addition, Ravitch and Kumar are writing a book, which explores how participatory research can result in improving life conditions, contexts and circumstances. The book includes case studies on CSR interventions that mobilize change, stakeholder-driven development efforts in under-served and under-represented areas, government involvement and partnership development. 

“This work fits perfectly with the Penn Compact 2020 and the University’s commitment to global engagement,” says Ravitch. “It sits at the nexus of theory, research, policy and practice.” 

For her work, Ravitch has been awarded the top two designations that international scholars can receive from the Government of India

She was named by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development as a prominent member of the first cohort of top-ranking international scholars to help internationalize India’s higher education curriculum, as well as a Global Initiative for Academic Network Scholar in an initiative of the Modi Government.

“This speaks to how vital the Government of India sees this work and speaks to the value they place on participatory methods,” she says.

Story Photo