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West Bengal has traditionally had the highest tuition levels, with nearly 84% of all urban school students attending some form of it (Photo: Mint)
West Bengal has traditionally had the highest tuition levels, with nearly 84% of all urban school students attending some form of it (Photo: Mint)

Is the golden age of private tuition over in India?

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Indian school students who take private coaching declined in most states

A long-booming market for private tuitions in India seems to have peaked. According to the recently released National Sample Survey (NSS) report on education, only 21% students opted for private tuitions in 2017-18, 6 percentage points lower than in 2014, when the last such survey was conducted.

Almost all states saw a decline, with urban areas reporting a higher decline in coaching classes. The group most likely to take tuitions—secondary students in urban areas—saw the share of tuition-takers fall 8 percentage points to 38% in the four years till 2017-18.

The decline appears to be driven by increasing enrolments in private schools, and a shift away from government schools in urban parts of the country.

Enrolment in government schools has been declining across the country for several years. According to the government’s official database UDISE, or the Unified District Information System for Education, all but three states saw private schools in urban areas attracting more students than government schools in the 2015-18 period. States where the share of tuition-taking students declined the most—Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand—saw significant declines in government school enrolments during the period, shows UDISE data. Data prior to 2015-16 was not available.

“Parents have the perception that private schools perform better, even if they do not," said Wilima Wadhwa, the director of nonprofit Pratham’s ASER Centre. So when incomes rise, parents may prefer to move children to private schools, and reliance on tuitions may drop, she said. Such a shift from government schools in rural areas does not impact tuition numbers much because private schools there are relatively inexpensive, she added.

The NSS also reports enrolment data but it does not show a strong link between changes in urban private school attendance and private tuition patterns over time—except for classes IX-XII, where tuitions are most rampant and costly. NSS data is based on self-reporting by sample households. UDISE data is collected from schools.

Nonetheless, NSS data does show a strong link between levels of government school attendance and reliance on private tuitions. States where more students go to government schools—mostly in eastern India—are also the ones where more students take private tuition. West Bengal has traditionally had the highest tuition levels, with nearly 84% of all urban school students attending some form of it—ranging from 76% in primary grades to 91% in secondary classes. 72% of the state’s children go to government schools—by far the highest among major states.

Odisha (56%), Bihar (58%), and Assam (62%) are other states with relatively high numbers of urban students attending government schools. They also have relatively more students opting for private tuitions.

Telangana, with the lowest dependence on private tuition (5%), has just 12% of its urban students in government schools. The other states with low tuition levels—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu—have fewer than 30% of their urban students in government schools.

Private coaching is notorious not only for leaving students under stress, but also for harming the education system overall. The new National Education Policy said the “coaching culture" diverts students from what could be valuable learning time. But the coaching culture is only a symptom of a deeper malaise: India’s struggling public school system. In 2014, K Sujatha of National University of Educational Planning and Administration described private tuition as a “surrogate mother", needed when schools become ineffective.

Hordes of students rush to a private tutor after school hours across the country because they learn very little in school. But this surrogacy extracts a heavy price. On average, private tuition raises education expenses by 53% in urban areas and 75% in rural parts.

Between the two national surveys, the cost of private coaching has risen at a rate of around 6% a year—to over 3,400 per year in rural areas and 7,500 in urban parts.

Large disparity is an obvious outcome. Students from the scheduled castes and other backward classes are far less likely to attend private tuition than those from upper castes, the data show.

Between expensive private tutors and expensive private schools, many parents are now opting for the latter. A third of all parents who pick a private school do so due to unsatisfactory quality of the nearby government school, the NSS data shows. Eleven years after the country proudly made free education a right for its children, India’s public schooling system remains in shambles, driving more and more students to private schools each year.

Abhishek Jha of Hindustan Times contributed to this piece.

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