Active Stocks
Thu Dec 07 2023 15:57:50
  1. Bharti Airtel share price
  2. 998.75 -2.46%
  1. Reliance Industries share price
  2. 2,457.6 -0.13%
  1. Tata Steel share price
  2. 130 -1.37%
  1. Power Grid Corporation Of India share price
  2. 229.85 2.43%
  1. NTPC share price
  2. 284.05 1.03%
Business News/ Opinion / Views/  A dire Kota scenario calls for out-of-the-box solutions
Back Back

A dire Kota scenario calls for out-of-the-box solutions

It’s a problem of seat scarcity that we could address via a lottery after a basic test of competence

 High quality publicly-funded education, if widely accessible, can undo the unequalizing effect of private elite schools, which transmit inequality across generations.Premium
High quality publicly-funded education, if widely accessible, can undo the unequalizing effect of private elite schools, which transmit inequality across generations.

The news from Kota is grim. This is the coaching capital of India for students seeking admission to engineering and medical schools such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The students are prepped to crack entrance exams. But these days, the coaching industry is more focused on preventing suicide than instilling advanced calculus or Newtonian mechanics. This year, there have been 23 suicides, the highest in eight years. Hostel rooms are now mandatorily fitted with spring-loaded fans to prevent death by self-hanging. High-rise buildings are fitted with anti-suicide nets made of steel. Alarmed by the spate of suicides, there is now a temporary ban on tests. The local police have a special student cell dedicated to this issue. There are hundreds of counsellors on the rolls of all coaching institutes to look for early signs of stress and depression. There are clinics running 24-hour helplines for crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Suicide prevention is complicated, but its proximate causes are well understood. These are the burden of expectations, often from parents who may have mortgaged family wealth for paying coaching fees, long hours, depression and homesickness. Kota has a majority of students from states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Behind each suicide, there may be hundreds or thousands of other disheartened souls that didn’t end in suicide. Yet, enrolment in Kota has doubled in the last three years. More than 200,000 aspirants clock up to 18 gruelling hours of study, seven days a week. Such is the power of the lure of the lottery that are these entrance exams.

There are hundreds of coaching institutes supporting a thriving local economy of paying-guest accommodation, food service delivery, transport and other services. It is said that the annual turnover of the coaching industry is more than the annual budgets of all IITs and AIIMSs put together. The business model caters to three types of aspirants: foundation, running and dropper batches. The former are kids who start as early as class 7. The running batches are those in class 11 and 12, so they also have to clear school board exams. And the droppers are either those who have taken a drop year, or who are repeaters. There are elaborate arrangements, almost like regimentation, for toppers to be held aloft as examples. It is alleged that some toppers are paid handsomely to be in Kota so that those coaching classes can plaster their faces across advertisements, as rank holders. These are students who would have aced the exam anyway.

How did we get here? It’s because of the scarcity of good-quality institutions and steepening premium on the prize. The coaching industry is just cashing in on that scarcity. The handicap is more severe for kids from smaller towns or rural areas, since middle school quality is generally inferior to schools in metros. The Kota factory serves to make up for that shortfall. Just as the bottled water industry took off due to a lack of potable water in home taps or public places. Or lack of adequate public transportation leads to a thriving industry of private automobiles and taxis. Or weak infrastructure of publicly-funded clinics and hospitals means a flourishing private healthcare industry. This pattern is repeated everywhere, in that the weakness of public-services delivery is a huge opportunity for the private sector. This by itself is neither surprising nor undesirable. But when it comes to public goods provision, it becomes a problem. One can argue that primary—and to some extent secondary—school education has a public-good element. It benefits both the individual and society. High quality publicly-funded education, if widely accessible, can undo the unequalizing effect of private elite schools, which transmit inequality across generations. The extreme case is that of Ivy League colleges in the US, where 25-35% of admissions have been related to legacy. And this ratio is getting worse.

In India, high quality and affordable institutions are too few; they are oases amid much mediocrity. To make matters worse, the salaries of IIT graduates are shooting sky-high. We thus have the paradox of a vast number of half-empty engineering colleges even as a mad scramble ensues for IITs, where the chance of getting in is less than 1%. In recent years, the budgetary allocation to higher education has increased, leading to the setting up of new IITs and AIIMS. But compared to peers, our share of expenditure on higher education is pathetically low. For a country aiming for high and inclusive growth, which is impossible without a large stock of high-quality human capital, this neglect of education is scandalous. We also need to examine the quality of spending, and the governance model. Public school teachers need to be accountable to parents who are the real stakeholders in early education.

The Kota syndrome is so popular that it has even been captured in a Netflix serial. It is a symptom and not the disease. Banning coaching classes won’t solve the problem. Lowering the premium on cracking the exam could ease stress and pressure on the students. Nitin Pai and Ajay Shah have suggested an innovative mechanism, replacing the entrance exam by a random lottery for eligible students who qualify through a basic filter. Think of the H1-B visa lottery for US tech workers. This will increase diversity in our IITs and pressure second-tier colleges to improve, as they would have to accommodate losers of the lottery. The situation is dire enough to think out of the box.

Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist. 

Milestone Alert!
Livemint tops charts as the fastest growing news website in the world 🌏 Click here to know more.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Published: 04 Sep 2023, 10:31 PM IST
Next Story footLogo
Recommended For You
Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App