He’s not even 23 years old, but Krishna Khatri’s big wide eyes betray that he has seen it all. Clad in a pair of denims, sporting a brown jacket, and holding a sling black bag, Khatri from Hanumangarh, Rajasthan looks like any other young man in the teeming megapolis. He is at ground zero of India’s desperate search for jobs—government jobs, in particular. “I want a good job to help my family and better my own future," says Khatri, sitting in the classroom of Career Guru, a coaching centre in South Delhi’s Munirka village that prepares aspirants for competitive job exams.
Son of an uneducated marginal farmer who earns less than ₹90,000 a year, Khartri left his home town “in search of a future". He has been taking coaching classes for past seven months to crack any government job. Earlier too, he has unsuccessfully prepared to take competitive exams back home, including one for a job in Rajasthan Police.
“You need experts support and coaching centres give you that confidence to sit in the exam," says Khatri, adding that he would prefer a government job as “he understands the perils of the private sector". “For two years, I worked in a private computer institute for ₹3,000 a month to fund my education, and job preparations. I know the side effects of the private sector at the lower ladder of the system," he asserts.
Like Khatri, his classmate at the test-prep centre, Ruchi Singh from Rae Bareli has a similar story. “I am not preparing for just one job—Staff Selection Commission, railways, clerical, police—any secured job that will help me and my family, will do. Competition is high and jobs are less. You have to accept the reality and prepare hard as there is a family requirement and you want to trade up in life," says Singh, the first from her family to come to Delhi.
“My father asks me in every week or fortnight, ‘naukri kab lagegi’ (when will you get the job). That’s a huge pressure to deal with," Singh smiles, only somewhat hiding her stress.
And what happens if these youngsters do not get through? Khatri is forthright: “I have to go back to Hanumangarh and join my father in farming." Singh smiles again. Her family has already conveyed the fate that awaits her—marriage.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Since there is no surety of getting a decent job, why are so many youngsters visiting coaching or test prep centres? Both Singh and Khatri say the need arises due to multiple factors— the lack of quality in the education system; the missing spoke of counselling during the career hunt; extreme competition for even half-decent jobs, and, most importantly, the lack of adequate jobs in the country.
The competition is insane. Last year, 13,000 police vacancies in Rajasthan invited more than half-a-million applications; 65,000 low-grade railway job vacancies saw 19 million aspirants. Similarly, State Bank of India received some 1.66 million applications for 8,300 clerical jobs it advertised in early 2018. “The way competition is escalating now, you cannot just crack competitive exams without coaching," says Ankit Manral, who shifted along with her mother from Aligarh to Ghaziabad in search of a better future and is now getting tutored to take exams for bank job at T.I.M.E, a leading coaching chain in India.
The coaching culture is not just confined to job aspirants or bigger cities. It starts at a young age. A recent survey by Cambridge International said some 55% students in India are taking private coaching outside schools. The percentage is 74% for mathematics, 64% for Physics and 62% for chemistry at the national level, the study found. As per National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, 89% male students in West Bengal, 87% in Tripura and 67% in Bihar were taking tuition in 2014-15 while pursuing their secondary and higher secondary education.
“I want to study engineering. And my parents want me to score above 90% in the boards to get into a good college," said Bansidhar Mohapatra, a Class IX student in Odisha, almost sounding tired after attending five separate tuition classes since morning apart from his school hours.
So, private coaching is prevalent from elementary to tertiary education, from those preparing for high-stake entrance exams (like the Joint Entrance Examination for IITs, Common Admission Test of IIMs or National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges admission) to those aspiring for civil services. In short, from clerical services to civil services, all have a coaching back up.
The phenomenon is so widespread that the test prep industry is estimated to be worth $7 billion (over ₹49,400 crore) and growing at a double-digit pace annually. The only other country which has perhaps a bigger tuition industry is South Korea— where the market was estimated to be worth $20 billion. “The private coaching industry is the underbelly of India’s education system. We are filling up the deficit that the state should have done," said Pramod Maheswari, chief executive of Career Point Ltd, a leading test prep company headquartered in Kota, Rajasthan.
The coaching industry
From the traditional coaching hubs in Kota and Hyderabad to mushrooming of test prep centres across cities and towns, the industry is growing between 10-18% for different segments like foundational, medical, engineering or job exams. Though the sector is still fragmented and dominated by unorganized players, there is a gradual shift towards organized coaching. This means branded players with corporate structures are growing.
The Career Point Ltd in Kota, MT Educare in Maharashtra, and CL Educate Ltd (formerly Career Launcher) in Delhi have already got listed on the stock market. Another leading player in test prep market Aakash Educational Services Ltd has approached Securities and Exchange Board of India for an initial public offering.
“The coaching industry is now getting corporatized. It’s a sign of maturity," says Aurobindo Saxena, head of education practice at consulting firm Technopak. “Like any other sector, it is now passing through a critical phase of consolidation and organized growth, which is good for students also," he adds.
The Allen Careers—one of the leading test prep players in Kota—is now venturing out to nine tier-two cities in the country and recently advertised to hire 370 well-qualified teachers to staff its expansion centres. Allen, which operates four centres—each as big as five-storied corporate offices—in Kota, caters to more than 20,000 students a year.
Similarly, there are other players like FIITJEE, Resonance, Vidyamandir, Study Mate (an initiative of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint), T.I.M.E, have grown fast over the years and are expanding operations. “The growth and expansions of test prep firms comes from the fact that there is demand," avers Pankaj Ludhani, a National Institution of Technology (NIT) graduate who teaches at a T.I.M.E coaching centre in Delhi-NCR.
Online tutoring startup Byju’s (Think and Learn Pvt Ltd) has raised $540 million from investors in December 2018. Before the fresh funding last month, since its inception in 2008, Byju’s has raised over $240 million from Tencent, Verlinvest, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Aarin Capital, among others.
“The shift towards organized growth of the test prep industry has two benefits— one, it assures certain amount of quality control and two the payment system is largely transparent. Yet, the choice of parents and students are limited and here the online players are getting in and making a good dent," said Rohin Kapoor who runs online tutoring venture Myedge.
Myedge grew its revenue five times in 2017 over the previous year. In 2018, the company is expecting to grow eightfold, Kapoor says.
“You can argue that as a less than three-year-old startup, our base is low, but the trend points to a positive trajectory," says Kapoor, who left his consulting job to join his wife to further the venture. He said, unlike unorganized players, the organized players have a strategy— students are not the only target audience. It’s the parents as they are taking decision about the brighter future of their children.
ARKS Srinivas, a coaching industry veteran said the growth of the test prep industry will continue because of the demand from the aspirational middle class who want to compensate the learning deficit in schools by sending their children to well equipped tutorials and teachers. “If the state cannot provide good education, someone else will chip in. Looking at coaching industry with suspicion won’t help. “It’s a demand-driven industry".
“The growth in the sector and getting personalized coaching is fine but are students really learning enough to be well rounded in tutorials? Look at the lifecycle of a student—he is taking tuition at the elementary level to do better in high school, he is taking tuition at high school to do well in college, and taking tuition after Class XII or collage to crack medical, IIT or IIM entrances. So the cost is fourfold to bridge the same learning deficit," warns Bangaluru-based Anustup Nayak, co-founder of education technology firm Xseed.
Fractured education system
Though there are islands of excellence in the Indian education system that comprises of 1.4 million schools, 50,000 colleges and nearly 900 universities catering to over 286 million students, overall output is, to put it mildly, poor. “Whether you are going to an expensive school, or a very expensive school, the quality of learning is below par. Not sending your kid to a coaching institute means potentially handicapping his or her future," said Sumali Moitra, a parent in Gurugram. “Whether you like it or not, coaching classes are a reality. They are proxy schools," said Moitra.
Moitra’s concern has been captured by several studies . The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published by education non-profit Pratham, shows that the proportion of all children in Class V who can read a Class II level text was 50.3% 2018—a 2.2 percentage point increase compared with the situation in 2014 and a dip of 3.1% compared with 2010. The situation for arithmetic is equally abysmal—just 44.1% of class VIII students can do simple division. This strike rate is almost same as in 2014 and 4 percentage points less when compared with 2012. At the secondary and higher secondary level students (14-18 age group), over one in two students could not do a simple division, the ASER 2017 had shown.
Subsequently, industry estimates show how nearly three in four engineering graduates are not employable in India, effectively impacting the labour productivity and competitiveness of a country. Clearly, the education system in India is not providing the kind of knowledge that students need to succeed in life.
But Lalatendu Mahal, a teacher, disagrees with the idea of only blaming schools and their teachers. “The salary of most of the teachers in India is very low. If you get a salary of ₹9000 per month, how will you run a four-member family? Here, tutoring students helps to earn a decent amount of money. It’s a structural problem…students demand one-on-one attention, parents demand best scores. Yet, you blame only teachers," he said. “Is it possible for all students to score 90% plus in exams? No. But parents want it. The social demand is helping the coaching industry grow—organized or unorganized is just market dynamics," Mahal added.