India’s growing private coaching industry has long been plagued by student suicides, fire incidents, complaints of poor infrastructure and teaching, exorbitant fees, and false promises. The spate of student suicides in Kota, Rajasthan, has spurred the Ministry of Education to issue new guidelines, which state that coaching centres cannot enrol students below 16 years of age, make misleading promises, and guarantee rank or good marks. Should coaching be restricted to those above 16 years? Vimala Ramachandran and Arjun Mohan discuss the question and the guidelines in a conversation moderated by Priscilla Jebaraj. Edited excerpts:
The guidelines restrict coaching to those above 16 years. What will be the impact of this new rule?
Vimala Ramachandran: It is a good idea because there is [tremendous] pressure on young children. For children to start thinking about doing well in term exams or getting into a good course when [the burden] of their school curriculum is so enormous [is difficult], so this step to restore their childhood is a good step.
Arjun Mohan: I agree that the load on today’s children is high. You really don’t need to spend 18 hours of your day from Class 4 [on studying] to be successful in life. Typically, students who are interested in cracking the JEE and NEET do a foundation programme from Class 7 onwards. They learn their syllabus in school and then they learn application-level concepts and do workshops on the same, so that they think one notch higher. This is important because a student who wants to crack the JEE or NEET with top scores needs to start thinking at that application level early in life.
Isn’t this kind of foundational teaching supposed to happen in school? Does the growing coaching industry signify a failure of our education system?
Vimala Ramachandran: There is a huge failure. First, what is taught in school is determined by what happens in the final exam. And our exam system is so rote-oriented that schools end up teaching exactly what’s needed for the exam. As a result, not all schools and teachers actually help children conceptually understand issues. Second, if a child is going to medical college, the aspiration is not necessarily of the child’s; it is the parent’s aspiration. So, parents start putting pressure on the child from Class 6 or 7 and that is a disturbing trend. It not only increases the tremendous stress levels of children, but also does not allow them to explore what they really want to do when they are in Class 10 or 11.
Is coaching supplanting the school system?
Arjun Mohan: Let’s be honest about it. Coaching helps students crack ultra-competitive exams. That is the only objective. These exams have become harder because of more competition. So, coaching has become structured to help students get to that level.
Research shows that there are higher levels of tuition and coaching in States which have higher levels of government school systems.
Vimala Ramachandran: The school system itself is dysfunctional in the sense that schools and teachers only teach the curriculum. Teachers don’t focus on whether the child is actually learning anything. The poorer the area, the more difficult the terrain, the worse the school system. Therefore, we have these coaching centres which cater not only to [those who wish to crack] competitive examinations, but to those who want to crack the 10th or 12th Board exam, or the civil services, or the Railways exam, or the bank exam. A large share of children attend coaching or tuition centres so that they are able to cope with the syllabus in school. This is what I call the shadow education system. The tip of the iceberg is the competitive exam preparation. But if you go deeper, coaching is happening at all levels.
How will these guidelines apply to online coaching?
Arjun Mohan: I would wait for some time for the guidelines to be more structured. The feedback we are getting is that they will evolve.
The existence of tuitions shows that parents do not find the school system to be effective enough. As an online company, we said, why should the access to good teachers be restricted only to metros? We use technology to get the best teachers to Tier III and smaller towns and give students everywhere access to the best quality education.
Vimala Ramachandran: The buck stops at the State government level. Education is in the Concurrent List. While the Union government can issue these guidelines, how effective they are going to be depends a great deal on how the State governments implement it. The education bureaucracy has not been able to supervise existing schools, let alone go and see what is happening in the shadow education system. I’m afraid it’s just going to increase rent-seeking and corruption at all levels. Guidelines are only as effective as the government system.
Arjun Mohan: The guidelines talk about a competent authority where the coaching centres need to go and register. Is this a local municipality or is it the District Education Authority? These details are yet to come though the guidelines say registration is to be done within three months.
Will the mental health interventions mentioned in the guidelines help reduce the pressure on students?
Vimala Ramachandran: We need large-scale public education about the adverse impact of putting such pressure on children from an early age. Our media has to play an important role and so does the school system. It’s important to have a dialogue with parents and communities. Even political parties should take it up. We need to make people more sensitive to what is required to support a child growing up, instead of putting too much pressure on them. We won’t be able to change the system by bringing about guidelines alone, or even just by providing counsellors in schools.
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Arjun Mohan: I would put the parent at the centre of the process. Parents should be more connected with their children to realise the kind of pressure they go through. Even today, many parents feel that if the child doesn’t get into a top engineering college or medical college, they are doomed, which is not true.
The media, society, and parents do play a role, but don’t you think the coaching industry plays some role as well in creating this kind of pressure?
Arjun Mohan: The pressure is because of competition. Why do they pay to send their child to a coaching centre? They want their child to be successful in a particular exam. If you have signed up for a particular objective, there will be an extensive curriculum, workshops, exams, and mock papers. Where do you say, ‘This is not something that the child likes; he should probably look at another profession’? These are questions which the coaching centre alone cannot answer. We can keep saying that there should be regulations, there should be no pressure, but finally the parent has also paid a lot of money and is betting on the child to bring into reality their dreams. We also have a commitment towards that parent. We are basically completing the service we got paid for.
The guidelines refer to ‘false and misleading advertising’ by the coaching industry. When institutes promise a high rank, would you say that they are creating pressure?
Arjun Mohan: We are basically talking about a few elements in the industry doing things like that. Misleading advertising happens in every industry. I don’t believe that established large players which are focused on academics do things like that when they publish a rank.
The guidelines stipulate that if a student leaves a course halfway, their fees should be refunded on a pro rata basis.
Arjun Mohan: Education is a service industry. A contract is signed between the customer and the organisation. The refund policy should be part of the contract. Also, does this come under the ambit of the Central or State government? I would wait for clarity on these legal issues.
Vimala Ramachandran: The guidelines say that the coaching industry will come under the Consumer Protection Act. That is a welcome step. But I don’t know how effective the Act is across the country and whether children in rural areas are even aware of the fact that they can go to demand the fees back.
Vimala Ramachandran is a former Professor at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration; Arjun Mohan is India CEO of Byju’s, one of India’s largest players in the coaching and EdTech industry