The Alarming Coaching Culture in India – Who to Blame?

Date: 05/10/2023
Author: Prof. Mayank Shrivastava, IISc Bangalore

I am that unlucky individual who, as a student, never got the opportunity to study in a coaching institute because (sarcasm) my parents were least concerned about my academic performance compared to the expected performance of kids in the neighborhood. Instead, I was sent to a boarding school – wholly disconnected from the outside world, which would witness the mushrooming of tuition centers and coaching institutes in the future. But staying away from this mushroom jungle helped me learn "how to learn independently" and "how not to get spoon-fed" – an essential attribute I see missing among many students these days.

Tuition and coaching culture are not new. It has existed for a long time, but back then, only extremely weak students, particularly in secondary and higher secondary classes, would take the help of coaching/tuition classes, and sending your kid to coaching/tuition classes was not a status symbol. Coaching for classes below 9th rarely existed. Schools were doing well, and schoolteachers had reasonable income and respect in society. The income of a coaching tutor vs. a schoolteacher was not too different. However, running coaching classes or tuitions was not as respectable as what it was to be in a regular teaching profession. Most importantly, the coaching centers and tuition classes were still focused on helping students build concepts instead of promising to make students "exam ready," which has become a slogan these days. The obsession with the exams, engineering/medical entrance tests, and fear of failure was negligible compared to what we see today. Failing was not seen as a crime, and learning from the failure was a usual norm. Parents used to spend time with their kids, and the pressure to perform from peers and parents was less. Yes, one more thing, Kota was still not a go-to place for every kid coming out of the school.

Fast forward 25 years, while the number of schools and quality of teaching in schools has grown in proportion and the number of seats has increased significantly without a significant change in the number of applicants (it has, in fact, reduced recently), we see mushrooming of coaching institutes and tuition centers. The question is, why? What has changed is the mindset of our society with growing purchasing power. Today, sending your kid to tuition/coaching centers has become a status symbol. You are not considered sincere if you are not enrolled in a coaching center. Parents also don't have time and energy to spend with their kids. They solve this problem by outsourcing parenting responsibilities to the coaching and tuition institutes if they can afford it. The respect you get in our society today correlates with how much money you earn and is not based on what you do to earn. Making kids "exam ready" has become a slogan, which is very well bought by the obsessed and feared parents who don't want to see their kids fail. This obsession, fear, and higher purchasing power of today's generation of parents have made them pay any cost to the coaching institutes. This has made the coaching tutors earn significantly higher than the schoolteachers, making a paradigm shift in the associated "societal respect factor" from being in the regular teaching profession to being a coaching teacher. The obsession with sending your kid to top engineering schools has increased dramatically, further accelerating the mushrooming of these coaching centers.

In the past 15 years, the coaching business has increased exponentially for engineering and medical entrance tests, but for every competitive test and university exam from the undergraduate to postgraduate level. It is worth introspecting whether the fault is our evolving society or we fell into a trap. Let's investigate some statistics first. While the number of students appearing in engineering entrance tests has not changed, even though the number of engineering seats in Tier–I and Tier–II institutes has increased significantly, the number of students attending coaching classes has grown manyfold in the past 20 years. However, the performance distribution of students on these national entrance tests or board exams has not changed in the past 20 years. You still find the same number of students getting a specific range of marks. In simple words, while the input (number of students attending coaching classes) has grown, the output (% of students doing well in such exams) has deteriorated. Possibly, those (less than 0.1%) who do well in these exams would have performed equally well without the help of coaching institutes. However, the market size is dominated by the remaining 99.9%, who are afraid of losing the test. It is also worth introspecting that when the number of seats has increased for the same number of candidates appearing in these exams, why the fear in society has grown? Business houses or new businesses have always tried to capitalize on a mass's fear, ambitions, and desires to the maximum possible extent. Perception marketing plays a significant role in such cases. Take the example of diamonds, once useless stones, became priceless after decades of marketing with slogans like "A Diamond is Forever." The same happened with beauty products promising to give you fair skin. While the diamond firms created the impression that wearing a diamond is a status symbol, fairness cream companies fabricated a societal shame associated with darker skin. Once you have tapped into human fears or desires, you have created a new market addressing the same. Did coaching giants follow the same path, i.e., tapping into the fears and desires of the parent-child generation? The growth seen in the past few years in the name of the EdTech space is unprecedented. While the number of tutors has not increased, the market has grown significantly. Thanks to the COVID (online education) and social media branding. When things grow inorganically, something disastrous is expected to happen. This is a simple law of nature.

The question one would ask is what's wrong if coaching institutes or groups of private teachers want to co-exist. The problem is not with their co-existence. The problem is with the teaching style, creating fear of failure and capitalizing on it. I have been researching this for five years, which made me watch many online lectures by major coaching institutes. This ranges from courses for engineering entrance tests (11th – 12th Physics, Chemistry, and Maths) to entrance tests for masters' studies in IITs such as GATE. The style is the same, and the common denominator was "making students exam-ready." The lectures are often populated by several solved (numerical) problems with little effort in offering in-depth concepts. The deeper concepts are often not covered in detail, particularly in courses designed for postgraduate entrance tests. The approach is to make students practice a considerable amount of objective (multiple choice) questions while using shortcuts such as easy formulas and guess-based elimination of choices. When this is repeated for a large number of problem sets, solved by the instructor while using different shortcuts, the mind develops a map. This is called spoon-feeding. This may help some students do relatively better if they are tested from the same map but doesn't improve the overall performance of students. This is because the mind was not trained to develop an understanding first and use the understanding to explore (solve) unexplored territories (solve kinds of problems that they had never seen before). This kind of training process makes you dependent because you do not get to learn "how to learn independently" and "how to solve any problem by using your fundamental understanding." The other problem is the absence of practical connections. The students end up having no idea of where to apply the knowledge and what the use is.

Let me add further to this and highlight my concerns. I have been chairing the M-Tech in Microelectronics & VLSI Design program of the Indian Institute of Science since 2017. This program is the most sought-after program that attracts the top GATE rank holders. To find the best out of the top GATE rank holders, we call at least ten times the number of seats available for an internal (subjective style) written and rigorous interview. We test the depth of knowledge one has and the aptitude to apply that knowledge. In such a subjective style test, our observation is that, on average, out of the top rank holders, only 20% are typically able to cross a passing threshold, and only for 10% a correlation between their GATE ranks and interview performance can be found. The question is, why? The common denominators are the way students were trained for the GATE exam, i.e., creating a map of problem sets to score maximum and not developing concepts first, reading coaching notes and not reference books, and absence of brainstorming on how to apply concepts in the real world. The bottom line is that if students continue to depend on shortcuts, they will find it hard to excel in the real world despite getting good exam scores. The real world demands depth in fundamentals, practical knowledge, analytical ability, and critical thinking, which one can't develop through shortcuts. If students continue getting attracted by these shortcuts to score high with less effort, I am afraid that society is preparing for a much larger and more devastating failure. Therefore, our collective responsibility is to take corrective actions before it's too late.

I want to conclude this article by also pointing out what corrective actions must be taken collectively:

1. Coaching Institutes: It is high time that coaching institutes stop selling dreams. Besides, their efforts to capture the market and grow it inorganically must also stop. The focus must be on offering conceptual depth without following "exam-ready" shortcuts. Most importantly, develop a good pool of trained teachers interested in offering pure knowledge (not entertainment!), which has been acquired by sheer hard work of getting into the depth instead of developing shortcuts and question banks. Last but not least, when coaching institutes claim to care for students, and given they have the required resources and finances, instead of investing in in-person coaching centers, it is better to invest in building world-class schools.

2. Parents: We must stop buying taglines such as "We make your kid exam ready." Control our desperation and fear, and give time to our kids. We must not force them into pre-defined paths. Let them explore what they are best at. Let them grow organically. Also, allow them to fail and encourage them to learn from their failures. Most importantly, we must spend time with our kids, and they will flourish.

3. Society: We must stop judging success based on one's profession and earnings. We need doctors, engineers, and scientists, the societal fabric also needs good poets, painters, singers, police officers, pilots, administrators, musicians, chefs, etc.

4. Government: Efforts to regularize the education (offered product) in the coaching / EdTech sector with strict quality controls are the need of the day. This is one sector where, while quality controls and approvals are involved for opening schools and colleges, there is no control or quality checks on what coaching institutes offer. The question is why there are no quality checks enforced yet for this product when an entire generation is buying it.