India's US$6.4 billion private coaching industry exacerbates the country's social divide as struggling state schools lose teachers to private facilities.
Cram schools craze widens class divide
KOTA, RAJASTHAN // With a sprawling five-acre campus, 10,000 students and state-of-the-art LCD projectors in its lecture rooms, Bansal Classes is bigger and slicker than most schools in India.
But the institution, now a landmark in Kota, a city in Rajasthan, is neither a school nor a college. It is the jewel in the crown of India's private coaching industry, a US$6.4 billion (Dh23.49bn) business that exacerbates the social divide.
Cram schools have become a magnet for tens of thousands of mostly middle-class families in a country where two decades of rapid economic growth have failed to improve a dysfunctional state education system and a shortage of good universities.
Such cram schools coach students for fiercely competitive entrance tests to a handful of premier technical and medical colleges.
Their modus operandi is rote learning. At Bansal's, hundreds of teenagers are trained intensively to solve complex questions on physics, chemistry or maths.
Yash Raj Mishra, a Kota cram student, lives in a tiny room with no television or laptop and spends 16 hours a day attending classes, revising or tackling question papers.
"Physics is my first and last girlfriend," said Yash, 17. "I feel bad and frustrated when my friends score even slightly better than I do."
Two-year coaching programmes in Kota cost between 165,000 and 220,000 rupees (Dh11,000-14,600).
Students also have to pay for their regular schools and spend at least 110,000 rupees a year on accommodation.
"A child is a stack of thousand-rupee notes," said Manoj Chauhan, a maths tutor in his late 20s. He could have joined a software company or multinational but chose to teach in Kota, where many teachers' salaries are well above the national average.
Such cram schools compound the inequalities of an education system plagued by absentee teachers and high dropout rates, which have left a quarter of Indians illiterate and lacking the skills to match the country's growing economic needs.
Every year more than 50,000 students enrol in Kota, many of them under parental pressure.
The riverside town has become the capital of the multi-billion-dollar coaching industry, thanks to the success of Bansal Classes, set up by a former engineer who held the first classes in his dining room.
The city of nearly one million has flourished partly because of its blandness, with parents seeing the relative lack of distractions for students a bonus. Despite housing thousands of teenagers, it has hardly any of the shopping malls and cinemas that sprouted across the country as the economy grew.
The goal of attending cram schools is cracking the tough exams set by top colleges such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, whose degrees can be a ticket to a lifetime of fat pay cheques or jobs in the US.
"There were 50 children who committed suicide in Kota last year," said Vinod Kumar Bansal, the founder of Bansal Classes. "When a child realises he can't make it to IIT, the guilt of spending his father's money on coaching can lead him to end his life."
Mr Bansal founded the school in the 1980s, leaving his job at a nylon-making firm after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. His success that bred Kota's coaching juggernaut.
The centre shot to fame after a string of successes in getting students admitted to India's toughest colleges - spawning a host of other institutions. Its website says 16,000 of its students have gained admission to IITs, more than any other cram school.
In 2012, more than 500,000 students took the IIT entrance exam and less than 10,000 cleared it, making admission statistically harder than getting into America's Ivy League colleges.
Today, Bansal's has become a thriving business with annual earnings close to 1 billion rupees, despite a sharp slowdown in India's economic growth.
"In the long run, it has to undermine faith in the education system as a meritocratic system," said Chad Lykins, co-author of an Asian Development Bank report on private coaching in Asia. "The reward goes to the person who can go outside the system and get exam tricks and tips."
Critics also argue that cram schools offer false hope to many students and parents, promising results even though the candidate may not have an aptitude for engineering or medicine.
"In a coaching institute you are treated like a rat," said Ashutosh Banerjee, who fled Kota within a month. "Teachers have a lot of attitude - they shout at everyone and make fun of everyone."
But for most students, teachers are above reproach and can become mini celebrities in Kota, where their pictures are plastered on city walls.
Seeing the potential in the Indian market, Etoos, a South Korean coaching giant, invested 300 million rupees to set up shop in Kota in 2011, focusing on e-learning.
"In terms of revenue, India is going to cross over South Korea," said Etoos's business head, Nitin Chaturvedi. "The Indian population is huge and geographically also it is 4-5 times of Korea."
Coaching firms have flourished in other cities too. FIITJEE, a household name for would-be engineering students, has more than 60 franchises across the country. It plans an initial public offering in the next few months.
"People are chasing us like anything," said R Trikha, head of distance learning at FIITJEE. "Coaching is actually there because the school systems are not doing their job. Society should be grateful to us that we are fulfilling this need."
But the popularity of India's cram schools has helped make a bad situation worse in the state education system. Better pay tempts teachers to moonlight as private instructors, neglecting the poorer students they are meant to be educating.
"It is forbidden, but enforcement is another issue," said Anshu Vaish, of the education ministry. "Typically, what teachers often do is they won't teach in the classroom and will make students come to their homes later to study the same thing."