With all the hype and media coverage that surrounds the entrance examination, the IIT JEE (or JEE Advanced), and the IITs themselves, the JEE has become the most suitable candidate for coaching that focuses on how to "crack" the examination. It is a widely-held belief that it is impossible to do well in the JEE without coaching, especially given the deficiencies of learning inside schools. Thus, there exists a large market, of the order of many lakhs, for JEE coaching.
So much is the aspirational hype that surrounds the JEE that children enroll for coaching class "packages" (worth a few lakhs per annum, at least) from Class 6 or 8 onwards. For many decades, the IITs were attractive because the BTech degree was a passport to the West (the US in particular); now, the attraction is apparently humongous pay packages ("1 cr+") that graduating students receive. The truth is that it is very few students, and only in a few engineering disciplines, that receive such offers; these too are mostly for overseas locations (e.g. a USD 150,000 offer in the US or in Europe); the average package is typically around Rs 10 lakhs, and many packages are less than this. Flattering and thoughtless media coverage creates a belief that lots and lots of students receive astronomical salaries. Continuous harping on these gigantic packages serves to obscure not just the much lower average figure but also the fact that there exist packages which are significantly even lower, and that these form the bulk of typical packages on offer. Yet, the IITs subtly connive in the creation of this "humongous package" myth - mostly by omitting to emphasize the truth to the public.
This generates the mass selling of the IIT dream (even to those who have no chance). Coaching classes sell their wares with evangelical zeal, a marketing blitz full of loud advertisements featuring their "toppers" and achievers. Unrealistic dreams and aspirations are sold to gullible parents. It is amazing that the aura surrounding the JEE blinds parents to a realistic assessment of their children's "exam taking" capabilities and, more importantly, aptitudes. It is heartrending to hear parents animatedly discuss to which IIT their child will go - as if admission is already guaranteed by the heady promises of the coaching class.
And so lakhs of aspirants enroll for coaching, in their own towns or boarding style classes away from home (of which Kota in Rajasthan has emerged as the most famous). This is even more insidious than it seems on a broader level - the definition of "academic success" is now defined socially in a very narrow, monopolistic manner by the JEE and this is propagated, marketed and guarded fiercely by the coaches. And why not? The money keeps rolling in. A typical description from someone who went to Kota says, "Every person you meet wants money from you. Hostel owners are the best example. It's business. Everything is business. Your future too is a source for generating money. You are nothing more than a profit-generating machine.They'll play with your mind and make money. They'll fool your parents too."
The innumerable blogs that coaching students write describe a grim Dickensian reality. A glimpse of this wretched life can be seen in the TV show "Lakhon Mein Ek" (on Amazon Prime). Hordes of students, many with no interest or aptitude for math or science, are crammed into small spaces, with a daily grind stretching to 16 hours of single-minded "studying". They are immersed in the tremendous stress of competition and keeping up with peers, battling the stigma of being left out of "elite" sections, and the mental torture of odious comparisons with toppers: "No one is gonna pay attention on you unless you're a topper or you commit suicide", says a student in an anonymous post on Quora.
Coaching classes are unregulated, which means that administrators and teachers can indulge in all kinds of discrimination in the name of "brilliance" (or lack of it) - performance-shaming, scolding, taunting - all adding up to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. And finally, the relentless bearing of the burden of expectations of parents, of the fear of letting them down, accompanied by the awareness of the debt that their families may have incurred to finance this ultimate liberation. Even those who stay in their home towns and are not boarders are subject to the stresses of performance and competition.
Unfortunately, parents realize the cruelty of the coaching experience only after the damage has been done to the minds and bodies of their children. The District Collector of Kota, reacting to so many student suicides, wrote a letter to parents in 2016, "Another [student in a suicide note] requests her parents to allow her younger sister to do what she likes and not what they like...One tells candidly that he was manipulated to study science which was not his taste...Many simply write in fewer lines that they could not fulfil the expectations of their parents...Rather few say they were not really capable of doing what is being asked for by them...All of them thought that Death was a much peaceful and effortless action than going through this dilemma of artificially doing what parents want them to do..." Some of these students, "damaged" in various ways, finally end up in the IITs, and this has consequences.
Government agencies have been expressing their "concerns" about coaching for a long time now, with promises to curb this "menace" but nothing has really happened: a nexus of business and political actors ensures that things chug along merrily. Apart from the occasional denouncing of coaching classes by politicians, most "policy" initiatives end up legitimizing the "idea of coaching" and attempt to provide "affordable", ham-handed (and naive) solutions like providing old question papers on websites (so that people will not go for coaching but study from these), initiatives with fancy digital acronyms (IIT-PAL), and setting up of government-sponsored coaching centers for the "poor". Who would want to use these facilities (except as occasional supplementary material) compared to the "real" coaching classes? And so what we have is public policy trying to make coaching affordable, but no attempts in improving school education. It is as if policy-makers have forgotten that the entrance examination became a thing because school/board examinations did not have enough integrity and rigor.
There has also been lot of talk, and some clumsy attempts, of making board examinations great again, in a bid to "counter" the significance of entrance examinations. Some years ago, the HRD Ministry "decided" that board marks should be given weightage in making the JEE merit list and it resulted in weird situations; no one knew how to compare examination scores across different boards, yet things were rammed through. And of course, everyone conveniently forgot to remember that there is so much cheating that goes on in board examinations, further compounded by mysterious moderation policies and marks inflation, that these should never be brought into making ranked lists. However, this led to schools and coaching classes being squeezed into a bear hug to give birth to an innovation called "integrated schools".
We now have all varieties of fusion between regular schools and coaching classes, from being identical (pretending to be a school to the boards and faking attendance, while actually doing just coaching for competitive examinations), to sharing infrastructure and teachers, offering expensive "combo" deals (Rs 4 lakhs for Class 11/12 if only school is opted for, and Rs 8 lakhs with coaching included, less Rs 1 lakh discount). No one bats an eyelid anymore. This is the new normal. Even prestigious, elite schools are now a part of this "rate race" to be most "integrated" with the most successful coaching company/brand. It also shows how markets adapt to confound policy measures that are hostile to their enterprise. The symbiosis is just lovely - with "great" teachers from coaching classes now becoming "available" to schools and school teachers getting a chance to earn more money by being a part of coaching, and school managements not having to hire any more "regular" teachers.
Welcome to the backdoor privatization of schools and the subversion of all fee regulatory norms!
(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)
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