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Cashing in on angst

A student's testimonial on the homepage of PR Career Solutions thanks Raksha Kamini Kejriwal, lead counsellor at the firm, for helping make his "dream come true." Charu Sudan Kasturi writes.

india Updated: Jul 09, 2011 22:40 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

A student's testimonial on the homepage of PR Career Solutions thanks Raksha Kamini Kejriwal, lead counsellor at the firm, for helping make his "dream come true."

But not every student who walks into Kejriwal's Kanpur office leaves with his "dream" intact. Recently, she recalls, she had to administer a dose of reality instead.

A high school student from a family with modest means came to her, intent on studying automobile design. The only institution in India that offers that programme at the undergraduate stage charges a fee of Rs 20 lakh - way beyond what the boy's family could afford.

"Many students come to us with little clue about fantastic sounding courses. I had to tell the boy to get real," Kejriwal says. "These are the realities of our higher education system."

Critics label them gold-diggers, but the ever-growing competition, stress, anxiety and uncertainty that India's 18-year olds endure as they make the transition from school to college have spawned a genuine demand for industries offering solutions - at each stage.

From metros like Delhi and Mumbai to smaller cities like Indore and Kanpur, students are joining counselling sessions as early as class 9. But counselling doesn't fetch admission into colleges.

That's where coaching classes come in - preparing students for class 12 Board examinations and entrance tests. Also, private universities promise quality education to those who fail to enter the country's premier public institutions.

"The stress would be there with or without coaching centres," argues Arindam Lahiri, an independent education consultant who was earlier heading academics at Career Launcher, a popular coaching institute.

It wasn't always like this. Anxieties and parental expectations were there earlier too, but the failure of the Indian education system to keep pace with the economic liberalisation of the 1990s changed the scale - dramatically. A growing middle class saw in education the route to a better life for their kids.

A total 13.8 million students were enrolled in higher education across streams and degree levels in 2009-10 -almost three times the number (4.8 million) in 1990-91. Cable television and new media bombarded teenagers with advertisements for courses unheard of previously in middle-class Indian homes.

Almost 2 in every 10 students seek career counselling, the HT C-fore survey suggests. Greater Kailash II, an upmarket South Delhi locality, alone boasts over 25 career counselling services.

The number of colleges and universities has also increased dramatically since 1990 - mostly in the private sector. From 3223 in 2000-01, the total number of private universities and colleges in India increased to 7720 by 2005-06.

But the spate of scams in higher education has revealed the hollowness of the quality of growth in opportunities. "We have to substantially increase the quality higher education opportunities for students - that's the solution," HRD minister Kapil Sibal said recently, talking about skyrocketing cut-offs at Delhi University (DU).

The absence of a significant rise in quality higher education opportunities means that an increasing number of students end up focusing on the same fixed set of top institutions, says Kejriwal.

"Everyone from across the country is rushing to apply to DU, which isn't ranked even in the top 200 universities globally. That's how absurd things are," says Lahiri.

The demand-supply gap in quality education is also the fuel that runs the coaching class industry - valued today at over R 30,000 crore, an amount comparable to the central government's annual higher education budget.

For Rajeev Shorey, President of Rajasthan-based NIIT University, this gap represents an opportunity - and a challenge. Shorey admits many private universities sugar coat their shortcomings with misleading claims.

"But by making quality the cornerstone of our approach, offering innovative programmes, and focusing on industry link-ups and research, we have created an environment that is attracting some kids who are as smart as those who go to the IITs," says Shorey.