Why are there ‘education malls’ in Ranchi? Inside the new Kotas of India
The craze for engineering is fading in the metros, but in small-town India, it’s still the only thing to aspire to. And so in places like Madurai and Patna, coaching for admission tests has become a booming, assembly-line business — even though only 1% of aspirants ever make it into an IIT.
“If you’re not an engineer, you’re nothing,” says Kunal Jha, 17. The Class 11 student from Ranchi has been preparing for the engineering Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for the last three years and still has one more year to go before he attempts the three-hour test that will determine his future.
Jha signed up with Shastri Tutorials, a local coaching centre that offered a four-year package to prepare him for his Class 12, and the main and advanced JEE exams. It includes lectures, homework, an unending series of mock exams and gamified quizzes.
Jha’s dream is to score well enough on the JEE to be among the 0.9% applicants who get accepted at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, and eventually become an engineer. He likes painting too, and has always been impressed at depictions of swanky big-city art galleries in films. “But I don’t want to disappoint my father,” he says. “Also, don’t engineers get better wives?”
While big-city students now dream of careers in sports management, fashion merchandising, and social-media marketing, in India’s smaller towns, engineering is as revered as it’s always been, with one major change. Coaching centres are mushrooming closer to home, roping in kids as young as 13, four years before they even pick PCM (physics, chemistry, mathematics) in college, and angle for an IIT seat two years after that.
In Ranchi, the number of coaching centres has shot up from 200 in 2012 to about 10,000 this year, according to the Jharkhand Coaching Association. In Nagpur, the number has risen from 110 in 2008 to 5,000, estimates the Maharashtra Class Owners Association. Bhubaneswar, Patna and Madurai have seen spikes too.
“Parents in small towns are anxious,” says Avijit Pathak, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. “They think school teaching is not up to the mark and cannot prepare their kids to get into an IIT.”
For students like Jha, the centres offer guidance that was never available locally and this early in one’s education. “They teach us to think like a JEE aspirant, we learn all the formulae when we’re young,” he says. He, like lakhs of others across small towns, hopes the early-mover advantage gives him a better shot at the engineering dream. Many experts wonder if the effort is worth it.
Long road to the top
Panini Telang, secretary of the Association of Coaching Institutes India, says coaching classes started flourishing after the IT boom in the mid-2000s. “Families, especially from small towns realised these were good opportunities and wanted their children to become engineers,” she says.
In the first few years, small-town kids would have to leave home to study in bigger cities like Indore and Kota, where the centres first sprung up. Often parents and families moved with them, living in renting homes for a shot at the dream. Within a decade, centres started branching out to the small towns, making the dream more accessible than ever before. The business plans were adapted too – package deals start as early as Class 6, though the most popular ones start from Class 8, and cost upwards of Rs 4 lakh. Banners cover entire streets and local airwaves, there are lower EMIs, and repeater batches if you failed the JEE (Main) in the first of three permitted attempts.
In 2013, when the famous Kota-based coaching centre, Allen, launched a Chandigarh chapter in 2013, the first batch had only 13 students. “The current batch has 7,000,” says Pushkar Rai, the centre head in Chandigarh. “We have students coming from Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and even Assam. This centre is closer, paying guest services are plenty, and the climate is similar to their hometowns’.”
Gopal Pathak, vice chancellor of the Jharkhand Technical University, says coaching classes thrive because “they claim to give you so-called success mantras and an urge to become a topper. This takes away the beauty of learning concepts and their applications.”
Also, not everyone tops exams or gets into an IIT. Data from the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) shows that 11.86 lakh students appeared for the JEE (Main) last exam last year. Of these, 2.21 lakh did well enough to qualify for the JEE (Advanced) and 10,899 got enrolled across 22 IITs and the Indian School of Mines (ISM) Dhanbad.
That’s a success rate of less than 1%. But in cities with fewer routes to success than those in bigger cities, it’s worth the expensive, four-year struggle. Sharma from IIT-Delhi says that if private coaching can increase your chances to get into an IIT by 5%, parents consider it a good enough deal. JEE (Main) scores are also accepted as an admission criteria across other university-affiliated engineering colleges. “So even if students do not qualify for IIT, they will be capable enough to get into a good engineering college,” says Vivek Sharma, managing director of the Maharashtra Class Owners Association.
It’s a tall claim. For the 99% of students who find themselves locked out of the IIT gates after the JEE exam, the struggle is often worse. “Several of them lose hope after underperforming at the entrance exam and switch to Commerce,” says Vikas Kumar, a career counsellor associated with bigger coaching centres in Ranchi. “Others finish their engineering degree from smaller colleges but struggle to find good jobs. There aren’t many options in smaller cities.”
Nishit Devang, 23, completed his BTech in 2016 from Sai Nath University in Ranchi. He is currently working in a BPO in Gurgaon. “I left no stone unturned,” he recalls. “I put in my 100% to get into an IIT, attended a coaching class for 6 hours a day every day.” He didn’t make the cut but still wanted to pursue engineering, so he opted for a local university. “Despite getting good grades, I did not get a job in my field. I now wonder if maybe I should not have been a part of this rat race. Maybe I should have taken up Arts, towards which I was always inclined.”
Like Devang, thousands of BTech-degree holders in India have struggled to find jobs. Data from All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) suggests that only 35% of students enrolled in the colleges of their choice got jobs in the field last year. And given that so many engineering aspirants simply give up on the field if they don’t secure an IIT seat, it’s not surprising that AICTE also records that 47% seats at engineering colleges went vacant last year.
At the IITs, students from small-town centres who do make it, struggle in a different way. “We are seeing more students coming from smaller cities,” says Anurag Sharma, dean of student affairs at IIT-Delhi. “There can be two reasons: well-known coaching centres have penetrated here and are training lakhs of students to crack the JEE; and students from bigger cities are abandoning the IIT route to study abroad, where admission into a good institution is easier.”
It leaves professors with a new challenge: how to teach students the fundamentals of engineering, and encourage research-based knowledge when all they’ve learned for the last five years is how to crack an entrance exam? “Sometimes, students can’t cope with the teaching methods at IITs, which do not involve spoon-feeding you the mathematical formulae,” says Sharma.
Some of the repercussions are already being felt across business and industry. A 2017 report by Head Hunters India, an executive search firm, says that IT companies will lay off 1.75 lakh to 2 lakh employees annually due to their under-preparedness in adapting to newer technologies. Another report by management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company had said nearly half of the workforce in the IT services firms will be ‘irrelevant’ over the next three years.
“The engineering dream still continues,” says Avijit Pathak of JNU. “A young student who might have made a good historian is now an IT professional; or one who would have been inclined to theoretical physics is a tech-manager at a call centre. This is tragic. It’s our collective failure. We need a truly innovative culture of schooling that taps the uniqueness of each child rather than standardised life-projects. We need to educate the parents.”