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Investigating the Indian Corporate Test-preparation Industry

Success Factories

In recent years, India has become home to one of the fastest-growing test preparation or coaching for “high-stakes examination” industries in the world. In this paper, collating data from various sources, we demonstrate its growth, explore the potential factors fuelling it, and argue that it contributes to the perpetuation of deeply ingrained inequalities in the Indian society. Seeing these trends as symbolic of the transformation of higher education into a tradable commodity, we highlight the limited attempts by the state in developing a robust regulatory environment despite increasing recognition of associated problems.

Each year, India witnesses a large number of aspirants appearing for various entrance examinations. This includes both the aspirants for higher education as well as those seeking entry into coveted government jobs. In 2021, the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main conducted annually for admission to various engineering colleges in India, saw approximately 0.9 million aspirants competing for about 36,000 seats. In the same year, the Union Public Service Commission Civil Services Examination (UPSC-CSE), saw close to a million aspirants for as few as 712 seats (Table 1, p 55). Recently, the government announced the introduction of another large-scale, nationwide entrance exam, the Common University Entrance Test (CUET), a single test for determining admissions to all central universities across the country. To be launched in July 2022, an estimated two million students will be taking the test for admissions to around 2,00,000 undergraduate university seats (Kumar 2022). Due to the presence of such a large number of test-takers every year, in multiple streams of study, the test- preparation market has seen wide-scale expansion across most states of the country with fairly high levels of corporatisation (Bhalerao and Sabnavis 2018). Many such test-preparation service providers, like Career Launcher (CL Educate Ltd) and Career Point Ltd are now running businesses worth millions of dollars ($46 million and $58 million respectively—see Table 2, p 56). The rapid growth of this industry has also had its own discontents, including, inter alia, concerns of equity (Bray 2009; NDTV Profit 2012), extreme psychological stress on students (Nair 2014; Subbarao 2008), and corruption for the achievement of desired results (Saxena 2015).

In the present paper, we attempt to map the political–­economic landscape of the rapidly expanding test-preparation industry in India. We collate data from a variety of sources, including academic literature, practitioner reports, annual reports of industry participants, government reports, media reports, parliamentary statutes, etc, to study the growth of this industry and delineate the factors fuelling it. We look at some of the significant players in this industry as well as the nature, size, and segments of their operation. We demonstrate, using data available from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) websites, JEE reports, and other sources, that the chances of getting admission into institutes of higher learning as well as access to test-preparation services, due to high fees along with the prevalence of income inequality are very bleak. Subsequently, we critically examine the efforts made by the lawmakers as well as the lack of it—to regulate the aspects of this industry. We then discuss the evident and possible socio-economic consequences and the corresponding implications for policymakers. Throughout the paper, we use international examples and contexts, wherever applicable. While we differentiate clearly between private tutoring in general and the industrial test-preparation segment (which is part of the larger private-tutoring environment), we use evidence from both sectors to bolster our arguments as both have considerable interlinkages.

Shadow’ Education System

The growing presence of a “shadow” education system—a term used to define the private tuition industry—along with the mainstream education system, in many developing as well as developed countries, is a well-acknowledged fact (Bray and Kwo 2014). The global private tutoring market, covering both school and post-school segments, already touched a size of $92 billion in 2020, and has been projected to reach $172 billion by 2028 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.3% (Fortune Business Insights 2021).

In India as well, a growing demand for private tutoring is a well-recognised phenomenon. The total size of the Indian private tutoring market was estimated to be around $31 billion in 2017 and was expected to reach the size of $45 billion in 20201 (Bhalerao and Sabnavis 2018). To provide a comparative perspective, the ­total allocation for the Ministry of Education, school, and higher education combined for 2022–23 was around `1,04,000 crore, or approximately $15 billion only (Mint 2022). While the demand for supplementary tutoring in India is not confined to urban areas alone (Dongre 2014) and is present at all levels of education, that is, from primary to higher education (NSSO 2015), in this paper, we primarily focus on the industrial/corporate-run test preparation industry that promises success in competitive exams.

Test preparation is a type of shadow education that typically refers to privately provided supplementary tutoring, with the explicit aim of qualifying entrance exams or scoring well on standardised tests, either for higher education or other evaluation purposes. The nature of test preparation services provided varies, depending on many variables, like the type of exam, profile of students, etc. As one co-founder of CL Educate—one of ­India’s largest test preperation service providers—observes:

Once restricted to textbooks and printed study notes, the segment (test-preparation) has evolved to a mix of classroom delivery, study material, live and pre-recorded video sessions delivered online, online dissemination and testing, where students can access course material via online portals and smartphone applications. (Mahajan nd)

The growth of the test-preparation industry has not been restricted to a few education systems and has been prevalent across the United States (Clark 2014), China (Shadbolt 2014), South ­Korea (Byun et al 2012) and Japan (Entrich 2017), among other nations of the world. While private tutoring for school-level education is a fragmented, localised activity whose nature varies from place to place, the test-preparation or coaching for high-stakes examinations segment provides an opportunity for scaling across a larger area as many of the popular entrance tests at both the graduate and postgraduate levels are national/­regional in character (Vora and Dewan 2009). The test-preparation segment in India has now become an industry in its own right and constitutes about 20%–22% of the total private tutoring industry according to various estimates (MT Educate 2016). It is estimated to have grown from a size of approximately `24,500 crore ($3.50 billion) in financial year (FY) 2013–14 (CEBI 2014) to `37,800 crore ($5.4 billion) in FY 2016 (Purswani et al 2017), and was projected to reach a size of `77,000 crore or $11 billion in 2021 (KPMG 2017). In comparison, the total budget allocation for the Dep­artment of Higher Education in India for 2022–23 was approximately `40,828 crore ($5.8 billion) (Ministry of Education 2022); a “shadow” overtaking the body in size, it seems.

As Table 2 shows, the test-preparation segment in India has seen a wide-scale expansion with players, like MT Educare and CL Educate, operating at more than 200 centres across the country. There has also been an increase in the private equity investment activity in many of these test-preparation firms, indicating the growing prominence of the profit motive as a primary driving factor fuelling expansion and penetration. For instance, Resonance Eduventures received an investment of `670 crore ($95.71 million) from private equity firm KKR (Bar and Bench 2017), while MT Educare received an investment of `200 crore ($28.57 million) from Zee Learn in 2018 (Zee Learn 2018). Several other players, like ­FIITJEE and Career Launcher (CL Educate) also maintain an international presence, with centres running in Bahrain, Doha, and Dubai. BYJUs, which happened to be a Bengaluru-based test-preparation company focused on training CAT (MBA ent­rance test for IIMs) aspirants till 2011, has now diversified in the edtech space to provide online courses across several education segments (including both school-level and coaching for competitive exams) (News18 2022). As of 2022, BYJUs has been ranked as one of the top 15 most highly valued unicorns in the world, with a total valuation of $22 billion (Jain 2022). Some of its key investors include Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Sequoia Capital, Bond, Silver Lake, BlackRock Inc, Sands Capital Management, Tencent, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Qatar Investment Authority, etc (BYJUs nd).

Understanding the Drivers of Growth

There are several reasons that fuel the growth of both private supplementary tutoring as well as the test-preparation ­industry. In this section, while maintaining our focus on the test-preparation industry, we also draw on evidence from studies on private tutoring to understand the test-preparation phenomenon holistically, as both phenomena are interlinked to a certain extent. There is evidence to suggest that in the case of private supplementary tutoring (other than test preparation), there is a positive influence on learning outcomes (Aslam and Atherton 2012; Alcott and Rose 2015; Dongre and Tewary nd). In the case of test preparation, however, the evidence is mixed, with several studies finding both statistically significant (Bangert-Drowns et al 1983) and insignificant effects of test preparation on the scores (Briggs 2001; Griffin et al 2008). From a cultural perspective, Bray (2007) observes that cultures that emphasise effort, rather than ability, are more likely to follow the trend towards accessing supplementary tutoring for achieving better academic performance. This observation finds resonance in Dierkes’s (2011) work on the Japanese juku industry. It has also been observed that across countries, a culture of testing, reliance on “high-stakes” examination as a measure of success and learning (the perception that high scores equals learning), and entry into a career of choice are some of the key drivers for seeking ­private tutoring (UNESCO 2018).

As degrees/diplomas from prestigious universities and colleges are expected to work as “signals” for skills that help ­reduce the sorting and selection costs for potential employers leading to a “diploma disease” (Dore 1976), the test preparation industry fuels this “disease” further. From this perspective, in India, there is evidence to suggest that an examination-focused education system and rising aspirations to crack ent­rance examinations are the main reasons for seeking private tutoring (Sujatha 2014). For instance, test-preparation service providers in India, like Resonance Eduventures Limited, now offer courses preparing students as early as Class 5 onwards for various talent search and competitive examinations. The Resonance Eduventures website describes its programme as,

(The programme) ensures a concrete conceptual base which helps the students emerge successful in school examinations and competitive examinations which are organized at national and international levels.

 

Some Concerns—Equity, Quality, and Stress on Students

While evaluating the socio-economic influence of the growth of private supplementary tutoring based on case studies from across the world, Bray (2003) makes several observations that broadly include, inter alia, concerns of equity—it is more easily available to students from economically better-off backgrounds; quality—there is enhanced pressure on students to filter out “less relevant” aspects of education and focus on cracking examinations; and stress—continuous studying for extended hours without break or recreation causes excessive stress in students. We probe each of these in the specific context of the Indian test-preparation industry, with relevant international references wherever applicable.

Equity

While the system of conducting entrance examinations and selecting meritorious students might be fair and just, in itself, the resources to excel in these examinations might be less than fairly distributed. With test preparation institutes now appearing to be, more or less, an indispensable “tool” for cracking difficult entrance exams, concerns regarding the equality of opportunity are more relevant than ever before. A study commissioned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 2016 found that just like private schooling, private tutoring is differentially available to different segments of the society, based on their ability to pay. Families in the richest quintile were found to be spending a lot more (about four times more) on private tutoring than the ones in the poorest (Lewin et al 2016). There is evidence to suggest that this trend holds true for accessing test-preparation services as well. For instance, in 2012, while 10.3% of applicants with parents’ income exceeding `4,50,000 per annum (approximately $6,429) could clear the IIT entrance exam, the corresponding figure for applicants with parents’ income below `1,00,000 per annum (approximately $1,429) was only 2.6%. Also, while 5.8% of city-based applicants could clear the same exam, the corresponding figure for village-based candidates was only 2.7%, pointing towards the strong effects of coaching (Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata 2012). Similarly, for the JEE Advanced exam, the success rate of applicants in different parents’ income categories (Table 3—number of candidates qualified as a percentage of the number of candidates registered, separately in each parents’ income category), for 2014 and 2016, also demonstrates that candidates ­belonging to econo­mically better-off backgrounds appear to have an edge over those from relatively humbler backgro­unds. As Table 3 shows, while students belonging to the lowest-inc­ome category (parents’ income less than `1,00,000 per ­annum) have a success rate ranging from 14% to 16%, students from the middle (annual parents’ income `4,00,000 to `5,00,000—success rate 27%) and higher-income backgrounds (parents’ annual income `8,00,000 and above—­success rate 38%–39%), appear to have considerably higher success rates. Table 4, which documents the average fees of coaching for different competitive examinations in India, further establishes that access to test-preparation services rem­ains a privilege, available only to the economically better-off. With the average fees ranging from `80,702 ($1,153) for courses on IIT-JEE entrance tests to `44,834 ($640) for courses on medical entrance tests, one can be certain that test-preparation services are almost completely off limits for the poorer sections of the Indian society.

Quality and Stress

In terms of quality and stress on students, Subbarao (2008), in his assessment of the changing nature of student quality at the prestigious IIT Kanpur, observes that students who enter the institute are ­exhausted and burnt out due to the excessive stress of two to three years of coaching. Examination-focused preparation adds very little to their ability to think critically and they tend to develop weak foundations in other disciplines due to a singular focus on physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Interestingly, according to an in-house survey conducted among those students of IIT Kanpur who had attended a coaching class at Kota (a city in Rajasthan, with one of the highest concentrations of IIT-JEE coaching centres and aspirants in India), it was found that 93.5% respondents believed that the quality of teaching offered at the coaching institutes was better than that offered by their schools; 59% respondents ­believed that the stress in Kota was higher than that in IIT Kanpur, and 20% respondents personally knew someone who had committed suicide in Kota. Moreover, close to 60% students reported using “dummy” schooling while preparing for ent­rance exams in Kota (Datta et al 2016). Dummy schooling ­refers to an illegal system where students can enrol in a school for writing exams and are exempted from attending classes, allowing them to focus exclusively on preparing for the entrance tests (Garg 2017).

The rise of the test-preparation industry in India has also coincided with the rising number of suicide cases among aspirants of various exams. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB 2015), Kota witnessed the second highest rise (61.3%) in the number of suicides among cities in India over a one-year period of 2013–14. A recent study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences also found that the instances of self-harm, substance abuse, bullying, loneliness, sleep-related issues, etc, are common among students at Kota (Chhapia 2018). Concerned by the rise in such incidents, the Government of Raj­asthan appointed a committee, headed by the principal secretary, higher education department, to address this issue ­(Singh 2015; Singh and Malik 2016).

On Government Response and Regulation

Concerns regarding the regulation of test-preparation centres have been expressed intermittently at various echelons of the government, with a member of Parliament also equating their operation to “education terrorism” (Indian Express 2015). However, the response from the state has primarily been in the realm of rhetoric reserved for “dependent” groups, that is, social groups having low power but positive social construction (Schneider and Ingram 2005). Enervated by the market logic and yet pitied by society, the students receive rhetorical support but are made to bear hidden burdens that they are unable to contest (Pierce et al 2014).

Education falls in the Concurrent List under the Indian Constitution, implying that both the central and state governments can make laws to regulate it (Sanyal 2010). However, efforts towards the regulation of private-tutoring/test-preparation centres have been fragmented, as many states have made individual efforts to get a grip on this industry, with limited tangible initiative by the central government. For instance, the Bihar assembly passed the Bihar Coaching Institute (Control and Regulation) Act in 2010, requiring coaching institutes to register for three years on a renewable basis, publish course structure, fees, tutor qualifications, etc, and provide adequate infrastructural facilities to students (Bihar Gazette, Extraordinary 2010). While the act is quite comprehensive in terms of bringing the coaching institutes of the state within a well-­defined legal framework, it does not seek to regulate the fees or address student stress or exhaustion. The same is the case with Karnataka, which requires private tutorial centres to register under the Karnataka Education Act, 1983 (Deepika 2013; Department of Parliamentary Affairs and Legislation nd). While the respective state governments do recognise the need for regulating the private-tutoring market, there is definitely a lack of coherence, in terms of the objectives, which they seek to achieve by doing so. Issues of registration, legal status, and infrastructural provisions, though important ones in themselves, do not form the core of the problem that is associated with the rise of the test-preparation market, that is, the effect it has on increasing social inequality and on student mental and physical health.

The central government on its part has been slow in res­ponding to the challenges posed by this rapidly growing industry. The MHRD (now education ministry), in an affidavit filed against a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Supreme Court of India in 2014, had expressed its inability to address the issue of student suicides being triggered by malpractices in coaching institutes, on the grounds that it considered such incidents as a law-and-order situation within the states in which they occurred and therefore did not have the jurisdiction to act on them (Nair 2014). Private member bills have been introduced periodically (for example, in 2006, 2011, 2016, 2019, among others) in either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, seeking regulation of this industry (Lok Sabha 2006, 2016, 2019; Rajya Sabha 2011). Yet, none of these have seen the light of the day till this date. A 2015 report, submitted by the committee of eminent persons (CEP) to examine the JEE system, set up by the MHRD, acknowledged the presence of the test-preparation institutes as an industry and its unwarranted influences on student life. It recommended, inter alia, the establishment of an all-India body to regulate test-preparation centres—the All-India Council for Coaching for Entrance Examination (AICCEE)—and stressed the need for reducing the influence of coaching institutes over time. It suggested improving the quality of school education and state-level technical institutes to make coaching institutes redundant (Department of Higher Education 2015). The National Education Policy (NEP) has identified the growing influence of the coaching industry in a negative light. It emphasises the designing of entrance exams in such a way as to “eliminate the need for undertaking coaching classes” (MHRD 2020: 18).

In 2018, the central government also established the National Testing Agency (NTA) as a self-sustained, independent, test-development and assessment organisation, entrusted with the mandate of conducting several high-stakes examinations inc­luding, inter alia, engineering (JEE [Main]), certification ­(University Grant Commission’s National Eligibility Test or UGC-NET), medical education entrance (NEET), and management education (CMAT or Common Management Admission Test), etc (Press Information Bureau 2018). The agency is supposed to be conducting these examinations twice every year (from 2019 onward) in order to ease the pressure on students. The NTA also plans to convert its test centres into free coaching centres in order to provide support to rural students as well as students from financially weaker backgrounds (Dhar 2018). In September 2021, NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s foremost policy research and advisory institution, entered into a collaboration with BYJUs to enhance access to “quality learning material” by government school students in select districts, apart from facilitating free coaching for a select number of engineering and medical aspirants (India Brand Equity Foundation nd). While the streamlining of entrance tests, increasing the number of att­empts available to students, as well as provision of coaching services through NTA testing centres come across as welcome moves for insuring students’ interests against a flourishing test-preparation industry, these, along with collaborations between government bodies and test-preparation companies, also reaffirm the role of private test-preparation service providers as legitimate players in the higher education ecosystem. If the state itself becomes yet another test-preparation service provider available in the entire spectrum of options present in the market, it would be difficult to envisage if such a move could really address the systemic inequality and stresses that the present system perpetuates.

Conclusions

The evidence presented in this paper raises a pertinent question. Given the immense strategic implications of a growing test-preparation industry in India, which has a strong bearing on the livelihood prospects of millions of young people, why has the state consistently shied away from debating the possibility of its regulation? There has been an evident transition from viewing education as a public good for human development, to a tradable commodity in the market. The rising rates of suicide among aspirants, increasing stress among students, and the lack of accessibility for aspirants from underprivileged backgrounds clearly demonstrate the anomic trends associated with the rise of the test-preparation industry. The model of establishing an AICCEE, for regulating test-preparation centres, can be used as an effective framework for regulating and streamlining of this industry, provided it is established after due consultation with all the stakeholders, including students, job aspirants, parents, teachers, and the entrepreneurs running the test-preparation businesses. There is now substantial evidence to suggest that this industry engages with a wide range of stakeholders and has a direct and indirect bearing on the education and livelihood prospects of a large group of people. Keeping the system simply in the shadows has done nothing to mitigate its growth, and the policymakers will have to act to address the growing inequalities, and the damage it breeds.

Note

1 Estimated based on percentage share of target population (3–18, 18–23 years) and enrolment rate.

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Updated On : 11th Jun, 2022
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