Parallel Universe of Education

Thanks to Aradhana Sharma’s article by the same name in the Times of India, I got some more information on the informal/formal coaching/tuitions marketspace in India. I have always believed that this marketplace place is under-represented, specially the informal side of it.

First, some background. Coaching is an inclusive term defining academic interaction on commercial terms outside the formal school and college/university system. The Coaching industry is a parallel universe. Some formal system teachers teach less in the formal classroom, and more in this informal classroom; many times it is the same students that are being taught inside and outside. Tutors include not just professionals from education, but students, graduates, housewives with a degree etc. I would include non-academic coaching (formal and informal) within the ambit of this term. This includes sports, performing & fine arts etc. at all levels starting from children of age 2. As Aradhana says, “no stream is sacred, no area untouched”.

The marketplace is as big as the marketplace for textbooks in terms of the number of consumers. Coaching is associated with performance, accountability and adaptability. Parents are paying additional sums of money to tutors, who come home for individual attention or are located close by (for groups), because of many reasons – school educational system is less rigorous, there is peer pressure, parents have increasing less time and ability to coach their own children, teachers in school are ill-equipped or incompetent, personal attention/accountability in coaching etc.

The marketplace is, by nature, fragmented. For the more visible publicly competitive exams like the IIT, MBBS, UPSC, MBA, Law and CA entrance exams, the preference would be large established players – Career Launcher, Aakaash, FIITJEE, Rau’s – who are at the top of the pyramid and gross over INR 100 cr or USD 25 mn annually, with a pan India presence. The second level of players are also few in number, another 10-odd who gross between USD 2.5-25 mn annually.

The vast majority of coaches, however, are the ones operating in the neighbourhood (just imagine how many neighbourhoods exist in India), supplementing their main source of income or carving out spare time from other chores. Their income could range from 0-20 lakh INR or 0-50K USD annually. Not only that, there is fierce competition for students as well in a particular neighbourhood. An important aspect is the rising standard of living, which makes the coaching profession a viable and lucrative one given the poor conditions of pay in the traditional system.

This is a high level of fragmentation which should inform and impact any thinking or action in this area. I am not sure what the rural-urban spread is, but that is another really important factor.

The industry is estimated to be between 10-20,000 cr (I think this is a gross understatement) or USD 2.5-5 bn annually. We spend about USD 10 bn on the public school system annually, so these estimates are really not insignificant. The players are very adaptive – they respond quickly to changes in the formal school/college system – and know enough to adopt techniques to bring about better reliability in terms of results.

That’s one thing I would ask Aradhana to change – her conception of this universe as parallel and as shadowy/murky. It is really neither. It is a service that fulfils a need within the educational system and the teachers are no less competent than their counterparts (in fact, in many instances, they are shared resources which is an obvious conflict of interest – but that is another story).

But it cannot be parallel, since there a singular accepted assessment and certification systems in the school boards, entrance exams and university assessment frameworks. It cannot be shadowy because it does not operate under the hood – it is an accepted service, whose value is fairly well established.

Aradhana points out that this marketplace is not regulated. This has many consequences: the benefits of good regulation in terms of quality, redressal, financial schemes, quality of learning environment etc. are lost, and, there is no structured way to reach out to the coaches and help them innovate. I would add to this the loss to the government in tax revenues which could be staggering and the issues with equitable access in the coaching marketplace.

By structuring this sector, we could well eliminate our teacher shortage problem. By incorporating best practices or providing some way of merging the two operations – we could gain standardization, make existing educational system more relevant – basically improve the aspects lacking in both types of operations. For example, allowing coaches to utilize school infrastructure would improve access to students for coaches while at the same time allow better learning infrastructure/conditions for students.

There must be a way to integrate in an industry that is so large and obviously needs regulation or at least some sort of organized mentoring. The same industry could be then grown to do online tutoring for foreign students, filling in for absentee teachers, providing academic support to students, research and so many other things.

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