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The Indian Education Scramble

By Ajit Balakrishnan
September 21, 2022 09:33 IST
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Tuition classes: Saviours or demons, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

There is no surer way to get a group of senior academics to shout and scream at one another than to pose this question: You mean every 10-year-old kid must have a full term in learning Newton's laws of motion before you can teach him to ride a bicycle?

The questions posed are allegorical and such debates are often at the centre of educational policymaking: 'Don't you think we should teach the student the main work of Milton and Shakespeare before we teach her creative story writing?'

'Don't you think we need to teach the student semantics before we teach him Python programming?'

Such a debate is a wonderful thing, I think. The Indian higher education system was crafted largely during the British era and thus has inherited the British emphasis on knowledge as something superior to skills.

Thus, the truly intelligent and deserving (meaning having high scoring skills in exams) are admitted to, for example, engineering colleges and others aspiring to similar technical careers but lacking such skills are packed off to polytechnics to pursue 'vocational education'.

Thus, it is little wonder that those who go through vocational education courses are seen as not quite there compared to those who go through regular graduate courses in universities.

And I have often seen the sense of perplexity on the faces of friends when I tell them that things are very different in Germany, where 75 per cent of the people in the 19-24 age group have received formal vocational education whereas in India the corresponding number is a measly 5 per cent.

In India there is another intriguing factor I cannot quite comprehend: The central role of tuition classes, whether at school level or to prepare for entrance exams for practically any type of course.

Both at school and undergraduate levels, tuition teachers are seen as central to both helping you get admitted to the desired institution as well as assist the student survive through these institutions and pass with good enough marks/grades for the next step.

Such private-tuition classes are nearly universal with very slight differences between urban and rural schools and among public/aided/private schools. Even primary schoolchildren are taking tuition.

While the southern states are slightly lower in this percentage, the eastern ones have two-thirds or more schoolchildren taking tuition. In most cases these tuitions are a daily matter.

Several attempts by researchers to unravel why this devotion to tuition conclude that while on the face of it the perceived poor quality of teaching is the reason, in reality the most common reason is that 'taking tuition is what all others do'.

There is an almost universal belief in India that private tuition is an absolute must to score well in exams.

Do tuitions teach you skills or knowledge? As far as I can tell, they teach you rote-learning. They help you anticipate the questions that are asked of you and train you to output the tailored answers.

The real question is: Does this lead to knowledge?

What is even more troubling is that during the last decade’s excitement about start-ups and venture capital investment, a sizeable proportion of such investment has gone into the so-called edtech sector.

In this sector, while most purport to offer the convenience of online education, they are focused on the test-preparation sector.

And looking at the huge valuations such start-ups are receiving, it looks as if parents in India are enthusiastically ploughing their hard-earned savings into subscriptions for their children at such start-ups.

But in India, we do not cast even a sideward glance at institutions like those in Kota, Rajasthan, where at any time there are close to 100,000 youngsters being taught how to game the IIT entrance exam, which over a million appear in and a mere 10,000 are admitted to the IITs.

Or take another example -- the coaching classes nationwide that train nearly a half a million students who take the civil services examinations conducted by the Union Public Service Commission for approximately 1,000 posts.

Or the common entrance exam for our National Law Schools, where 75,000 plus applicants vie for approximately 7,500 seats.

Well-to-do folks in India get their children to escape such competition by enrolling them in private universities at a cost of more than Rs 25 lakh or send them to universities abroad paying more than Rs 1 crore for a four-year course.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping banned private for-profit businesses from offering both online and offline tutoring classes for children from kindergarten to ninth grade. These new guidelines clearly state that all entities that offer offline or online tutoring from elementary to middle school must restructure themselves as non-profits.

These guidelines also ban such businesses from offering classes on weekends, holidays, and summer and winter breaks -- effectively allowing tutoring only on weekdays, for a limited number of hours at that.

One of the possible surprises waiting in the shadows of such debates is the frantic search for AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, an effort on which practically 80 per cent of the research funding in the world is currently devoted to.

Early results already allow human call centre operators to be displaced by chatbots and you can only wonder what this will do in the next two to five years to the very large call centre economy we Indians have become champions of.

Equally breakthrough work is underway to get chatbots to do 90 per cent of the jobs currently being done by professionals such as lawyers, judges, and physicians, the mainstay professions of India's middle class.

How will all this hang together in the future? The booming tuition class economy, the impossibly high competition to make it to one of India's top professional universities, astronomically priced private Indian universities, the emerging role of artificial intelligence/machine learning to take over the work of expert professionals?

Ajit Balakrishnan (, founder and CEO,, is an Internet entrepreneur.

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