Fri, Sep 14, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Cram schools boom widens India’s class divide

The pressure to attend an elite college is overwhelming students in the cram schools and undermining poorer institutions

By Diksha Madhok  /  Reuters, KOTA, India

Illustration: Mountain People

With a sprawling 20m2 campus, 10,000 students and state-of-the-art LCD projectors in its lecture rooms, Bansal Classes is bigger and slicker than most schools in India.

However, the institution, now a landmark in Kota, a city in the desert state of Rajasthan, is neither a school nor a college. It is the jewel in the crown of India’s private coaching industry, a US$6.4 billion business that exacerbates the country’s social divide.

Cram schools have become a magnet for tens of thousands of mostly middle class families in a country where two decades of rapid economic growth have failed to improve a dysfunctional state education system and a shortage of good universities.

Such cram schools coach students for fiercely competitive entrance tests to a handful of premier technical and medical colleges. Their modus operandi is rote learning. At Bansal’s, hundreds of teenagers are trained intensively to solve complex multiple-choice questions on physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Yash Raj Mishra, a Kota cram student, lives in a tiny room with no television or laptop and spends almost 16 hours a day attending classes, revising or tackling question papers.

“Physics is my first and last girlfriend,” said Mishra, leaning against a wall plastered with notes on Kinematics.

“I feel bad and frustrated when my friends score even slightly better than I do,” added the 17-year-old, who calls his friends only to ask about their academic progress.

Two-year coaching programs in Kota cost between US$3,000 and US$4,000, in addition to which students have to pay for their regular schools and the at least US$2,000 a year they must spend on accommodation. That makes the total expenditure for coaching programs a small fortune for most in a nation where the annual per capita income is around US$1,250.

“A child is a stack of thousand-rupee notes,” said Manoj Chauhan, a mathematics tutor in his late 20s who could have joined a software company or multinational firm, but chose instead to teach in Kota, where many teachers’ salaries top US$6,000 a month.

Such cram schools compound the inequalities of an education system plagued by absentee teachers and high drop-out rates, which have left one-quarter of Indians illiterate and lacking the skills to match the country’s growing economic needs.

A global survey by ManpowerGroup, one of the world’s largest staffing service providers, estimated India’s shortage of skilled labor at 67 percent — the second-worst in the world.

The skill shortages threaten to blunt what is seen as one of India’s biggest economic advantages: its demographic dividend.

With 60 percent of India’s 1.2 billion-strong population under the age of 35, the country has an opportunity to reap the kind of demographic dividend that brought the dramatic transformation of East Asian economies toward the end of the 20th century.

The average age of Indians in 2020 will be 29, compared with 37 in China and the US, and 48 in Japan, bringing a chance to boost productivity and the savings rate. However, India may never realize its dividend if the bulk of its youth are poorly educated, stuck in low-value jobs, or under-employed.

RITE OF PASSAGE

Every year, more than 50,000 students from all over India enroll in Kota, many of them under parental pressure. The riverside town has become the capital of the multibillion-dollar coaching industry, thanks to the success of Bansal Classes, which was set up by a former engineer who held the school’s first classes across the table in his dining room.

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