There’s little scholarly research on the subject even when, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation, around 7.1 crore Indian children attend some form of private coaching and 10 to 11 per cent of a family’s budget is consumed by such tuitions. The private coaching industry is bigger than $ 40 billion. This is about the state GDP of Odisha.
Kota is the poster-child of this huge yet shadow education system. The $ 45-million dollar coaching industry in the city has led to the suicide of 57 young people in the last five years — seven students just this year.
Research suggests coaching in a Kota centre could well begin when the child is 13 years old. She would never attend a regular school with playgrounds or read poems in a class. She will only undertake IIT/medical college preparation classes. The creativity is killed before it blooms. The two-year cost (including tuition and living expenses) for parents could be around Rs 6 lakh — India’s average per capita annual income is about Rs 86,000. Acceptance rates as low as 0.005 per cent (for IITs) leaves the unsuccessful students dejected and guilt-ridden — an enormous psychological and emotional cost.
Is there a benefit which justifies this cost? Does coaching add value to human capital, or is it merely a signalling device? If it adds value then the governments must encourage them. But if it’s the latter, alternative means of signalling must be evolved given the horrendous social cost.
There is some evidence — Pratham conducted a two-year randomised control trial — that private tutoring in school (grade 3 or 4) did benefit students in mastering basic skills. But there is no systematic evidence which shows that coaching for entrance examinations to colleges leads to any significant increase in productivity. In India, due to a high number of applicants, entrance examinations brutally cast aside many.
If the coaching classes indeed contributed to human capital, then we should observe once-coached IIT graduates excelling in their career significantly more than their
un-coached counterparts (controlling for other things). There is no evidence to show this. Although there is no evidence to show the contrary either, it is not difficult to imagine the need of coaching merely as signalling. A World Bank publication (Dang and Rogers, 2008) theoretically explains that coaching institutions are not likely to add value to human capital. In fact, an increase in signalling efforts comes at the cost of human capital — in Kota, formal education for the IIT/medical college aspirant is offered in dummy schools which lack well-rounded education. Entrance tests measure merely signalling value and therefore, coaching is not likely to increase students’ human capital any more than self-practice does.
What must be the policy response? Countries have varying responses to private coaching: Ban (in Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia), regulate (in Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam, Ukraine), ignore (in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, UK, Canada) or encourage (in Singapore, South Africa, Tanzania). Banning has been unsuccessful either due to weak implementation (Myanmar, Cambodia) or because of powerful interest groups (Korea). Banning doesn’t make sense in India too. Regulation could be useful. But India has weak enforcement infrastructure and a highly inelastic demand for coaching.
Therefore, alternative signalling mechanisms must be explored. Many elite universities around the world often select students on the basis of their overall intelligence and performance in schools. For many, exams act as a process to eliminate non-serious applicants, but don’t determine their selection. Selection happens through a rigorous process of considering several factors — grades, recommendations, interviews, motivation, extra-curricular activities. This means students must attend regular schools engaging with history, poetry, mathematics, debating and football. In such alternative systems, there is little that coaching institutions can do to terminate creativity of societies. If anything, they will turn themselves into good schools — and we do need more good schools.