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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Economics of English: Why there’s a boom for IELTS coaching centres in Punjab

As Punjab’s youth make a beeline for education abroad, there is a boom in the number of IELTS coaching centres in the state. The Indian Express explores its various facets.

Written by Angad Singh Brar |
Updated: November 5, 2019 1:10:05 pm
The Economics of English: Why there's a boom for IELTS coaching centres in Punjab Students outside an IELTS institute at Chandigarh’s Sector 17. (Express Photo: Jasbir Malhi)

As Punjab’s youth make a beeline for education abroad, there is a boom in the number of IELTS coaching centres in the state. Angad Singh Brar explores its various facets.

Punjab and IELTS

Punjab has witnessed the duality of globalisation. Globalisation came as a boon as well as a bane for Punjab. The contribution of agriculture to Punjab’s economy in terms of Gross State Domestic Product (GDP) has declined steadily year by year due to the process of globalisation of the Indian economy. The agriculture of Punjab saw a relative slowdown after 1991 liberalisation reforms. When Punjab got connected to the global market after these reforms, there was another change seen in the state. More and more people got awareness to exit Punjab and migrate to countries like Canada, Australia, Middle-Eastern and European nations. This exodus of the youth to these countries was partly due to the lack of opportunities in the agriculture, which was the main familial occupation in Punjab. The present day Punjab has still not become attractive enough to stop this exodus of skilled and unskilled youth to foreign shores. Punjab has 2.9% of India’s population while it contributes close to 10% in the number of workers migrating from India to other countries. This is the case with people who have a qualification level of less than 10th standard.

IELTS is deeply embedded into Punjab’s present day culture. Before the youth of the state can migrate to any English speaking nation, they have to get a minimum score or bands in the IELTS test. This gains significance for the youth which has cleared class 12th and aims to enrol themselves into foreign universities. India is currently the second-largest sending country of international students worldwide after China, and outbound student flows are surging. In the recent past, many foreign colleges have relied on a handful of Indian cities for the bulk of their admissions. Between 2008 and 2012, for instance, the vast majority of student visas were allocated to applicants from traditional hubs like Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Kolkata. Recently, universities and colleges from USA and other countries have started focussing on smaller and mid-sized cities with a growing middle class. Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar are among the cities being targeted by the foreign universities for getting more students admitted. This is because these Tier-II cities have a strong middle class presence. The Canadian Education Centre Network has implemented “agent training workshops” in Chandigarh, as part of an effort to market Canada as a study destination to students from the Punjab and Haryana region. Such efforts are also being undertaken by other countries to attract the youth for getting an education abroad.

Despite the lure of better opportunities in foreign lands, one of the biggest hurdles faced by the youth of Punjab is getting a desired IELTS score. This fact can be easily established when looked at the average bands scored by the test takers speaking various mother tongues. The people who have Punjabi as their mother tongue get the lowest average score in IELTS. The average IELTS score for a Punjabi speaker is just 5.72 bands. Such a dismal show of English proficiency among the youth of the state has led to the proliferation of IELTS coaching centres across Punjab.

What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. IELTS tests the ability to listen, read, write and speak in English. It is designed to test the proficiency of English among non-native English language speakers. A non-native English language speaker is a person who speaks English as a foreign or second language. These speakers do not have English as their mother tongue. Hence, when these speakers desire to migrate to an English speaking country like Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, etc. they require a set minimum IELTS score. This requirement is to affirm that the person going abroad will be able to comprehend and communicate in English language. The score in this test is given in form of bands. There are a total of 9 bands. The range of the score is from band 1, that is, non-user of english, to band 9 which means an expert user of English. IELTS is managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. The test is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish and New Zealand academic institutions, by over 3,000 academic institutions in the United States, and by various professional organisations across the world.

IELTS coaching industry 

The IELTS coaching industry is claimed to be worth Rs 1000 crores. These estimates exclude several home tuition centres which prepare the students for the IELTS exam. The number of coaching institutes in Punjab has skyrocketed to nearly 5500 institutes. Majority of these institutes are not registered with the government. Of the total institutes, only 5% institutes are in the organised sector and impart coaching to around 20% of the students aspiring to go abroad. The organised coaching market in Chandigarh has coaching giants like Touchstone, British Counsel, Grey Matters, CANAM, etc. These institutes have become business houses by diversifying their sources of income generation. Earlier an IELTS coaching institute was a place where only English language coaching was done. As of today, these institutes earn money from additional sources like Visa approval, Paying Guest accommodation, tiffin services, etc.

When a famous IELTS coaching institute in Sector 17 was called upon phone to inquire about the admission charges for a student from Bathinda, the institute explained the expenditure as, “if a student is from a non-english speaking school then he will require extra support from the institute. He should take a 2 month programme in the institute which will cost Rs 26800″. Elaborating on the PG accommodation, the institute affirmed that it has tie-ups with a lot of PG accommodation in Chandigarh and we will provide you with the numbers of these accommodations. Accommodations start from Rs 8000 per month. When the institute was asked about the possibility of the student not getting the desired bands in IELTS, the reply was “ then the student has to extend his classes and these classes will be charged for separately”. The institute also elaborated on its visa services by saying that “we have our own visa branch and it charges Rs 10000 as visa fee before applying and Rs 10000 after the visa is accepted. The visa application fee of Rs 10000 is non refundable if the visa gets rejected”. The institute also conveyed the fact that the total expenditure can range from Rs 16 lakh to Rs 22 Lakh which will include the admission fees for the college to which the student gets admitted.

It was observed that all the coaching institutes, irrespective of their location in Chandigarh or Punjab were fooling students by saying that IELTS score is necessary for an application to be accepted by any foreign college or university. This lures the students to join IELTS coaching centres immediately after they make up their mind to study abroad. In reality, IELTS score is a secondary requirement for foreign universities. These universities give offer letters to students even without an IELTS score provided the student submits an IELTS score before joining the university. This fact is constantly ignored by all the coaching institutes because they project an image that admissions depend only on the IELTS score of the individual.

IELTS coaching institutes have also made deep inroads into Punjab’s cities and towns. Elaborating on the issues being faced due to IELTS institutes, Kartar Kaur of Phillaur explained, “There are two types of coaching institutes which cater to this town. First are the home coaching centres which are operated by individuals giving home tuitions. Second are the big IELTS coaching centres which are functioning in Ludhiana. Students travel daily from Phillaur to Ludhiana to get IELTS coaching. The tuition teachers in Phillaur charge upto Rs 15000 per month for IELTS coaching but a bargain is possible. The coaching centres in Ludhiana charge about Rs 10000 but the money saved is wasted due to daily transportation costs from Phillaur to Ludhiana”. Elaborating further, Kartar said, “My daughter was first enrolled in famous institute in Ludhiana but did not get the required bands. She gave the test twice and spent almost a year in that institute. Later I shifted her to a tuition centre in Phillaur after which she could clear IELTS”. When asked about the burden of expenditure, she said, “Punjab has no opportunities to offer. The children of today hear good stories about Canada, Australia and other foreign countries from their relatives. Hence they want to settle abroad as even the children see no future in Punjab. I as a parent have a duty to spend for my children’s future even if it requires loans”.

The Economics of English: Why there's a boom for IELTS coaching centres in Punjab IELTS coaching institutes have also made deep inroads into Punjab’s cities and towns.. (Express Photo: Jasbir Malhi)

IELTS and the hotel industry 

IELTS as a test has created an industry which feeds on the inability of the Punjabi youth to communicate in English. IELTS on the other hand has also created positive demand for the hotels and banquet halls in Punjab’s cities like Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar. According to reports, the organisations conducting IELTS rent halls in hotels to conduct the test and rooms are also booked for the IELTS examiners to stay. This has been beneficial for the local hoteliers as IELTS test is conducted 48 times in a year. This means a hotel is booked 48 times by the IELTS conducting agencies. The IELTS exam is usually con ducted in three or five star hotels of various cities. This creates positive revenue growth for the hotel industry.

IELTS: A matrimonial market 

As time has passed, people have found several ways to evade the IELTS exam in order to move abroad. A vexing trend of marriages based on IELTS score has emerged. There are two evident reasons identified for such matrimonial alliances. Firstly, the inability of a boy to get the requires IELTS score. Secondly, the economic inability of the girl to migrate abroad. These marriages are based on an informal contract in which the girl after marrying a local boy, migrates to a foreign country to pursue further education. Since the girl got married during her time in India, she can call her husband to the foreign country of her residence. This pathway eliminates the need of the boy to qualify the IELTS test. What seems an opportunity to some is actually a social catastrophe in reality. These marriages happen only after the boy’s family pays a certain amount to the girl’s family. The boy’s family also incurs all the expenditure related to the girl’s migration to a foreign country. There have been several reports of IELTS coaching centres and Visa agents acting as middlemen for such marriages. Manoj Verma of Kapurthala says, “It is not always the agents. I know someone who got his son married to a girl with better IELTS score. There were no middlemen but the common relatives of the girl and the boy”.

Punjab’s education system

The root cause of all the social issues emanating from IELTS is the inability of the state government to educate the state’s youth in English. Throwing all the blame on the government would be a flawed approach as more than 50% of children in Punjab are enrolled in private schools. This also busts the myth that private schools improve upon the English language skills of their students. Currently there are more than 30 lakh students in Punjab enrolled at the senior secondary level. These students are half of the total school student population in Punjab. Hence more than 50% of the school students in Punjab will be leaving school in the next two years. This will lead to more students giving IELTS tests from Punjab. In such a scenario, the government should take a proactive role in controlling the IELTS market. The state has enacted the Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act, 2012, that covers IELTS coaching centres, immigration consultancies, travel, ticket and general sales agents. This act should be used more often and district administration should become more vigilant towards the IELTS market. Furthermore, the government schools need to revamp their curriculum and teaching methods as 70.15 % of primary students of Punjab’s government schools failed the basic test in English, mathematics and Punjabi. This test was conducted by the state Education Department in 12,977 government primary schools. The government is a major stakeholder in this system and the sole hope for reversing brain drain to brain gain.

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