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Coaching industry tries to reinvent itself in Covid times

Every year about this time, India’s coaching industry starts admitting lakhs of students aspiring for entrance to premier institutes. In the wake of coronavirus, numbers are down to half as institutes try to reinvent their classrooms for a post-pandemic world.

Written by Ritika Chopra |
Updated: June 8, 2020 9:20:42 am
A long recess In Kunadi, a coaching neighbourhood in the town, most hostels are empty. (Photo by Maqsood Ahmad)

APRIL, MAY and June are the months when India’s coaching industry gets ready to welcome a new batch through its doors. Every year, lakhs of students walk through them, fuelling the industry’s annual revenues to upwards of Rs 24,000 crore, the estimate in 2015 by a government-appointed committee, and its annual growth to double digits, as aspirations outpace seats.

A large many of them make their way to India’s coaching capital of Kota, the Rajasthan town whose economy revolves around its coaching institutes. However, a month after most of its 1.5 lakh students left for their homes in other states in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown, the town has worn a deserted look, its coaching centres, hostels, markets and malls shut, and its once bustling haunts now empty.

With educational institutions prematurely shut, entrance exams postponed, and uncertainty hanging over the next academic year, the Covid-19 pandemic hangs over the coaching world. Institutes are seeing fall in admissions to half, budgets that are straining to pay for rented spaces, and fear of online competitors crowding them out.

Coaching institutes have been reaching out to both the government and nervous parents reluctant to send wards to classrooms. On May 29, coaching centres in Kota, led by one of its biggest players, Allen Career Institute, released a list of “security standards for classroom coaching” to “maintain the trust of parents”. These include masks in class, sanitisation of campuses twice a day, special seating arrangements, and the use of umbrellas by students as they enter campuses to ensure social distancing.

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Back in April, the Maharashtra Coaching Classes Association wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray seeking support for over 98,000 members in the form of rent waive-offs, as well as concessions in paying salaries to employees, GST, income tax and Copyright Act charges.

The story is the same across Kota, Delhi, Mumbai, Nagpur, Raipur and Indore. Enrolments usually peak after Class 10 results and the end of competitive exams like JEE and NEET. This time, while the Class 10 exams are to be completed in the first two weeks of July, JEE (Main) is to be held between July 18 and 23 (from April 1 and April 7 originally) while NEET is scheduled for July 26 (earlier, May 3).

After the lockdown began late March, the coaching institutes had moved to online admissions. But, the numbers remain low. The new and existing batches are attending virtual classes on the promise that these will be converted into physical ones soon.

Resonance centres in Mumbai and Raipur and the Indore centre of Allen are seeing half the numbers compared to last year. At the Resonance East Delhi centre, fresh enrolment is just 30% of 2019. “We got less than 10 students in May against the daily average of 10 to 12 around the same time last year,” a teacher at the centre said on condition of anonymity.

“This will remain a bad year for us,” said a teacher at Aakash Institute’s Nagpur centre. “I don’t think parents will be comfortable sending their children to crowded classrooms.”

Desperate for students, institutes have lowered the initial amounts for freezing of seats. A Resonance centre in Delhi, for instance, is accepting advance payments of Rs 10,000, as opposed to Rs 60,000 in 2019. This centre charges Rs 1 lakh for one student per year.

Teachers complain they are being paid less and late even as they now provide individualised attention to students, holding online classes, recording lectures, administering tests, and clearing doubts over WhatsApp and Zoom.

A teacher at the Nagpur franchise centre of Aakash talks of 20% to 25% salary cuts, but Aakash denies it. “Revenues have been impacted as most of our branches are closed for offline programmes while we continue to have outlays for salaries, rentals, overheads. However, as a responsible company… we have not made any salary reduction or delay in payment of salaries,” Aakash Chaudhry, Director and CEO, Aakash Educational Services, wrote in an email.

Also Read | In deserted Kota, problems real and virtual

Vidyamandir Classes in Delhi has released only about 60% of the salary for April for teachers above a certain salary bracket, said one of its teachers employed at a Dwarka centre. An email to Vidyamandir founder Brij Mohan Gupta went unanswered.

Teachers at FIITJEE, among the biggest players in engineering coaching, too spoke of pay cuts. An employee who had been serving his notice period, shared an official email informing him that he was being relieved early because of “huge loss of business” due to coronavirus. Kumar Anshul, of FIITJEE’s marketing division, said the company did not wish to respond to queries.

While teachers at the Maharashtra-based PACE IIT & Medical haven’t received salaries since April, MD Praveen Tyagi claimed this was because he hadn’t been able to access and sign cheques during lockdown.

When asked about pay cuts, R K Verma, MD of Resonance said, “Sab samajdaar hain (Our staff is smart). We will take steps based on how things unfold in future.”

Career Point CEO Pramod Maheshwari said the disruption due to the pandemic was permanent and that, at least this year, parents would prefer coaching online. The Kota-based institute, incidentally, had got onto the e-learning bandwagon last year, and has managed to hold on to its overall enrollment numbers.

“We had 9,000 students last year, of whom 90% were enrolled for classroom teaching. We have 11,000 this time, but 80% of them haven’t shown interest in converting their online classes to offline once the lockdown eases,” he told The Sunday Express.

While this still translates into loss of revenue — “For our online programme we charge 25% of the fees for contact classes,” Maheshwari said — he is confident that their online programme will make up the deficit.

However, CareerPoint is an exception, along with Aakash and PACE, in its foray into online coaching. For traditional centres, contact classes remain the main revenue source.

In the long term now, Maheshwari said, coaching institutes may have to rationalise their offline infrastructure. “Institutes may lay off people on the administration side and those renting space may vacate partially. While we haven’t vacated any space yet, some of our franchises are considering it,” he said.

A shift to online though is worrying for an industry already losing students to established online players. “Tutoring platforms such as Byjus, Unacademy and Vedantu have been doing this for quite some time and their user experience is much smoother. If online coaching is going to be the new normal, we may lose our students to them,” admitted a teacher with a centre of Vidyamandir Classes in Delhi.

According to its CEO Vamsi Krishna, Vedantu has witnessed a 150% increase in paid users for competitive exam preparation during the lockdown. The slump in the offline coaching industry “is the contributing factor”, he told The Sunday Express.

Their platforms offer much more than the hasty shift of traditional coaching institutes to online lectures, he added. “Our content is hyper-animated and visualised, and our platform is interactive. Teachers can launch quizzes, polls and even solve doubts. It’s a different user experience.”

Krishna is confident of retaining his new students once the crisis eases. “I understand the bias for contact classes, but the Covid outbreak has forced students to experience online learning. Once students are habituated to the Vedantu experience, I doubt we will lose them… unless they are in a remote region, with poor Internet connectivity.”

Coaching institutes argue in turn that what they bring to the table can’t be replicated by online firms. “Yes, students can be coached online, but it won’t get you selected to an institute. It won’t get you a qualifying rank,” a teacher with Allen’s Indore centre said.

A teacher with Allen’s Kota centre, which has seen a 10% dip in enrolment, said e-learning suffers from major limitations like “lack of discipline” and “lack of peer learning”. “Students learn from one another while solving problems in a classroom,” he said. “Also, it’s difficult to enforce discipline. Some students clearly cheat in mock tests at home.”

To academics who accuse the coaching centres of encouraging rote learning, to the detriment of all else that involves a school education, this may sound ironical. However, it’s flexibility above all else that has kept the coaching industry thriving, despite attempts by successive governments to rein them in.

In the most significant attempt, in 2013, the IITs — the Mecca of coaching — had changed their entrance eligibility criteria to give more weightage to Board results. However, the institutes had proved one step ahead, adding programmes to improve Class 12 scores as well.

Then, in 2015, an expert committee set up by the Centre to find ways to reduce “the dependence of students on coaching centres”, had recommended a national regulator for the industry. In 2017, in a similar move, the Maharashtra government had proposed a Bill to regulate private coaching institutes. Both were given a quiet burial.

Now the final draft of the long-delayed National Education Policy calls for Board and entrance examination reforms, to “eliminate the need for undertaking coaching classes”.

Says Nitesh Sharma, the head of media at Allen, “Kota has always accepted challenges and changed. We will change again if needed.”

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