NEWS
23/06/2020 8:50 AM IST

‘Daylight Robbery’: How India’s Vast Tuition Centre Industry Is Weathering Lockdown

The lockdown’s impact on the lucrative tuition centre industry has flown under the radar.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Keshav Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

CHANDIGARH — In March this year, SB paid Rs 40,000 as the first instalment of a Rs 1.16 lakh fee for an IAS entrance examination coaching centre in Jaipur. When the lockdown was announced on March 25, the centre — which promised personalised attention to each student — offered an online programme that consisted of pre-recorded lectures.

Then in May, her father who worked in the real estate sector was laid off by his company due to the coronavirus-triggered recession. SB, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy, decided to drop out as she could no longer afford her coaching classes.

“They have removed me from the online group as I was unable to pay the monthly EMI in April,” SB said, in a telephone conversation.  “Also, they have refused to refund my down payment paid during the time of admission,” said SB.

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The effects of India’s lockdown on school and college education has been widely discussed and documented. Yet, the lockdown’s impact on the lucrative tuition centre industry has flown under the radar.

From pens to electronics

While most organised centres are offering some form of e-learning, students say the online classes don’t offer the sort of rigorous personal attention that they expected when they paid significant sums of money upfront. Education is seen as one of the few remaining opportunities for upward mobility in India’s stratified society, and it isn’t uncommon for parents from across the class-spectrum to set aside money for expensive after-school tuitions. 

Now, these parents are wondering why they are continuing to pay hefty fees for vastly diminished services. Many parents and students now want their money back, even as teachers say they are struggling with the always-on demands of online teaching. But for now, the tuition centres are holding firm.

“Why are they charging the same fee of classroom coaching when they are feeding our children pre-recorded lectures ?” said  A J Minhas, a Delhi based banker. “They have reduced their staff strength, are not paying any electricity or other maintenance bill and are also running multiple batches simultaneously with the same set of faculty.” 

Minhas said he paid Rs 3 lakh in March this year for a two-year after-school tuition programme to prepare his son for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for a place in a prestigious engineering college.

Where his son was promised personal attention in a classroom, and a set of 43 textbooks and study materials, he is now watching a lecture online and skimming through emailed pdfs.  

“This is daylight robbery,” Minhas said. 

Gurtej Singh, a Chandigarh-based grocery shop owner, said online learning also came with significant costs. Where students could once be sent off to study with little more than a thick register and a couple of ballpoint pens; they now need a bevy of electronics.

“Along with the full course fee, parents are now also paying for multiple internet connections for their children,” Sidhu said. “We have to buy separate laptops and mobile phones for them, and also bear the cost of additional stationery items like printer, paper  and cartridges to download hundreds of pages of pdfs  of the course books.”

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Cost and quality of online classes

Dr. Parth J Shah, President of the Centre for Civil Society, an education-research non-profit, said the pandemic had put tuition centres in a bind.

“Their cost of running the institutions hasn’t changed much — salaries, building rents, loans, payment for hardware and software, all remain the same,” Shah said over email. “If they provide no online education and ask for fees to cover the unchanged costs, they would be denounced.”

“If they invest and train their teachers and staff to deliver online education and ask for the same fees as earlier, they still get denounced. What should they do?” Shah said.

Shah said it would be “magical” if the quality of education remained the same despite the fact that the education industry has no prior experience of dealing with the unique constraints imposed by the pandemic. 

“Since neither schools, nor parents, nor students have experienced such a situation ever, it stands to reason that none of them is going to be able to discover and implement pedagogies, attention techniques, new ways of self-learning in a short time under the constant fear of the pandemic,” Shah said. 

Ram Lubhaya Trikha, a Director of FIITJEE one of India’s oldest IIT-prep centres, said coaching centres like his were trying their best to bridge the gap between online and offline classrooms.  

“You cannot expect the same discipline, environment and concept clarity as one experiences while having a face to face interaction with teachers,” Trikha admitted.  “There is a different energy, passion, concept clarity  and discipline when one attends a classroom coaching as compared to those attending online sessions.” 

Vinay Joshi, administration head of Chandigarh based Raj Malhotra IAS coaching centres told HuffPost India that while the institute has announced a huge discount on the online courses, it has not returned the money back to those who deposited it before the lockdown.

“We will resume classroom coaching for them once the lockdown gets over,” said Joshi. 

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Older faculty struggle

In March, one of India’s reputed  IAS coaching institutes shut down its classroom contact programmes permanently in Chandigarh and migrated to online coaching.

Dr Vivek Rana, a faculty of science and technology, along with an entire team of the classroom teachers were told to either accept a minimum salary to meet essential needs like food and paying house rent—which was around 10 per cent of their salary—or resign. 

“I along with five other senior teachers were earning a monthly salary of Rs 1.15 lakhs and now they wanted us to work on 11,500 a month. Initially, we cooperated thinking it to be a temporary phase but then they shut down the physical contact programme permanently,” Rana told HuffPost India. 

A closer look at the online coaching trends revealed that while young teachers have managed to sail through the pandemic lockdown by working in various online channels on minimum salaries, the condition of old and experienced faculties have deteriorated during this time. 

“Online channels want young and energetic teachers who can easily get a million views and do not want faculties like us who are slow in making online presentations and planning lectures,” said Rana.

He added that one cannot compare online coaching with classroom coaching. 

“While online is more of passive coaching fed with pre-recorded lectures, there is counter questioning in the classroom coaching and if you do not respond correctly, you are out of business in no time,” said Rana

Pritam Sharma who lost his job as a faculty of Indian polity revealed that he too was asked to accept Rs 10,000 as a monthly salary against his monthly salary of over a lakh rupees. 

“I am presently surviving on my savings which can last up to five to six months. I am sincerely hoping for the revival of the classroom coaching system post-pandemic or else it will wipe off the experienced faculty completely from the mentoring arena,” said Sharma while speaking to HuffPost India. 

Vikas Salgotra, a private tutor in Una Himachal Pradesh, has been taking his classes on Zoom and Google Hangouts since the outbreak began. 

Online teaching, he said, was placing disproportionate burden teachers even as coaching centres were continuing to make money by lowering their overheads. 

“While the teachers are burning the midnight lamp to plan and upload lectures on the centre’s website by using their home infrastructure and students are downloading it at their own expenses, these coaching centres are acting as middlemen and were successful to raise their profit graphs to a new high even during COVID times,” Salgotra said.