Kota has been in the eye of the storm recently due to a spate of suicides by students preparing for various entrance exams at residential coaching institutes. Over the past few years, Kota has reinvented itself as the hub of the coaching industry, with lakhs of aspirants enrolled in various institutes. In this article, we try to look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the Kota culture and then ponder possible solutions. By Kota culture, I mean the culture of residential coaching being provided to students targeting medical or engineering entrances anywhere in India and not just singling out the city of Kota. While I have never been to Kota, let alone having trained at an institute there, I have heard quite a bit about the culture from many friends who had studied there before joining MBBS.
First, there is no denying that the institutes at Kota have played a role in democratising higher education and ensured that children who have the brains and are willing to work hard can reach the best of the engineering or medical colleges regardless of where they come from or their socio-economic background. While there might not be much hard data ever collected to substantiate this point, at least one news report confirms that more and more children from lower socio-economic strata are making it into the premier IITs. From my experience at AIIMS, India’s number one medical college, I have heard from seniors that there used to be a time when more than half of the students in a batch came from elite schools like DPS R K Puram and Modern School in Delhi. In contrast, in our batch of 72 students who joined AIIMS in 2014, there was not a single student from Delhi; what we did have were students from some of the country’s most backwards districts. By providing standardised teaching and scholarships based on performance in their entrance exams, these coaching institutions have made it more possible for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to crack these tough entrance exams and enter the top institutions which were hitherto the monopoly of elites. While it remains a fact that these institutes merely polish and condition the minds of those who are already sharp, they at least provide an SOP for raw talent to hone itself and perform.
But this does not mean that all is hunky dory. When one child from a not-so-well-to-do family cracks IIT or AIIMS entrance, a thousand other parents from similar backgrounds put in their entire life’s savings and run mortgages to enrol their children on the same coaching institutions. The institutes’ business model relies on securing multiple new admissions by showcasing their top rankers and publicising them widely (a victory parade similar to the ones carried out by politicians is a regular affair in Kota come result time). In their hope of a better future for their child and family, parents often overlook the child’s calibre and willingness. The child lands up in a distant city, away from home for the first time and at a sensitive age where they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. At the tender age of 17-18, the child’s back is already bent quite a bit under the burden of expectations of their own, their parents and others even before they set foot in Kota.
Once they land in the city, the atmosphere there is not very different from that of a pressure cooker. Suppose expectations and ambitions ratchet up the pressure. In that case, the hyper-competitive attitude taught and encouraged by the coaching institutions through multiple and frequent tests with incentives and disincentives based on the student’s performance in each test acts as the heat underneath.
Everywhere the new entrant can lay his or her eyes, all he or she sees is competition- peers mugging up textbooks even while sitting with a cup of tea in the other hand or photos of previous years’ achievers staring down at them from the hoardings. The entire experience of being a student in Kota has been described very well in this article from The New York Times and well illustrated in some TV series. With no one to turn to for support or appropriate guidance, it is hardly a wonder that students pick up addictions, end up depressed, and take the unfortunate step of ending their lives.
Now that it is clear that we have a grave problem at hand, we can start thinking of solutions. The current lot of knee-jerk reactions, like mandating hang-proof fans in all student hostels of the city, seem more out of a dark comedy than real life. Frankly, solutions are going to be hard to come by. In a country with India’s population, where an engineering or medical degree is seen as a ticket out of poverty by the society at large, and the demand for a seat in these branches far outpaces the supply, competition will not go away. And till competition exists, such middlemen will always thrive by exploiting fear and insecurity. The supply side has been addressed by the significant increase in medicine seats at the undergraduate level in Government colleges due to the decision to open a medical college in each district. Still, even so, the number of aspirants remains far more.
One possible measure that can help is a strict ban on dummy schooling (dummy schooling is the practice where, after class 10, students focus entirely on cracking entrance exams by joining coaching institutions and are enrolled in schools, most of which are run by coaching institutions themselves, only on paper). A full-fledged school is much more than a place where a child learns academics- a school is like a second home where he or she makes friends, shares meals with them, enjoys sports and a variety of extra-curricular activities, goes on field trips and excursions and lets his or her hair down from time to time. All the above is missing in these dummy schools, and all the child gets exposed to in coaching institutions is a higher level of physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics and the toxic competitive atmosphere.
Another possible measure could be restricting the number of tests these coaching institutions conduct and, instead of displaying marks and ranks publicly, encouraging students to have a one-to-one discussion with their faculty about what they did right, what they didn’t, and how they could have done better. The number of hours a child spends in academic activities could be regulated with stress on incorporating sports or extra-curricular activities daily. A proper evaluation of a child’s aptitude and psychological state at the time of entry and regular follow-up psychometric evaluations from time to time can allow us to identify those needing support and help and act in time before it is too late.
Though the above measures might help somewhat, the real solutions will be long-term work. They include strengthening the school education system to such an extent that the need to rely on crutches of coaching institutions is felt lesser and lesser and upskilling and incentivising occupations in the vocational and agricultural sectors to reduce the over-dependence on obtaining a medical or engineering degree.