The robust business of preparing students for competitive exams is reeling under the effects of the pandemic
“This entire road used to be buzzing with students throughout the day. Students would be walking in and out of the coaching centres and the private libraries from 8 am till 11 at night. But now, since the lockdown, it has felt so different. There is a deafening silence here.”
This is from Mohammad Akbar, who owns a tyre repair shop opposite a prominent Union Public Service Commission coaching institution in north Delhi. The road he referred to is a three-kilometre stretch from Kingsway Camp to Mukherjee Nagar near Delhi University’s north campus. Home to dozens of private coaching institutions that prepare students for the UPSC and other competitive examinations, the area has remained uncharacteristically quiet for a month and a half now.
It’s a similar scene near south Delhi’s Kalu Sarai area, another major hub of private coaching institutions in the national capital, and replicated in cities and towns across the country. With the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19, coaching institutions have closed, and most students enrolled remain indoors, studying through an online arrangement of content. Competitive exams, originally scheduled around this time of year, have been postponed, offering students extra time to prepare.
In contrast, the coaching institutions are increasingly worried. The coronavirus crisis has brought gloom to almost all sectors of the economy. The private coaching industry in India, which is substantial in size, is also beginning to feel the heat.
According to a 2019 report in India Today, nearly 40 lakh students are enrolled in coaching institutions across the country. These include institutions preparing students for entrance examinations in engineering, medical and management colleges; UPSC and state public service commissions; banking; and different government services.
Those who enrol include school-going school students preparing for entrance exams in engineering and medicine, to older ones preparing for the UPSC exams and others. Short of options, students from smaller towns and villages often move to large metropolitan cities, like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Jaipur, to enrol at the larger coaching centres there.
The industry’s overall turnover was estimated at a staggering $7.5 billion dollars, roughly Rs 52,000 crore. But thanks to the pandemic, an imminent dip in admission is likely, which means a fall in revenue numbers too. With the uncertainty looming overhead, the fate of many players in the industry now hangs on the progress in the anti-coronavirus fight.
“We are staring at as much as a 40 percent downfall in the admission rate this year,” said Arjun Ravindran, director of Vajiram & Ravi, a premier coaching institution that prepares students for the annual UPSC examination. The institution, which is headquartered at Old Rajinder Nagar in central Delhi, also has a centre in Chennai.
The UPSC exam, a crucial stage of the civil services process, has a preliminary exam to screen candidates for the subsequent main exam. Vajiram & Ravi usually holds three UPSC coaching sessions a year: the first starting in May, the second in July, and the third towards the end of August. Conducted in Delhi and Chennai, the sessions focus on general studies (for the preliminary and main exams), optional subjects, and the Civil Services Aptitude Test.
While the highest demand remains for the general studies course, there is a good number of students who enrol in optional courses and CSAT too.
According to Ravindran, the Delhi centre alone has nearly 30 batches enrolled for general studies every year. The course lasts for almost nine months. Each batch has 250-300 students. There are around 20 separate batches for CSAT, though many of these students are simultaneously enrolled for general studies as well. This way, Ravindran explained, the total number of annual admissions stands at around 10,000 students.
“But this time we are ruling out the May round. So that leaves us with two rounds of admissions,” he said. “Even those are uncertain, as the situation will take at least six months to normalise. There are several things to consider after that.”
Impact of fear and social distancing
Two main concerns will affect the admission process, even if “normalcy” returns within this year, said BK Mishra, director of human resources at Khan Study Group, a renowned UPSC coaching provider.
The institution has two centres in Delhi and six others in different parts of the country. Out of an average 4,000 students enrolled every year, the Delhi centres admit nearly 1,500 of them.
Even if the academic calendar gets pushed, Mishra said, a sizable number of students will now hesitate to move to Delhi for their year-long preparation. “Seeing the current situation, many parents will not allow that. So, naturally our classrooms in the Delhi centres will have low turnouts,” said Mishra, who also teaches at these centres.
Ravindran believes they cannot expect students to enrol at the Delhi and Chennai centres with the “same zeal and ambition” as before. No amount of advertising and wooing will be able to change people’s mindsets when there is fear and uncertainty, he argued.
“As the overall economy has sunk, people’s incomes have gone down too. That will be another obstacle for many parents in the way of sending their children to coaching centres,” he said. In prominent institutions like Vajiram & Ravi and Khan Study Group, a general studies course is priced at about Rs 1.5 lakh. Optional courses and test series are separate but cheaper.
However, there is a third factor that will dent student enrollment.
“Social distancing has become the new norm now. This means we will have to significantly cut down the number of students accommodated in a classroom,” Mishra said. Given these possibilities, the Khan Study Group anticipates a slump in this year’s admission numbers of at least 25 percent.
Ravindran agrees. In Delhi, Vajiram & Ravi currently operates out of six buildings in and around Old Rajinder Nagar. The company only owns the main office building.
“We cannot occupy new infrastructure all of a sudden to accommodate students,” Ravindran said. “So, if our class strength falls, say, by 50 percent, in order to maintain social distancing requirements, its impact will be a shrunk number of students.”
“We are already paying a huge amount of rent for the existing facilities. And given the current crisis, we are negotiating with landlords for getting concessions for at least the next three months,” he added. “So, how can we pay more in such a tight situation?”
Vajiram & Ravi currently employs about 25 teachers hired on a contractual basis. “They too are being paid for their online lectures. So, our running expenditures haven’t stopped,” Ravindran said.
Will increasing the number of teaching shifts ease issues in a post-lockdown situation? Both Ravindran and Mishra do not think so. Increased shifts translate to higher working hours for the faculty members, they pointed out. “So, we will then have to pay them more. Therefore, there will be some limitations to that [increasing shifts],” Ravindran said.
Full impact will depend on lockdown duration
The signs of worry can be felt across the industry. Institutions providing coaching for other examinations are equally concerned. The Triumphant Institute of Management Education, stylised as T.I.M.E., is a pan-India coaching network famous for preparing students for entrance exams for management courses. The company admitted to Newslaundry that “losses have been substantial” because of the evolving crisis.
According to Sancho Joseph, deputy director of its Delhi-NCR zone, the institution operates out of 237 centres in 118 towns and cities. They have batches launched at regular intervals throughout the year, he added.
When asked about their predictions for the coming days, Joseph said, “The full impact on business will depend on how long the lockdown stretches. On a comparative basis, there has been a significant negative impact.”
Potential & Concept Educations, the most sought-after institution in Assam and the Northeast for JEE (an undergraduate engineering entrance exam) and NEET (undergraduate medical entrance exam), is also anticipating a bad business environment ahead.
Satinder Kaur, who teaches botany and heads a Guwahati-based branch out of the company’s 10 branches in the state, said that JEE classes ended before the lockdown. However, the crash course for NEET preparation could not be completed.
The JEE and NEET exams were initially scheduled to take place in April and the first week of May, respectively. When the lockdown was announced, they were postponed to the end of May. Now that the lockdown has been extended, the exams will take place in July. According to the Indian Express, around nine lakh students have signed up for the JEE exam this year, and 15.93 lakh for NEET.
“Since mid-April, we have been conducting classes on Zoom almost daily and helping students through online communication. Students from all the branches access these lectures,” Kaur said.
While there are occasional glitches due to poor network coverage, the Zoom experience has been largely smooth so far, Kaur added. But the institution is concerned about its admission rate for the upcoming season.
There are generally two kinds of students who enrol at Potential & Concept Educations: students from Class 11 and 12, and those who take a year off after their Class 12 exams. “Our average annual intake is over 2,000 students across branches. This is the time of the year when we enrol Class 11 students,” Kaur said. “But because of the ongoing chaos, the response is going to be weaker. We might have up to 15 percent lower admissions this year.”
Like Ravindran and Mishra, Kaur said that fewer students will enrol in their centres this year from neighbouring states. “We always attract a good number of students from other northeastern states. But people are averse to travelling now out of fear, and this hesitation will continue for some time,” she said.
Discounts unlikely to help
Kota, Rajasthan, was recently in the news when a number of students from other states, who were enrolled in Kota’s many coaching centres, appealed to their state governments to help them return home after the lockdown.
According to an estimate by consultancy firm Technopak, Kota — the nerve centre of private coaching in India — alone draws nearly 1.5 lakhs students from every nook and corner of the country, mostly for JEE and NEET examinations. The city has about 100 coaching institutions.
Some of the leading names in JEE and NEET preparation, like Allen, Resonance, Career Point and Aakash, are headquartered in Kota.
Narendra Hatwani, a public relations officer at Allen, one of India’s biggest coaching providers for JEE and NEET, believes his company can sail through the crisis if the exams are held before July.
“But if the dates get postponed beyond that, admission numbers will be affected for sure,” he said. “So, we are waiting for government notifications before charting out future plans.” In the last academic year, he added, Allen had nearly two lakh students enrolled across over 20 branches in the country.
Will offering discounts incentivise students to enrol? Many institutions do not think so. “Under the current circumstances, even offering substantial discounts may not necessarily translate into any significant uptick in enrolment,” said Joseph of T.I.M.E.
Ultimately, said Ravindran, it’s a question of life and death for the students, and that is why offering discounts will not help. “We can’t push beyond a point. We have no choice but to let them take their own time to return to classrooms.”
Since last year, Marketing and Development Research Associates, a Delhi-based market research and consulting firm, has conducted a pan-India survey of the private coaching industry for India Today. Abhishek Agrawal, its executive director, said about half of the total number of students enrolled in the institutions appear for three competitive exams: JEE, NEET and UPSC.
Agrawal said recent developments spotlight the strain on private coaching institutions.
For example, all major institutions conduct their own entrance tests for admitting students. “But following the lockdown, a very prominent institution in Kota has admitted students through online without conducting the test this time. This clearly reflects that they are looking at a drop in admission because of the [coronavirus] crisis and hence easing the criteria,” Agrawal pointed out.
Similarly, April and May usually see a large migration of students towards Kota or Delhi, he added. “However, right now, we are seeing a reverse migration from these places towards the home states. So, this negative sentiment will have an adverse effect on all the coaching institutions in these hubs. For many months ahead, most parents will avoid sending their kids to these faraway cities,” Agrawal predicted.
However, it is difficult to furnish figures of losses in admission and revenues of the industry, he said. “It is going to be a huge task as the figures will vary across the industry.”
Growth in regional centres
The reverse pattern, however, can set off a new trend, according to Agrawal. Instead of flocking to bigger hubs like Kota or Delhi, students will head to regional centres across the country.
“For example, if a student from Gaya in Bihar was earlier planning to come to the Delhi centre of Aakash, she would now go to the Patna centre for admission. As the current situation has shown the risk of being stranded suddenly, parents will prefer to keep children closer home,” he said.
This might offset some of the losses for bigger institutions having regional centres, he added. “Also, there are some popular teachers, for example in mathematics or physics, in every small town with a loyal student base. They will benefit from this trend.”
Agrawal’s predictions are echoed by a number of institutions. Mishra said that Khan Study Group’s losses would be higher without accounting for the possibility of higher regional admissions.
“We factored in this trend while giving the estimate of loss. Our regional centres in places like Bhopal, Indore, Bengaluru or Ranchi will compensate to some extent,” he said.
Kaur of Potential & Concept Educations also hopes to exploit this opportunity. “Our strength lies in our presence across districts in Assam. A considerable number of students from Assam, who would have moved out of the state under normal circumstances, will now head to our branches. This will ease some of our business concerns,” she said.
Online learning won’t replace classrooms
Ever since the lockdown began, there has been a spurt in online learning methods. Though traditional brick-and-mortar institutions have moved their content online, they face contenders in the domain.
Unacademy, Byju’s, Upgrad and other online-only platforms have registered steep growth figures in terms of subscribers. Apart from saving time, the courses offered by app-based learning providers are cheaper than offline institutions. This is mainly due to smaller running expenditures. For example, according to a News18 report, around 60 lakh new students joined Byju’s in March.
Going ahead, will online learning methods dominate the private coaching space?
Aurobindo Saxena, an independent consultant with 18 years of experience in the education sector, believes there are several reasons for this “temporary phenomenon”.
“Teenagers, who comprise the key JEE and NEET sub-sectors of the industry, do not want to remain indoors. So, they go to coaching centres not only for learning but also to socialise and explore things,” he explained. “You cannot keep such a large number of students restricted to homes for a long time.”
Further, brick-and-mortar institutions provide an ecosystem that is vital to the preparation in many competitive examinations. Saxena said students need to come together and discuss while preparing for exams like the UPSC and SSC. “This can happen only on offline platforms. One cannot just sit at home in isolation, watch lectures on the laptop, and develop critical thinking.”
MDRA’s Agrawal agrees, the long-term appeal of online-only platforms for coaching is limited to a certain group of people, he said. “A 28-year-old working professional may prefer a learning app. It saves her time to enhance her skills. But for an 18-year-old, a mobile phone or a laptop can lead to distractions as well. But the classroom brings discipline to them and that is why parents will not rule that option out,” he said.
Also, Agrawal said, online learning platforms face the challenge of catering to students in different regional languages. Currently, these platforms are only available in English and Hindi, he pointed out.
“In contrast, in a classroom environment, while the medium of instruction is English, the communication [between students and teachers] can easily happen in a native tongue. This is where they [brick-and-mortar institutions] have an edge.”
In the absence of any vaccine, Saxena anticipates the effects of Covid-19 will remain for nearly two years on the industry. Online-only platforms can accordingly expect to grow fast during this period. But they are not an alternative or a challenge to the traditional classroom structure of coaching in the long run, he asserted. “What we are likely to see is a pattern of blended learning where students take help of online material in addition to offline lectures.”
What lies ahead for the private coaching industry? According to Saxena, people see education as an investment, more than an expenditure. Many people cut down on other expenditures to pay for the education of their children, he said.
“Admissions in an IIT or in the civil services hold the promise of upliftment for a large number of people. That is why people don’t hesitate to pay large fees. While business will be bad for the coaching industry in the near future, it will bounce back sooner than many other sectors.”
With inputs from Anusuya Som