INDIA: Students crowd the cram schools

Four years ago, 16-year-old Abhay Kumar Bothra travelled 1,500 kilometres from his home in Howrah, Kolkata, in eastern India, to pursue his dream. His destination was the country's coaching capital Kota, in the northern state of Rajasthan.

Two years later, Bothra scored the ninth highest mark in the highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination, the gateway to the prestigious Indian institutes of technology, or IIT, the country's premier technical institutions that guarantee their graduates the best jobs in the corporate sector.

Some 50,000 students from across India converge on Kota every year for coaching, with the cramming industry providing the city with Rs10 billion (US$215 million) worth of business last year.

"The two years in Kota were gruelling. I ate, breathed and slept IIT. All I did was attend the coaching class. But it was worth it," says Bothra, now a proud technology institute student.

Not every IIT dream ends on a happy note, though. For every student who qualifies through the entrance exam, hundreds don't and the numbers rise every year. In April, an astonishing 470,000 took the test and only 13,000 qualified.

For the Indian institutes of management, or IIMs, 241,000 students applied this year for some 2,400 places.

While demand for higher education has grown, especially professional degrees in engineering, management, law and medicine, the number of good institutions has remained static. With increasing competition for limited places, crammers have mushroomed and prospered by promising to give students an extra edge - training them with the sole aim of cracking the entrance test.

Most students spend two years preparing for various entrance tests, costing ambitious parents Rs60,000 to Rs200,000 for coaching and extra for accommodation. So ingrained is the demand for coaching that parents with bright children are often the first to enrol them into cram schools.

"Whether your child is bright is immaterial. Most students who qualify through the entrance exams have been through one coaching institute or other. Unless the admission process is changed you cannot blame students and parents," says Kapila Sinha, who sends her daughter to one of the leading coaching institutes in Delhi.

"Even if you score 90% in class 12 [school-leaving examination] it is not enough to get you a seat in the best universities in India. You have to also simultaneously crack entrance tests.

Where is the time to play, or catch a movie or hang out with friends?" asks Sanjeeda Kaushik who is in her final year of school and is also preparing for medical entrance examinations next year.

Kaushik is among thousands of constantly stressed students. Many cannot handle the pressure. In a shocking revelation in 2008, a health ministry study revealed that 16,000 students had committed suicide over the past three years, mainly because of academic issues.

"Parental pressure is killing children mentally. The most calls we get are from children who are afraid to fail. Even parents are scared that there is no life beyond IIT, or IIM or Delhi University," says Abdul Mabood, director of the youth helpline Snehi,

Competition is so tough that even coaching centres hold their own entrance tests. Ironically, it has become more difficult to get into Super 30 - a coaching centre in Patna, capital of the Indian's northern state of Bihar - than to get into one of the IITs.

In May 11,500 students took the entrance test for 60 places at Super 30, an applicant-to-place ratio of 192:1. By comparison, the IIT ratio was 36:1 this year.

Super 30, set up in 2002, achieved a hat trick this year with all its current 30 students qualifying for the IIT JEE for the third consecutive year, a feat which attracted media attention in Japan and China, countries where competition for top institutions is similarly cut-throat.

Given the size of the coaching industry in India and the demand, cram schools can hire the best teachers they can find often paying them three times the average college professor's salary.

"We get the best students and cannot afford to hire sub-standard teachers," said Senthil Kumar, national marketing head with a leading coaching institute.

Best faculty notwithstanding, coaching institutes have been blamed for the lack of imagination in students entering leading higher education institutions.

"Students, especially from the sciences, don't take school seriously once they enrol in a coaching centre. All their time is spent cramming formulas and question papers till they are experts in solving questions. The coaching culture has abolished the understanding and application of concepts," said Professor Rajeev Kumar of IIT Kharagpur.

The number of students who are not extremely bright but qualify has increasingly bothered the IITs over the years. According to MS Ananth, Director of IIT Madras, the institutions were "looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors".

"The coaching classes only help students in mastering (question paper) pattern-recognising skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence," Ananth said.

The government has little control over the private coaching industry. But Education Minister Kapil Sibal has made it clear that admission to professional colleges and universities needs to be streamlined to discourage a culture of cramming.

Sibal has also suggested a single national university entrance test for school leavers, on the lines of the scholastic assessment test in the US, to reduce the burden of sitting multiple tests.

Almost every Indian state has a common entrance test for entry to engineering institutions. Private universities and institutions also hold individual tests. Each university also holds its own entrance tests for various subjects including English, financial studies, business administration and management.

In February, Sibal said national-level entrance tests for students applying for engineering, medical and commerce courses could be in place from 2013.

Some changes have already been brought into the IIT system. In 2006, new eligibility criteria were introduced to make the examinations tougher. Students have to score a minimum of 60% in their final year at school to be eligible for admission, instead of 50%.

The IITs and the Education Ministry are also debating raising the minimum marks to 70-80% to lower the numbers sitting the exam, and reduce stress.

Earlier there were no limits to the number of times a student could sit the entrance examination. Now, a student can attempt the JEE only twice.

Kumar is a vocal opponent of the government's plan to replace the JEE with an aptitude test: "Abolishing the IIT JEE will put rural students at a disadvantage. Most government school students do not score very high percentages in their class 12. So giving more emphasis to the school-leaving exam and bringing in aptitude tests will work in favour of urban students."

Kumar's coaching school charges no fees to its 30 selected students, many of them from rural areas and lower castes. He has now doubled the numbers attending Super 30, to 60 students and, after meeting Sibal on 9 June, is also advocating three chances at the JEE for rural students.

He told Sibal the JEE question paper should be set within the syllabus to enable rural students to qualify. But such measures are merely tinkering about the edges. The problem of ambitious students chasing a small number of prestigious places will not be resolved so easily.

"Abolishing entrance exams and doing away with coaching centres will go a long way in de-stressing children. But the attitude towards exams and success in life needs to change too," says Mabood of the Snehi helpline.