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12 Dec, 2023 11:37

Coached to death: How stiff competition to get into universities in the world’s most populous country becomes a race for life

India’s coaching hubs, like small-city Kota, have become big business, but as students face pressure to perform, suicide is now a pressing public health issue
Coached to death: How stiff competition to get into universities in the world’s most populous country becomes a race for life

Rahul is an 18-year-old engineering aspirant from northern India currently in Kota, a small city in northern India’s desert state of Rajasthan, where he is preparing for competitive examinations with the hope of making it to the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

India has a total of 23 IITs with 16,598 seats and millions of students aspiring to enroll. Eventually, only a little over a million actually take the exam each year.

Faced with such competition, Rahul also gets regular mental health counseling alongside his coaching. It keeps negative thoughts at bay. Plus, it assuages his parents, who worry over the number of suicides that Kota has seen over the years; government figures say 23 students died by suicide in 2023 alone, as of November 9.

Business on hopes and dreams

Kota is about 317 miles (510 kilometers) from New Delhi and has earned the moniker of being the ‘Coaching Hub’ since so many coaching institutes are based there. Coaching institutes are private educational establishments that provide a deeper and tailored syllabus for students trying to crack competitive examinations for various admissions. For example, some hope to be software engineers (Silicon Valley boasts of Kota graduates), doctors, and the country’s top civil servants. These institutes enjoy a success rate superior to students who self-study.

Coaching is a big business. According to the consultancy firm Infinium Global, the industry was worth 580.88 billion rupees ($7 billion) in 2021, and it is expected to reach 1.34 trillion rupees ($16 billion) by 2028, with a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.03%. Infinitium spoke with major coaching operators and analyzed yearly reports, trade journals, research agencies, and government reports.

Kota is not the only city that is a coaching hub, though it remains the most famous in India. There is Prayagraj (formerly called Allahabad, in north India’s Uttar Pradesh), a hub for coaching to prepare for government entry tests like the top-tier Union Public Service Commission (UPSC); Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar, a hub for institutes that prepare students for the exams to join Indian Railways and public sector banks; Arrah, also in Bihar, for preparations to enter the government at clerical levels; and Lucknow, also in Uttar Pradesh, where institutes also prepare students sitting for exams in the banking sector.

RT talked to over a dozen students from across North India, presently in Kota, to understand the importance of coaching institutes in India. A survey by Lokniti-CSDS (Center for the Study of Developing Societies) found that 35% of students believed they would settle well after cracking the Joint Entrance Examination (for engineering courses) or the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (for medical courses). In comparison, 22% believed they would garner social respect, and 16% thought it would help them better their economic status.

RT

Importantly, India’s overall unemployment rate remained at 7.95% as of July 2023, as per the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

Factory of death

“My father is a heart patient and he’s heard of the suicides in Kota,” Rahul says. “He tries to visit me at least once a month. He never says anything but I know he is bothered about my studies. My mother calls me two to three times a day as do my hometown friends.”

Kota witnessed 15 suicides in 2022, 18 in 2019, seven in 2017 and 18 in 2015. Coaching institutes were shuttered in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19.

Recently released figures from India’s National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), students and the unemployed accounted for 13,044 (7.6%) suicides nationwide last year. Failure in examinations led to 1,123 suicide deaths for students under 18; 578 of those were girls. Across age groups, 2,095 people died by suicide after failing exams. 

The NCRB says 25,525 students died by suicide between 2017 to 2021.

This is Rahul’s second attempt. He failed to qualify as an engineer the first time around. “For a few weeks, I was depressed,” Rahul told RT. “I think my fault was in my studying pattern and schedule. I started afresh, and I hope to qualify this time.”

About the problem of depression and suicide, he says: “One major pressure is the cut-throat competition. Each and every student wants to succeed, but not everyone can. Then there is the pressure to justify the money our parents are investing in our education.”

“The number of students coming to Kota is increasing every year while only a handful get selected to the top institutes. Many do not even qualify. Students feel humiliated and feel the pressure when their group is divided on the basis of merit. This builds insecurity, and the problem starts here.”

How to stop it

Naveen Mittal, secretary of the Kota Hostel Association, says a lot of effort is being undertaken to stop suicides in Kota, though results are yet to be achieved. 

“Education in Kota is now a highly commercialized game played by big business,” he told RT. “These coaching institutes select ‘poster boys’ at the time of admission and pay special attention to them. Not much attention is paid to other students, who are used only for milking high fees. This has caused great competition, a sense of inferiority, and depression among students who did not perform well. If this problem is solved, I do not think students will think about taking extreme steps.”

In a bid to stem the number of suicides, Kota police have formed a 13-member student cell comprising middle-level officers to talk to students in different hostels to detect early stages of depression. Surprisingly, no one in the team has studied psychology or has trained in mental health. Yet they call themselves ‘Friends of Students.’ 

More surprisingly, no police case for abetment of suicide was registered with the Kota police in 2023, a source told RT.

RT

Most of Kota’s institutes now have wellness centers that act as counseling centers for students, which came after the Rajasthan state government proposed a law on it.

While walking around Kota, one can see billboards for various coaching centers, each with a small advertisement for their wellness center. The government agencies have no data on these wellness centers.

A Lokniti-CSDS survey of over 1,000 students revealed that only 3% of the students had sought mental health counseling, while 48% did not feel the need to do so. Most alarming, however, was that 7% once considered ending their life. The survey found that 16% use sleep-related medication, while a significant chunk finds relief in talking to their families.

Students also opened up about family pressure to crack the exams, with 9% saying they are often subject to such pressure and 29% reporting they have experienced it sometimes.

Anxiety and Depression are major cause of suicide: study

“The pressure over exams severely reduces the chances of success,” Saumitra Pathare, director and psychiatrist at the Indian Law Society’s Center for Mental Health Law & Policy, a non-profit organization in Pune, told RT. “Many students come from underprivileged families. Parents spend a lot of money to get their children admitted into good colleges. This puts pressure on the students as well.” 

This is just one part of the story. “There are other issues as well,” Dr Pathare adds. “Students get affected due to a past history of mental illness or a family history of mental health issues. Apart from that, there are several other reasons like caste or gender discrimination.”

According to a 2020 study from King George’s Medical University (KGMU), Lucknow, cases like suicide among NEET students are increasing due to anxiety and depression. The study was based on suicide deaths reported in the media between January 2018 and September 2020.

The report stated that students need to be taught about anxiety management and other life skills. Training should be incorporated into the existing curriculum so that children can equip themselves against life’s challenges.

According to the study, stories of social success are often over-glorified, while those of suicide are associated with failure. The media has a vital role in suicide prevention and should follow international guidelines.

“There is pressure to perform better, which leads the student towards depression,” said study co-author and KGMU psychiatrist Dr Sujit Kumar. “Society and parents will have to make an effort. The scales of ‘topper,’ ‘failed,’ ‘successful,’ will have to stop.”

RT

He says: “Suicide among students is an important public health issue. They are the country's future, and their mental well-being is important for them, their families, and society at large. We need to systematically study suicide to enable precise efforts towards prevention.”

In the end, students like Rahul will continue to enroll in coaching institutes because the school curriculum and the teaching process are frozen in time. 

“I may be wrong, but I believe that to get enrolled in premier educational institutes, coaching institutes for students is necessary,” Rahul says. “A few get success, others prepare over again, and some succumb to pressure. I will try again till I succeed.”

Rahul now studies 14 hours a day in order to make it to IIT.

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