Smoking students at AIIMS Delhi

Murderous competition: Indian students learn for their lives for the elite university

Buffalo 18 hours a day. Millions of students fight for every place at an elite Indian university. One city has made tutoring its business model. The place is also known as the «city of the learning dead».

Saloni Awand has had a difficult time: In the past two years, the 18-year-old has hardly done anything other than learning. Six, sometimes seven days a week, she was already sitting in the classroom at dawn, bending over her books late at night. Be it at lunch in the canteen or in the tuk-tuk that she and her classmates used to commute between class and the dormitory: The conversations mostly revolved around things like anatomy or biochemistry.

"There are hardly any friendships in Kota," says Saloni. Her hometown is in the Himalayas, 31 hours by train, a whole world away from the dusty city in the Rajasthan desert where she lives and learns.

«None of the other girls here speak my mother tongue. It's the first time I've been so far from home. In the beginning I cried every evening », says the young Indian, while she looks at the clock: The next lesson is about to begin, Saloni has little time to think about how unhappy she is.

When Saloni got off the train in Kota two years ago, she was carrying a suitcase in each hand and the expectations of her entire extended family on her shoulders. Her father is a minor civil servant in the city administration of her hometown, his daughter with the excellent grades should become something better: Saloni should study medicine at the state All India Institute for Medical Science (AIIMS), where there is a world-class education for Free of charge there.

Now the admission test for AIIMS is so difficult that you can only pass it with intensive preparation. And so it came about that Saloni's parents took their highly gifted daughter out of school after the tenth grade and sent them abroad so that, like the darning goose, the material to be learned could be drilled into her there.

Ailing school system

Young Indians who are going to college or university, or who want to apply for the middle or higher civil service career, cannot avoid entrance tests. On the one hand, they are necessary because, with a population of 1.3 billion, many more young people are crowding into universities and civil servant jobs than there are places. On the other hand, the ailing, overburdened school system spits out millions of students every year who can hardly do anything: The award of the Matura in India says very little about how educated and intelligent a student really is.

Admission tests should bring clarity. To prepare for them, 71 million students in India take part in so-called coaching sessions every year, which are offered by private coaching institutes. Indian parents spend an average of 10 to 12 percent of their budget on such additional lessons, according to the statistics office in New Delhi.

According to the Asian Development Bank, the coaching industry on the subcontinent has a turnover of 16 billion Swiss francs every year. Most of the young people finish school normally and go to a local tutoring school for a few weeks shortly before the exams - so far, so understandable.

But what happens in Kota has about as much to do with regular coaching as the Football Champions League does with the National League B. Only those who really aim high come to Kota. Around 200,000 of India's most talented students move to this remote corner of Rajasthan every year to be trained for top performance.

The teenagers give up their entire lives, drop out of regular school and scramble for the tough entrance exams of the elite universities every waking hour. After one to three years they then write the tests for the seven medical faculties of the AIIMS or for the equally first-class Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), which train the best engineers in the country.

The chances of the candidates cramming in Kota are more than bad from the start. Last year, for example, AIIMS had 700 places available, 280,000 students took part in the entrance test after years of preparation. The probability of making the cut was 0.25 percent: only one out of 400 hopeful people was taken. With the engineers, the chances were only slightly better, one out of 100 made it to one of the IIT.

Talents wasted

Those who do not make it are at the age of 18 in front of the shards of their dreams: Although the coaching institutes issue them with a pro forma Matura, the young people have actually not gone through any of the material with which they are taught general knowledge for life should.

After two or three years of expensive drudgery, most of them no longer have the patience and too many debts to apply for admission to a mediocre provincial university the following year. And so many give up hope of a university degree and return home defeated. "The best talents in India are so wasted," says Sanjay Srivastava, who researches coaching as a sociologist at the University of Delhi.

Along Kota's streets, the coaching institutes counter such discouraging facts with their brilliant statistics. The institutes celebrate the successes of their students on hundreds of billboards: For example, that last year 40 of the 100 best test results for engineering courses in India were received by students from Kota.

Studying in Kota costs around 100,000 rupees a year. That translates to around 1,350 francs or three to four monthly salaries for a teacher. Many families make great sacrifices in order to be able to send their daughters and sons to Kota. The poorer the family, the greater the pressure on young people to learn until they drop, says psychologist Surbhi Goyal.

“When the students call home because they are overwhelmed and want to be comforted, they are yelled at: Why did we sell land and take on debts if you are failing now?” Says Goyal. For ten years she was responsible for the mental well-being of the students as a supervisor at “Bansal Classes”, then she gave up the job in frustration. «I couldn't take it any longer. All these unhappy children », says Goyal, who has specialized in the therapy of coaching victims in her private practice.


Also in Switzerland

The Swiss education system is far removed from the Indian pressure to learn. But even in this country, more students are taking private lessons than ever before. More than every third eighth and ninth graders sit in addition to the regular lessons, as well as extra paid lessons, according to a study by the Swiss Coordination Office for Educational Research.

Swiss parents pay an estimated CHF 300 million annually for non-state learning. However, experts doubt whether its effect is so great. A study comes to the conclusion that tutoring can have a positive influence on grades in the short term, but does little for long-term success in school.


Most of the students are 15 or 16 years old when they come to Kota, says Goyal. «You are completely helpless. Hardly any of these children have ever had to worry about the food being put on the table or the laundry being washed. " Many came from remote states and found it difficult to follow classes in English and Hindi.

The young people are in competition with one another, "there is little space for friendships or mutual help". Only about 10 to 15 percent of the coaching students would have no problems. "The rest suffers," says Goyal. Sleep disorders, depression and physical complaints are the rule, not the exception, among teenagers.

"The pressure is too great," says Bashkar Kataria, who has been studying in Kota for a year to be taken at the IIT. The 17-year-old says he has six hours of lessons every day, after which he does twelve hours of homework. Every second Sunday there is a day off. "There is no time for fun." His course has therefore shrunk considerably over the months: Of the original 700 students, 280 had given up and dropped out of the course. "It was always a drama because the money is gone anyway."

The psychologist Goyal knows cases in which dropouts promptly got on the wrong track. «They pretended to their parents that they would continue to go to coaching. To make money, some started dealing in drugs. Others have lent money to their former fellow students at exorbitant interest. "

Some of the students are so desperate that they put an end to their lives. The police in Kota have recorded 77 suicides among young people enrolled in coaching centers since 2013. The series of suicides made headlines across India. Kota, which likes to present itself as the «capital of coaching», has since been criticized as a «suicide capital».

The business-damaging image has called the coaching institutes on the scene. The market leaders are now trying to address their students' difficulties with a helpline, yoga, and game nights. That is well meant, but also counterproductive, says Bashkar: "Each extra item on the program means an hour less sleep or less study."

Hang on the fan

Bashkar is learning from "Allen", the largest of the coaching centers. In addition to providing better pastoral care for students, Allen has also taken practical measures to prevent students from killing themselves. In the past few months, all ceiling fans in the student dormitories have been replaced. The new models have a device that triggers an alarm when the fan releases from its anchorage: if something heavy suddenly hangs on the device, a bell rings in the guard's room. The precautionary measure was of little use. "Now they just jump off the roof," says psychologist Goyal.

Startled by such horror stories, more and more families decide to settle in Kota for the duration of the coaching so that the son or daughter does not have to live in the hostel, but comes home in the evening. But the shot often backfires, says Goyal: “This increases the pressure even further. The young people know that parents and siblings have given up their previous lives and moved here especially for them. "

“There are only a few ways to break through the box and class barriers. Coaching is the way to overcome your own disadvantage »

Anyone who wants to understand why so many Indian parents let their children take part in the expensive, grueling drudgery in Kota must realize how rigid the Indian society is. There are few ways to break the box and class barriers. "Coaching is the way to override your own disadvantage with a giant leap and land in the elite," says the sociologist Srivastava.

Successful students take their whole family with them to a higher social level, says Srivastava. Medical candidate Saloni explains how this works: "If I can do it, everyone benefits," she says. "My cousins ​​get better marriage offers, my uncles get a loan from the bank more easily." For this, Saloni is ready to flay. "I dream of getting some sleep," says the young woman who has lost seven kilos in Kota. But that would have to wait another four weeks. "When I have taken the test, I lie down in bed and no longer touch a book."

Thirty years ago nobody in the town would have dreamed that Kota would one day be India's elite school. Founded in the 13th century as the seat of a small maharajah, the town was for centuries nothing more than a market town with a palace crowned by turrets in the center. The desert heat, which only became more bearable when the monsoons swelled the Chambal River, shaped the sluggish rhythm of life.

After India gained independence, the locals began to process the cotton that grew in the area. A textile industry grew, chemical plants for the production of synthetic yarns opened, and several power plants were built. At one point 500,000 people lived in Kota.

But the boom in Southeast Asian competition put an end to local companies in the 1990s. "Kota was at the end, a dying city full of unemployed mechanical engineers and chemists," says Amrish Kumar Tiwari, Vice President of Bansal Classes, as he stirs an inedible brew that is offered to all visitors to the coaching center. The infusion of hot water, lemon juice, ginger and lots of salt was already served when Bansal Classes was founded, explains Tiwari, before he shares the often cited founding legend of the Kota coaching industry: When things went downhill with Kota, Vinod also lost Kumar Bansal quit his job and was looking for a way to support his family. Tied to a wheelchair due to muscle atrophy, the 41-year-old shifted to an activity for which he did not have to go outside: every evening he gathered eight students from the neighborhood around his dining table and brought them for a small fee and lots of cups salty lemon teas with what he knew.

Started at the kitchen table

When one of his protégés cracked the test for the Indian Institutes of Technology, it was a sensation that Kota talked about for weeks. The following year, fifteen boys squeezed into Bansal's living room and five passed the entrance exam. The next year, 1991, Bansal had to rent rooms to accommodate his many students: Bansal Classes was born. Other unemployed academics jumped on the bandwagon and founded the Career Point and Allen institutes.

What began at the kitchen table has grown into an industry in just three decades, which Kota brings in around 200 million francs annually, as the "Hindustan Times" calculated in 2017. There have long been dozens of coaching institutes that resemble learning factories: Career Point's small-town campus offers space for 20,000 students, and 80,000 young people study at Allen's various locations in Kota.

The market leaders have opened branches all over the country in recent years and also offer coaching as online courses. Career Point shares are now traded on the Mumbai Stock Exchange, and the company has already opened up the next source of income with two universities of its own.

"With the influx of hundreds of thousands of students, parents and teachers, Kota's population has swelled to one million"

The key to Kota's success was the impatience that coaching pioneer Vinod Kumar Bansal displayed: Annoyed by dense students, he developed an entrance test that anyone who wanted to study with him for the university entrance tests had to pass. The pre-selection guaranteed that his students would bring home good results with which Bansal could then again advertise his teaching skills.

To this day, students who want to learn in Kota only have to prove themselves in exams: This is how the institutes maintain the nimbus of elite trainers and can charge more money for their courses year after year.

With the influx of hundreds of thousands of students, parents and teachers, Kota's population has swelled to a million within a few years. In 2017, Kota landed on the world rankings of the most densely populated cities in the world, according to UN Habitat in seventh place ahead of Singapore and Jakarta.

Whilst entire streets with dormitories are being drawn up around the coaching institutes, the residential areas of the locals, which the gold rush has made rich, are proliferating in the suburbs. «Anyone who owns land here has taken care of things. Today you can still make a fortune for the stony field, »says Prateek Singhvi. When the 23-year-old was born, his father ran a small shop for kitchen supplies. Today, "Singhvi and Sons" supply the large coaching centers with coffee cups and dishes: a million dollar business.

As a local, Singhvi knows what the glittering facade of the new Kota hides. If you believe him, then Kota is a real den of sin. “Prostitution, drugs, alcohol - some students really let it go,” he says. Restaurant licenses and building permits can only be obtained by bribing the local mafia. Even good grades can be bought. “If you can pay five million dollars, your child can take the test to study medicine at an AIIMS institute. Guaranteed, ”claims Singhvi.

The city administration and the police usually do not intervene because the entire city is on the drip of coaching money. Singhvi was therefore astonished that the tax investigators recently scrutinized everyone's accounts; However, he was not surprised that the investigators found the equivalent of 140 million francs of undeclared income. "Kota is India's Wild West," says the pottery dealer.

Even one of Kota's coaching kings is now critical of the development: "It's a dirty business," says Pramod Maheshwari, who founded Career Point in 1993. Most coaching institutes hardly cared about the well-being of young people anymore. Instead, they tried to make maximum profit.

"Everyone is just busy counting their money," says Maheshwari, who is glad that his daughter is not interested in being tied up with the ironers in her parents' institute. «She is 16 years old and wants to study history. She should like to do that. "

Seven miracles

Since the coaching boom washed millions in Kota's city coffers, the place has succumbed to a certain wholesaling addiction. The city's malls can compete with the shopping malls in New Delhi, while the traffic islands are decorated with swanky sculptures that recreate scenes from Indian legends.

At the lake, where a comparatively modest island pavilion commemorates the reign of the local maharajas, the city has erected a memorial to its new heyday: at a height of around 15 meters, replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are shrunk in the “Seven Wonders of Kota” park. Between a mini colosseum and a dwarf pyramid, hawkers sell sticky chai and rose water ice cream. That business goes bad is in the nature of things: the students who bring the money for new amusement parks to Kota have no free time.