The Indian Education System: A Survivor’s Experience

Earlier this year, I wrote my class 12th board examinations, which marks the end of my school journey. A few days ago, I got admission in a B.Sc. Computer Science course. In the intervening four months, I realised how deeply inadequate the formal education system is. This is my experience as a survivor of this flawed system.

High School

After finishing class 10th, and ideally having passed the board examinations (I was, unfortunately, in the batch whose exams were cancelled due to COVID) the student chooses a stream – what subjects they wish to pursue in the final two years of schooling. However, more often than not what actually happens is that the student’s parents decide which stream the student wishes to pursue, which means most students take science, either the Maths group (to become an engineer) or the Biology group (to become a doctor). If the parent is more liberal, or confident in their child’s ineptitude, they may allow the child to take commerce, often to train the child to continue the family business. A few remaining stragglers take humanities. I, being a computer science nerd, was in the Maths group, so I can only speak about the engineering side of things, though I hear the situation is quite similar in most respects in the medical camp, too.

The first thing a typical science student does after joining class 11 is join a coaching institute, because the schools only teach the syllabus required for the board examinations. The syllabus for cracking the competitive exams for joining a college is often more than what is taught in the schools, and while it is theoretically possible to clear entrance examinations only by studying the school textbooks, this is quite rare. The school will skip several chapters from the textbook as they are not part of the boards syllabus, so you have to study those yourselves. Oh, and the entrance exams give very limited time per question, so you have to apply certain tricks or shortcuts to common questions which won’t be discussed in the theory-focused textbooks, which are riddled with flowery language and unending descriptions of the mundane.

So, coaching institutions are almost a necessity to be successful in the exams. Now, I myself didn’t take part in any such classes, instead opting for home tuitions, so I am not inherently qualified to make derogatory remarks against them, except for what is visible about them from outside. And that which is visible from outside is not pretty, to see the least.

The Rat Race

The coaching institutions are clearly humongous businesses – during results season, every available surface area of newspapers, billboards, TV and YouTube ads are plastered with the smiling faces of the toppers from that coaching institute. What the faces hide is a rotten system, built on greed and broken dreams. Let me explain.

JEE, or Joint Entrance Examination, is one of the largest examinations of the world. It is written by more than a million students each to get a seat in government funded engineering institutions for the B.Tech course, of which there are, over all the IITs, NITs, IIITs, and GFTIs, a little over 54,000. Yes, you read that right – there are over a million students trying to get just fifty thousand seats! If that is not a rat race, I don’t know what is.

From the 16,000 students who took admissions in IITs in 2016, around half had studied from coaching institutions. The ratio is probably lower in the overall pool of JEE aspirants, but if you consider around 10% had taken coaching, that is still 1,00,000 students across the nation. That, in a word, is lucrative.

Again, I cannot comment on the quality of education imparted in the coaching classes, but I will leave to your imagination the learning happening in classrooms stuffed to be the brim with often hundreds of students, being taught by a teacher with no legal responsibility to teach concepts and a huge incentive to get students to rote-learn formulas. Coaching centres, after all, are not regulated by any law, as they are not schools. Students going to coaching centres instead often go to a “dummy school”, which is a school run by the coaching institutions only to conduct examinations and practicals, while all the classes take place in the coaching centre. This is why some students who crack JEE are unable to clear the 75% in boards criteria, they have never learnt the theory taught by actual schools and do not know what to write in a pen and paper exam.

Students, who are 16-18 years old, taking such coaching often spend their morning in school, afternoons in coaching centres, and evenings in self-study. In fact, engineering students often say they have to study the most before joining the college, rather than during college itself. They are taught to treat their classmates as their competitors rather than classmates, and spend upwards of two years continuously being told by relatives, teachers and parents to perform well in a ridiculously difficult exam. What do you expect to happen?

Well, what happens is this. The best students get what they dreamt of – a seat in one of India’s best colleges. This is the best case scenario, and is seen by less 1% of the students, according to our previous calculation. Mind you, not all of these are getting into a course they are interested in! It is common for students, especially in IITs, to choose whatever course is available to them in a reputed college instead of a course they actually have interest in. This is especially true for those of us interested in computer science – because of the dream of a good placement, everyone tries to get a computer science course irrespective of whether they are interested in CS or not, resulting in those actually interested in CS facing a far more difficult competition than they would have otherwise.

Most of the students instead spend lakhs and lakhs of rupees per year into something they could never have achieved – not everyone is good at physics, chemistry and maths, you can not expect them to! Some take a year off to study more and retake the exam next year – some do so several times. The vast majority either take admission into a private college, or realise this isn’t what they are meant for and move on to something else.

But, for some students, the pressure put by the family, friends, relatives and teachers over several years is too much to handle. It is then, that the absolute worst elements of the system rear their ugly heads.

The Ugly Bits

Another student kills self, Kota registers 20th suicide in 2015

Shut Down IIT Coaching Centres, Aspirant Who Killed Herself In Kota Last Week Wrote In Her Suicide Note

Two more students commit suicide in Kota, poor performance in exam suspected

Now, ‘anti-suicide’ ceiling fans to prevent suicides in India’s ‘coaching capital’ Kota

Student Allegedly Commits Suicide at Coaching Institute in Kota

Coaching student suicide in Kota: Bihar girl jumps into Chambal river, dies

IIT aspirant found hanging in hostel room in Kota, 3rd suicide in 4 days

Coaching class student committed suicide: Ahmedabad cops

3 coaching centre students die by suicide in Kota in their paying-guest rooms

Another coaching centre student dies by suicide in Rajasthan’s Kota

And these are just the ones that get reported. It is not difficult to imagine that the coaching industry, which has a revenue of 1,700 crore rupees in Kota alone, has some influence on what the media is able to report!

The Exam Itself

The entrance exam itself consists of three papers – physics, chemistry and mathematics. The course you are actually aiming for has no role to play in what subjects you have to study. What sort of logic is that? Why can’t a student like me, who wants to pursue computer science, only have to attempt those subjects which are relevant to my interests? Or, at the very least, also have to attempt the subject I am going to pursue?

Students who did not ever study computers but have studied physics, chemistry and maths, will be able to ace the entrance test and get a seat in a computer science program which they don’t even know if they are interested in, whereas a student who has had a lifelong interest in computers but not so much in physics or chemistry will be lucky to get a CS degree from a good private college, let along public universities. If they don’t, they have to get a seat wherever they can, regardless of the quality of education at the college. Or, they can leave their dreams behind and get whatever course they can from a good college, even though they have no experience or interest in the subject. how is this fair?

What Can Be Done?

  • Shut down all coaching centres, and set the syllabus of the competitive exams to strictly follow that of the school system. The fact that the exam may be too easy is not an excuse: the cut-offs for the best institutes will naturally be the highest. The JEE Advanced paper for entrance to the IITs is one of the hardest exams in the world, whereas the IITs themselves are far from being the best colleges in the world!
  • As an extension, shut down the culture of going to Kota to study. Students should be able to enjoy the last two years at their homes with their families before leaving for college.
  • Ensure that schools teach with both the board exams and the competitive exams in mind.
  • Remove the 75% in board exams eligibility criteria for giving the entrance exam. Not all students are good at theory, and it is a well known fact that, unlike government schools, private schools almost always give full marks in internal assessment to its students, making it unfair for students in public schools. For example, I got full marks in all my practicals and internal assessments in physics, chemistry and maths, which I am comfortable in sharing I did not deserve, as maths and physics are not my strong points.
  • Add all the subjects to the entrance exam. Instead of just physics, chemistry and maths, offer subjects such as CS, geography and geology as well.
  • Make it such that admissions to different courses have different subjects: For example, B.Tech CSE could only require maths and CS, B.Tech Metallurgy could require, for example, chemistry and geology, mechanical engineering could only require physics etc.
  • In subjects like CS, it may be difficult for students from rural backgrounds to study CS at the school level, so the option to take CS only with marks from physics and maths could be added, and the merit from both subject combinations (and maybe others as well) could be considered.

The Common Universities Entrance Test (CUET) which was started last year, is very good in these regards because it only considers the school syllabus, it has several subjects to choose from, and different courses take merit of different subject combinations. If the engineering and medical colleges are also added to CUET, with care given to make sure different subject combinations are considered for various courses, several problems with the current system can be solved in one shot.

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