India’s pressure-cooker education system

The relentless pressure to excel in exams like JEE and NEET drives students to the brink. But that’s just one side of this tragic story.

Published : Sep 21, 2023 11:00 IST - 18 MINS READ

As many as 24 students have died by suicide in Kota this year, the highest since the city emerged on the country’s education landscape three decades ago.

As many as 24 students have died by suicide in Kota this year, the highest since the city emerged on the country’s education landscape three decades ago. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In India, which has set its sights on the moon, aspirations can reach astral heights. “I have heard parents say things like, ‘We had decided to send him/her to IIT when he/she was born’,” said Aaeen Ahmad Siddiquee, who runs a coaching centre in Delhi for JEE Advanced preparations. “By the time the child gets to class VII or VIII, they are already into coaching for JEE. In fact, there are parents who want to send their kids in Class 5 for full-fledged JEE coaching.” This relentless pressure from the cradle onwards dictates the lives of the Indian middle class.

The highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical studies serve as launchpads for students to gain admission to the prestigious, public-funded Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). That is their ticket to promising careers and social status. At least two lakh students throng every year to Rajasthan’s Kota alone to prepare for the entrance exam. Many thousands of others are engaged in “the pursuit of happyness” at other centres that dot the country’s educational landscape, in the National Capital Region, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and so on.

The deaths in Kota are not a new malaise, but only the latest symptom of a deeply diseased education and social system. | Video Credit: Frontline News Desk

However, student life in these places is often not very happy. The black-and-white scenes in Kota Factory, a web series on the dehumanising experiences of students, showed how dull and depressing it can get. According to recent reports, substance abuse, sleep-related issues, and anxiety are common among Kota students. Then, one day, the pressure cooker explodes, and dreams turn into nightmares.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that students accounted for 8 per cent (13,089) of the total suicides in the country in 2021, with “failure in examination” listed as one of the reasons. This is an increase of 70 per cent in student suicides in a decade, up from 7,696 in 2011.

Also Read | We don’t need this education

As many as 24 students have died by suicide in Kota this year, the highest since the city emerged on the country’s education landscape three decades ago. The prime reason is believed to be academic pressure. The competition is fierce: in 2023, only a little over 22 per cent of the 1.95 lakh students who registered for JEE Advanced qualified. Only those who have cleared JEE Main are eligible to take JEE Advanced.

Mahesh Joshi, a Minister in the Rajasthan government, attributes financial distress as a cause. “The students fear the burden on their families if they do not succeed as their parents have taken huge loans to educate them,” he told reporters in Jaipur recently.

At least some of those who make it to the IITs slowly crumble under academic pressure. Seven cases of suicides have been reported across the 23 IITs in the country to date. The figures were three, four, and nine in 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Nearly two lakh students throng every year to Kota alone to prepare for entrance exams.

Nearly two lakh students throng every year to Kota alone to prepare for entrance exams. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

In the past two months, two students from the BTech in mathematics and computing department died by suicide at IIT Delhi. They were meant to graduate this August but had not got the required credits to complete the programme. A student from the department, who wished to remain anonymous, blamed some faculty members for giving students poor grades, claiming it aggravated their stress. Significantly, the low student-to-teacher ratio makes it challenging for teachers to cater to the diverse needs of students.

According to Vishal Kumar Vaibhav, a professor who teaches at the Physics Department and the Optics and Photonics Centre of IIT Delhi, faculty improvement plays a key role in shaping the norms around student-teacher interaction at all levels.

“If the standards of teaching assessment are well defined, with the right incentives in place, then developing proper teaching material and evolving proper teaching methodology will not be seen as a less rewarding activity compared to conducting research and producing high-quality publications,” he told Frontline.

This, he believes, will engender an environment where students can evaluate their self-worth on the basis of not just grades but also a demonstrable skill set. “Students empowered in this way can help their peers and have an overall positive impact on the mental well-being of the community.” Vaibhav has created a counselling WhatsApp group for students.

In IIT Madras, four students have taken their lives on campus in 2023 alone, despite its wellness centre, four clinical psychologists, and one counselling psychologist. Academics highlight the growing pressure on students due to rigorous coursework and peer pressure, which has increased significantly post-COVID.

The Union Education Minister released IITM’s strategic plan for 2022-27, slating its aim to be among the top 50 institutes in the world within the next four years. It lists innovative courses, collaborations, and research options, but is silent on the issue of student suicides.

IITM’s routine response has been to appoint an internal inquiry committee and evaluate student support systems, but as several students and faculty members point out in private, the institute has been less than transparent, proactive, or empathetic in its approach to students. Caste too plays a significant role, with students complaining of discrimination in classroom and non-classroom encounters.

Likewise, the official response in Kota has been short-sighted. On August 27, Kota District Collector Om Prakash Bunkar held several meetings with representatives of the local administration, coaching institutes, career counselling centres, and hostels to discuss the issue. The suggestions included psychological assessment services and testing procedures, celebrity entertainment events, and spiritual and yoga classes.

Students coming out after attending the Common University Entrance Test - Undergraduate (CUET-UG) at Delhi University in August 2022.

Students coming out after attending the Common University Entrance Test - Undergraduate (CUET-UG) at Delhi University in August 2022. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said the number of student suicides in Rajasthan was only 633 in 2021, compared with 1,834 in Maharashtra, 1,308 in Madhya Pradesh, 1,246 in Tamil Nadu, and 855 in Karnataka. “However, the State government is serious and sensitive towards the issue,” he said in a statement. “It is time for corrective measures. We cannot see young students dying by suicide.”

The State is yet to enact the Rajasthan Coaching Institute (Control and Regulation) Bill, which it promised to do after the Rajasthan High Court’s intervention in the matter. Meanwhile, a committee constituted by Gehlot has recommended cutting back study hours and creating a student-friendly atmosphere at the centres. The police have set up a student cell to respond to SOS calls. Institutes in the city have been have temporarily barred from holding routine assessment tests. The district administration has also advised centres to stop classifying students as Star, Leader, Dropper, Achiever, Repeater, or Enthusiast, attributing this as a major cause for students taking extreme steps. While the measures seem sensible, they increase the worries of students, who fear that slowing down will put them behind their competitors elsewhere.

In Kota, a sizeable number of students are class IX and X children, prompting Gehlot to blame parents for pushing them when so young. Ask the students how they manage, and they answer with a smile: “Jugaad” (workaround). The reference is to the practice of “dummy schools”, where students do not attend classes but simply enrol for board examinations. Education in the real sense of the word takes a hit in this coaching centre model.

Coping with pressure

The inner walls of the Radha Krishna temple at Talwandi in Kota have prayers inscribed on them, forcing the temple administration to paint the walls every three months. “In this city, every student looks at the other as a competitor,” Priyobroto Dass, a NEET aspirant, told Frontline. “I stick strictly to my daily study schedule and come to this temple or talk to my parents whenever I feel stressed.”

To cope with the constant fear of lagging behind and the pressure of tightly packed schedules, some students listen to motivational speakers on their cellphones and laptops while others have coffee mugs and posters with phrases such as, “You are capable of more than you know”, “Kid, you will move mountains”, and “Work hard in silence and let success make the noise.”

The motivation from the coaching centres goes beyond posters. When Tanmaya Shekhawat bagged the 11th rank in the CBSE IIT JEE (Advanced) entrance examination in 2016, the director of his institute gifted him a BMW sedan. In turn, the institutes sell themselves using the success stories of their alumni, hyping the annual salary packages, ranging from Rs.50 lakh to Rs.2 crore, that they can earn.

Also Read | Namakkal: A Kota in the making?

Neither is there a dearth of soap-box speeches from visiting dignitaries. On September 5, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, addressing students from various institutions in Kota, called on them to follow their dreams and go off the beaten track. He highlighted the “phenomenal unicorn boom in India” and the country’s “unparalleled human equity, human capital, and cultural depth” and drew examples from successful dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Michael Dell. “When it comes to skilling, when it comes to learning, every Indian boy and girl is born as an Eklavya,” he said.

Such speeches may not be a great idea. Arun Kumar, a noted economist and retired professor, told Frontline: “As a top government functionary, the Vice President is duty-bound to defend government policies while ignoring the negativity present in the current situation, like extreme income inequality and inadequate government priority to education, including in budgetary allocations.” The string of student suicides in Kota, said Kumar, represents a combination of three factors: unemployment among educated youths, lack of quality education, and shortage of good jobs.

“Only 6 per cent of India’s working population is employed in the organised sector. Due to the population increase in the first decade of this century, currently 24 million jobseekers every year are ready to work, while only half a million will get organised sector jobs that promise some economic security,” he said.

Since India’s unorganised sector is characterised by low income and extreme job insecurity, “it puts extreme pressure on students to do well in examinations in order to enter the organised sector”, said Kumar. “Not just in Kota, but elsewhere in the country too, the education system makes students unidimensional through a narrow focus on cramming to crack the exams. This approach undermines all those aspects of education that are important for overall human development.”

He pointed out that unlike school and college dropouts in technologically advanced countries like the US, “the majority of students from middle- and lower-class families in India cannot afford to get off the conveyor belt since it becomes almost impossible to find a desirable job afterwards. Here, education is seen as a minimum requirement for economic security. Few leave it to pursue their own passion. Holding up Steve Jobs or Michael Dell as comparisons is inappropriate in the Indian context.”

  • Students preparing for competitive exams like JEE and NEET face overwhelming academic pressure, leading to alarming rates of suicides.
  • Systemic flaws within the education system, including the role of coaching centres and social and economic disparities, exacerbate the situation.
  • Addressing the crisis in the education system requires a more comprehensive approach, including increased budget allocation, reducing academic pressure, and promoting inclusivity.

The coaching industry

It is the Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas who are the Great Indian Aspiration. Their journeys from IIT Kharagpur and Manipal Institute of Technology to lead Google and Microsoft, respectively, represent the stuff of dreams for middle-class families. It is this dream that the coaching industry hard-sells. And thrives on. Infinium Global Research, a Pune-based consultancy firm, has projected a significant growth in the coaching industry, with a market value of more than Rs.1.34 lakh crore by 2028, from the current Rs.58,088 crore.

The Kota coaching industry, with an estimated worth of Rs.12,000 crore, is known for competitive poaching of not just potential toppers but also teachers. The director of a leading academy was caught on camera threatening teachers in 2016. Again in 2022, he was in news for his belligerent response to a rival’s decision to set up learning centres in the city.

In Kerala, every year about 1.5 lakh students attempt the various State and national medical and engineering entrance exams. Here, too, there are coaching centres such as Aakash and FIITJEE (with a national presence) and State units such as PC Thomas Classes, Brilliant Pala, and Xylem Learning which offer foundation courses from classes VI to X, weekend entrance coaching held simultaneously with school, month-long crash courses before the exams, and year-long residential or non-residential classes. Centres have screening tests and cut-off marks for admissions and offer scholarships on the basis of these scores.

PC Thomas Classes, which claims to be the oldest in the country having been established in 1960, aims for a “holistic approach to education”. Brilliant Pala’s centres enrol over 20,000 students a year. Xylem is a Kozhikode-based centre that started as an online learning portal in the thick of the pandemic in 2020. Today it has four campuses across Kerala and about 13,000 students on campus. Xylem claims to have introduced hybrid learning modules to India with a mix of app and class learning, which coaching centres in Kota are now trying to emulate. According to Lijeesh Kumar, director and chief academic officer at the institute: “Students who get below 97 per cent don’t get admission in coaching centres. But we took on a student who failed physics and passed in the second attempt. He ended up ranking 21 in Kerala in the NEET exam and is now a first-year student at JIPMER.”

Echoing Gehlot, students in Kerala say the pressure comes more from parents than from coaching centres. The Kochi-based career counsellor and analyst Indu Jayaram agreed, telling Frontline that students apply to professional courses more because of parental pressure and social status rather than a drive to make a social contribution. She blames the educational system. “In the UK, students who want to do medicine have to work in a hospital for two weeks to help them understand if they have the wherewithal to be a doctor. Here, we don’t offer any such support. I find that youngsters who choose their professional path themselves are willing to make any sacrifice and adapt to any situation to get a good rank,” she said.

Prasanth Nair, MD of the Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation, and perhaps the bureaucrat with the greatest appeal among youngsters in Kerala, has spoken against the trend of felicitating students on social media for their grades. He told Frontline that the mindset in Kerala has seen a bit of a change with regard to parents pushing children into engineering and medicine. “Students have to consider if aspirations match their skills to make realistic career choices. Even after you get a seat, the pressure continues in the institute, leading to suicide cases in the IITs, and so on,” he said.

Kerala institutes claim to stand apart in providing more than educational support to students. The psychologist to student ratio is apparently high, and the centres have mentors, counsellors, meditation classes, and exercise sessions for students.

Structural issues

Apart from academic stress, the recent incidents of students taking their lives have brought to the fore “deep-rooted structural issues” and the ostracisation and alienation of students on the basis of identities such as caste, class, gender, and religion. For instance, both students who took their lives in IIT Delhi this year were from the Dalit community.

“The discussion on caste is reduced to reservation and its demerits,” said a PhD scholar at IIT Delhi, “because most faculty members and research scholars are from the general category. The real disadvantages and the plight of students from the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe category are conveniently ignored.”

A student from IIT Bombay told Frontline that individuals from marginalised backgrounds are the worst victims of the highly competitive atmosphere. “Most educational institutions are mainly governed by upper-caste faculty members, so discriminatory attitudes are ubiquitous. The lack of representation of marginalised communities among the faculty is a big reason for students from the margins to feel alienated.”

Anxiety outside a Board examination centre in New Delhi, on February 24.

Anxiety outside a Board examination centre in New Delhi, on February 24. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The question about NEET is precisely that it privileges the privileged. In mid-August, Chennai saw two tragic incidents: Jagadeeswaran, a 19-year-old medical seat aspirant who was unable to make the cut took his life, followed shortly by his heart-broken father, Selvasekar.

In a video that went viral after Jagadeeswaran’s death, his class XII batchmate and a first-year MBBS student expressed the anguish of his classmates. Between sobs, the boy spoke of how he was privileged to afford the Rs.25 lakh annual fee in a private medical college that Jagadeeswaran could not. “How is this fair?” he asked. “How many more of us will NEET kill?”

The first student suicide in Tamil Nadu related to NEET was in 2017. S. Anita, from a disadvantaged family of Kuzhumur village in Ariyalur district, scored high marks in the class XII board examination but failed NEET. The State government helped her to move the Supreme Court, but the judgment upheld NEET. Although offered engineering seats, she insisted on studying medicine and took her life on September 1, 2017. The State government used her death to drive home the point that NEET did not privilege talent but only the ability to afford steep coaching fees.

M. Motilal from Namakkkal allegedly ended his life in 2020 out of fear of attempting NEET a third time. Roop Naveen M. enrolled in two NEET coaching centres before landing up in Namakkal (see box on page 18). He spoke of the highly stressful teaching environment. “They decided my calibre based on my school marks; they discouraged me. It affected my mental health,” he told Frontline. As many as 17 students have died by suicide so far in Tamil Nadu because of failing in NEET.

Suicide prevention: Three successful strategies
Sri Lanka’s pesticide curbs
Between 1950 and 1995, suicide rates increased eight-fold, peaking at 47 per 1 lakh population in 1995. By 2005, the suicide rate had halved owing to strategic policy measures to regulate access to pesticides. At the time, 87% of suicides occurred by poisoning, and pesticides were the most commonly consumed poison.
Conditional cash transfer in Indonesia
In 2007, the country launched a programme providing targeted assistance to the poorest households. The version was later expanded to cover 5.2 million households in 2014. A randomised control trial found that the cash transfer led to 18% reduction in suicides.
Better exam systems in Tamil Nadu
A 2004 State government order allowed students to write supplementary exams if they failed to secure the minimum pass percentage. The pressure of an exam deciding a student’s college admissions and their future vanished. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of exam failure-related suicides across the State fell from 407 in 2004 to 247 in 2014, and from 38 to 15 in Chennai.
Source: Mariwala Health Initiative

Tamil Nadu has consistently opposed NEET, regardless of the party in power. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s government set up a High Level Committee, chaired by retired High Court Justice A.K. Rajan, to study if the NEET-based admission process had “adversely affected the social, economic and federal polity, and the students of rural and urban poor, those who studied in Government Schools, those who studied in Tamil Medium, or any other section of students in Tamil Nadu”. It submitted its report on July 14, 2021.

An Official Committee of Secretaries examined it, and the State Health Department’s Policy note for 2023-24 said: “The Committee of Secretaries has suggested promulgation of an Act, similar to Tamil Nadu Act No.3/2007, to eliminate NEET in Medical Education and get the President’s assent. This will ensure social justice and protect all vulnerable student communities from being discriminated in admission to Medical Education Programmes.”

On September 13, 2021, the government introduced a Bill to this effect, which was unanimously passed in the Assembly. It was sent to the Governor to be forwarded to the President. Governor R.N. Ravi returned the Bill for reconsideration. A special Assembly session on February 8, 2022, passed it again. It awaits the President’s nod.

In an interaction with parents of students who had scored well in NEET, a parent asked the Governor if he would have cleared the anti-NEET Bill. “No, never,” he said, before going on to list the Bharatiya Janata Party’s arguments on why NEET was the way forward. Experts have criticised NEET as widening inequities and undermining the federal nature of educational governance.

Exclusion of the marginalised

With the economic liberalisation drive of the 1990s came the first hints of far-reaching changes in the education sector. The government slowly withdrew from education, and there was widespread privatisation and commercialisation of higher education and technical colleges. Thus began the exclusion of the deprived and marginalised, making higher education a preserve of the affluent.

As the educationist Madhu Prasad wrote in Frontline, the burden of education was placed on individual families and fee-paying parents, with governments indirectly causing the exclusion of Bahujans, who constitute almost 85 per cent of the population. Budgetary cuts and “rationalisation” proposals for school mergers/closures further exacerbated the issue. The National Education Policy repeatedly endorses these strategies. (See “Education at the mercy of the market”, Frontline, August 9, 2020.)

Celebrating their success in the CBSE class X exams, at St Thomas’ Girls Senior Secondary School, in New Delhi on May 12.

Celebrating their success in the CBSE class X exams, at St Thomas’ Girls Senior Secondary School, in New Delhi on May 12. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

If students in higher education today are facing a crisis, addressing it requires a more comprehensive approach.

The allocation for education in India has never reached 6 per cent of the GDP as recommended by the Kothari Commission in 1966; it was 2.9 per cent of the GDP in 2022 and has remained so for the past four years. As a percentage of total expenditure as well, the share for education has dropped over the past seven years, from 10.4 per cent in 2015-16 to 9.5 per cent, according to the Economic Survey 2022-23.

The Economic Survey states that the total enrolment in higher education increased to nearly 4.1 crore in 2020-21 from 3.9 crore in 2019-20. Since 2014-15, there has been an increase of around 72 lakh, or 21 per cent, in enrolment, while distance education has also grown at a similar rate of 20 per cent, with 45.7 lakh students enrolling.

Also Read | A cry for help that goes unnoticed

The huge gap between demand and supply is where private education institutions and, as a corollary, the coaching industry operates, leading to unhealthy competition and unrealistic expectations among students.

In an article on the commodification of higher education (“Privatising a public good”, Frontline, December 5, 2019), the authors argued: “Apart from various social and economic concerns, this grotesque transformation of education to a market transaction is dangerous simply because of what it entails for the idea of inclusive nation-building…. The commodification of education is symptomatic of a market society, which, as Karl Polyani puts in his classic text The Great Transformation, is likely to transform people into ‘lemmings marching off the cliff to their own destruction’.”

Ashutosh Sharma in Kota, Anna Mathews in Kochi, Ismat Ara in Delhi, and R.K. Radhakrishnan in Chennai

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