When students who have spent more than a decade at school decide to end their life, the message is not all that difficult to decipher. It is about education, or rather about the system that provides it. There is also a message about the ethos in which a child experiences that education. This ethos is a joint product of home and school. Both messages are shrill. The first one, about education, is that the system has an empty core; the second, about the ethos, is that it is suffocating.
Many among those who end their lives in the cramped room of a coaching centre or in the better-endowed hostel of an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) die without leaving a note. Perhaps they do not expect that others will or can understand their decision. It is not unusual for an adolescent to think that way. In fact, it is characteristic of adolescence to view oneself in isolation, intensely anxious about the purpose of life and the state of the world. Idealism and cynicism go hand in hand, making adolescence an age of unpredictable turbulence. It is a rare adolescent who might think that it is worth explaining to others, especially adults, the impulse to discontinue living. The title of a recent novel, Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li, correctly reflects the nature of this impulse. When someone does leave a note, it tends to follow a common script: “no one is responsible for my death”. Only the police find such notes useful.
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Though he was not an adolescent when he died, Rohith Vemula’s letter written just before his death seven years ago offers a rare glimpse into the ultimate despair and indignation that leads a thoughtful young mind of our times to approve of suicide. He was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad on a fellowship. His suicide note is an open letter, expressing the depth of his gloom and his refusal to be treated as a number, and never as a mind. His last wish: that his fellowship dues of the previous seven months may be sent to his mother. She had struggled against poverty to see him through school. Vemula’s suicide note says: “My birth is a fatal accident.” The University of Hyderabad did release his fellowship amount but offered no official regrets—either to his mother or even simply for the record.
Our educational institutions are extensions of bureaucracy. From the time of admission to the day of the final exam, a student is treated as a roll number. No one is treated as a mind, let alone as a personality. Examination time is when students need the greatest amount of support, and that is when they cannot even borrow books from the library. After years of unequal treatment, in institutions that have nothing in common, millions of children are lumped in board exams into one opaque entity in the name of impartiality. Competitive exams like NEET (National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test) and JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) do that on a bigger scale. Their draconian pedagogic procedures dehumanise the young at every step, right up to the entrance door of the exam hall. Strip search in the name of prevention of cheating dents the last traces of dignity.
What all these 17+ so-called aspirants of a medical or engineering career go through is not easy to imagine or describe. No one knows how many of them really wanted to be a doctor or engineer. They end up in coaching institutes because that is the standard route to get into the only careers that apparently count. It is a common belief that you cannot crack NEET or JEE without joining a coaching institute. Empty science sections in classes XI and XII in schools offer an indicative measure of the popularity of this belief. After finishing class X, students spend their days in coaching classes in their own town or their parents send them to coaching hubs like Kota.
This city in Rajasthan now has the dubious reputation of being the coaching capital of India. The coaching industry contributes significantly to the city’s economy, and that is one reason why successive governments have shown little interest in regulating it. Home tuition and coaching have grown over the decades as a shadow system of “learning”. No longer marginal, it now dominates the lives of senior secondary level boys and girls. Proxy schools enable students taking coaching classes to appear in board exams without attending classes.
Race for rank
Kota and other coaching hubs offer a single-minded pursuit of success in competitive exams. By non-stop advertising, the coaching industry creates the impression that everyone can succeed. Parents already believe that all their sons and daughters need is coaching in order to get a high rank in NEET and JEE. The child’s own interests or wishes do not count. Parental pressure to aim at high-status careers has grown in tandem with the shrinking of government jobs and the minuscule presence of worthwhile employment in the private sector. Economic policy has desisted from imposing norms that might provide basic security in private sector jobs.
Young people realise that job stability and security are difficult to find, and hence the race for high-status careers in medicine, engineering, and civil service has intensified. The high failure rate in these pursuits does not deter the youth. If despite investment in coaching, they do not make it into these careers, they experience frustration and a sense of guilt for letting their parents down. Imagining this highly probable prospect itself acts as a source of chronic stress. Many break down. This year, over two million youngsters tried their luck in NEET. Success for them meant getting a high enough rank to find one of the 40,000 seats in government medical colleges. Lower ranks lead to private medical colleges that charge an exorbitant fee for varying qualities of education. Still lower ranks lead to courses in alternative medical sciences.
Although a few manage to get a high enough score on their own, the advantage that coaching brings is not a myth. For tens of thousands of students from ordinary schools, coaching promises to enhance self-confidence. It creates and sustains the pressure to master item-cracking skills and to gain speed. The conditions under which students are made to stay for one, two, or more years in Kota are hard. The pursuit of mastery over NEET and JEE items is narrowly focussed and tough. It is like training for war. Apart from parental pressure to perform and succeed, there is also the pressure of peers. Someone not enrolled in a coaching centre is made to feel left out.
- The increasing number of student suicides in India is sending a clear message about the education system and the challenging environment it creates for young learners.
- From crowded coaching centers to prestigious institutions, these tragedies reveal the shortcomings of the system and the lack of individual attention.
- In educational institutions, students are often treated as mere numbers, pushing them into a relentless race to excel in highly competitive exams..
Teacher vs coach
Between a schoolteacher and a coach, the key difference is the clarity of the latter’s task. It is to hone the student’s skill in solving multiple choice questions (MCQs) at breakneck speed. Over the recent years, MCQs have gained greater presence in internal school exams as well as in board exams, but NEET is entirely based on MCQs. The JEE also uses a format dominated by MCQs. Each MCQ offers four possible answers out of which the student has to select the correct one. As there is no time to reflect or revise—and a wrong answer incurs negative marks—the correct choice depends on previous practice, which is a mixture of drill and cramming. Coaching consists of drilling the student hundreds of times to crack MCQs from each science subject.
The questions are all based on the textbooks published by the NCERT, in the sense that the answer can be found in the relevant chapter of the book. Coaching institutes create a culture of “take no chances”. Mock tests are taken constantly and the students are ranked in them. The pressure to maintain a high rank is kept up week after week, and the subject coach works on the items a student might be getting wrong.
The experience of being coached has no relation whatsoever to the pleasure associated with science learning. That pleasure comes from doing practical experiments, noticing how an equation in chemistry or a theory in physics works out in the process of doing an experiment. That is not the kind of science that coaching institutes are concerned with and so they have no labs. A great number of schools too have no use for the exciting aspect of science learning. Even schools that have reasonably well-equipped labs prefer to focus on marks rather than understanding or the pleasure that comes from inquiry through experimentation. Students who enter medicine through coaching and without experience of lab work in science subjects have obvious limitations. If chemistry has been mastered through MCQs alone, the complex but crucial relationship between medical practice and the pharmaceutical industry that produces medicines may remain beyond a doctor’s immediate reach.
The MCQ cult has exploded like wild mushrooms in recent years. The National Testing Agency favours MCQ-based testing because it allows the performance of hundreds of thousands of candidates to be machine-scored. Test papers are prepared by people who accept the chore for a modest fee. In most cases, they are prepared in English and then translated into Indian languages. How authentic or accurate the translation is receives little critical attention in the massive process that organising competitive tests involves.
Tamil Nadu’s complaint about its rural students facing a disadvantage in NEET is not without reason. But procedural issues apart, the substantial question remains whether the predominantly MCQ format helps the nation to identify candidates with the best potential to serve as doctors and engineers? The obvious answer is “no”; all that an MCQ-based mass test offers is a convenient way to eliminate tens of thousands of youngsters whose capacity to solve MCQs at breakneck speed proves to be less than that of their relentlessly coached counterparts.
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It is not hard to guess who the eliminated might be. The popular image of the coaching industry is that of a leveller, but the reality is that it further divides the already divided system of education. If eligibility exams like NEET and JEE were not so charged with cut-throat competition, the senior secondary level schools would function more sanely, leading to better performance by children who have no support system at home. In villages and urban slums, not many survive to the +2 stage. Children of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities form a high proportion of those eliminated well before reaching the higher secondary stage where the eligibility contests for professional careers begin. The route to these careers that the coaching industry offers can hardly be described as a means of social justice.
The expensive drudgery of coaching cannot compensate for the many flaws of the education system. The state’s inability to plan and care for education has allowed coaching to grow into a mega commercial enterprise. It has seriously compromised the reliability of selection procedures used for professional education. This weak and sidetracked system takes a considerable toll on adolescent sanity. Carrying the burden of their parents’ dreams, thousands give up when they cannot cope with guilt, despair, and the fear of failure. The available estimates of teenage suicides are far from accurate, but recorded data point towards no less than 13,000 a year. Kota alone has witnessed 24 suicides in 2023 so far. Among the students who make it to an IIT, alienation and inability to cope with stress persists, resulting in frequently reported cases of suicides. As many as 20 cases were reported in the first quarter of this year, and similar news keeps coming in. Each case is a testimony to the multiple failures of the system of education to reform itself.
Krishna Kumar is Honorary Professor of Education at Panjab University, a former Dean of education at Delhi University, and former Director of NCERT. He is the author of Smaller Citizens (2021) and Thank You, Gandhi (forthcoming).