In 2017, Maryam Ayoub and Mehreen Makhdoomi bagged merit positions each in the tenth standard in north Kashmir’s Sopore town. The town was falling short, though, to meet their dreams —of becoming a doctor and making it big in life.
By winter, the friends had come down to Parraypora area of Srinagar, an area developed as a coaching hub over the past few years. Since then, the capital city has become a clutter of hoardings and newspapers showcasing flashy dreams.
“I vividly remember my excitement after qualifying tenth [standard] examinations,” says Ms. Makhdoomi. “[But] due to lack of proper coaching, I have completely lost the track.”
But three years later, Ms. Ayoub and Ms. Makhdoomi, taking deep sighs, admit that they are regretting their decision.
Like them, every year, thousands of students —either after tenth standard or twelfth standard —drop regular classes at schools and opt for the rigorous schedule at one of these coaching institutes. These institutes promise the best education to qualify competitive exams —most popular choices being National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), to secure seats in medical science and engineering colleges respectively.
In Kashmir Valley, Department of School Education states that, at present, there are at least 346 coaching institutes registered. The numbers have risen exponentially. In 2017, the department had only 182 registered institutes, while in 2016, there were merely 116 institutes. Currently, as estimated by the President of Coaching Centre Association (CCA), G. N. Var, there are nearly 200 unregistered institutes.
The meteoric rise in the numbers of these institutes have sparked new challenges for ideas of ideal high-school education; for students’ development and future; for parents spending lakhs of rupees; and for the society.
I vividly remember my excitement after qualifying tenth [standard] examinations. [But] due to lack of proper coaching, I have completely lost the track.
Ms. Makhdoomi sits frustrated outside Kashmir Institute of Excellence (KIE), one of the leading coaching institutes in Srinagar. She had attended classes straight for five hours — 8 am to 1 pm. “How can one learn if there isn’t a single break in these overcrowded classes,” she asks.
The first impression of the KIE didn’t last long for the duo, who joined in December 2017; Ms. Ayoub even curses the day she joined the institute. “When we joined KIE, for about three weeks, the roll restrictions were properly managed,” she says. Within a few weeks, Ms. Ayoub saw a sharp increase in new faces. “The management prefers the number of students rather than the quality education,” she adds.
Ms. Ayoub pays about 40,000 rupees per annum to the institute; she has a hard time, though, convincing herself that the fee is justified. “The classrooms are overcrowded; there is no space for asking a question or providing the feedback to the teacher,” she says, “In the noisy environment you can’t even think of complaining about the disturbance to the teacher.”
Inside a classroom at KIE, that I managed to sneak in, it looked like a mock music concert: teachers sit in front of about roughly 300 students, wired in with bilateral ear microphone. The mounted speakers reverberate the teacher’s voice and students dive into notebooks to jot the narration.
Sitting in the last row, next to me, a student murmured with his head down, “It does not matter whether we learn anything or not. They need more admissions to generate more revenue —that’s it.” After this, a security guard had his eyes on me and I was ousted.
As per Section 5 (a) of the government order No. 435-Edu-of 2010, the physical facilities of the coaching center shall have to provide a minimum covered area/space of nine square feet per candidate in the tuition. With about 350 students sitting inside a classroom, the order is been brazenly violated by most of the coaching institutes.
Talking of the microphone-style, another student standing outside classroom wonders, “Who learns and who cares?” He believes that learning from YouTube videos would have been ideal than sitting in the last rows of these overcrowded classrooms. When the owner of the KIE was asked about the number of students in his institute, he refused to reveal any details to this reporter.
But the KIE is not alone. A newly opened institute, Mission E, in the adjoining area has similar issues. Ishtiyaq Ahmad Naik, a resident of south Kashmir’s Kulgam, didn’t attend his class at the institute. He claims that due to the huge rush of students, there is no place left for him to sit. “Students are hanging on windows and some are sitting on the floor,” says the 19-year-old student. “While others are unwilling to attend their classes now.”
After confirming admission, the students find no one to listen to their woes. Sheeba Jan, whose name has been changed, says that her continuous complaints have been falling into deaf ears of the institute’s management. “We have been asking for the replacement of chemistry teacher but they are repeatedly ignoring our complaints,” she says.
One of the faculty members at Hope Classes, another coaching institute in the area, who does not wish to be named, isn’t satisfied with his job either. Admitting the failure in regulating the roll-restrictions, he says that the classes “have been reduced to formality.” The teacher, who has been teaching in private institutes since 2013, says, “This approach doesn’t have success to offer —to either teacher or students.”
One of the major selling-points with these institutes is the availability of doubt classes, given by experts. But he refuses to accept it. “There is no scope for that when the class has about 300 students,” he says. He highlights the rigorous schedule of teachers —as they move on from one class to another. “[In those circumstances] how can a teacher solve doubts on an individual basis?”
His argument puts light on the overtly mismanaged teacher-student ratio in classes. Hearing a 2016 Public Interest Litigation on illegal and unregistered private coaching institutes across J-K, a division bench also sought fee structure fixed by the institutes. The petition asked for closing down of all the illegal and unregistered institutes in the Valley and thereafter the scope of the PIL was extended to across J-K.
The court had said that the submission of pupil-teacher ratio maintained by coaching institutes has adversely affected the teaching standard. It also directed the government to form norms for fixing the pupil-teacher ratio with the assistance of experts. In February 2020, the court closed the PIL directing the government to ensure that the institutes work in tune with government’s regulations.
Ishfaq Lone, a 26-year-old co-owner and Physics teacher at Wave, another coaching institute in the area, adds that the teachers do not justify their positions as the compromised teacher-student ratio unable teachers to give individual attention. “For proper teaching-learning environment, the coaching management should restrict a classroom between fifty to seventy students,” he adds.
When the government clamped down in August 2019 after the abrogation of J-K’s special status, the coaching institutes remained closed for months. As per the schedule, the syllabus is lagging behind months. However, the institutes are refusing to refund the fees or own responsibility.
The classrooms are overcrowded; there is no space for asking a question or providing the feedback to the teacher. In the noisy environment you can’t even think of complaining about the disturbance to the teacher.
Gurmeet Singh was staring at a big glossy hoarding of Target PMT, another private coaching institute in Srinagar’s uptown area. Standing with his 17-year-old daughter, Sanam Kour, Mr. Singh glances at the faces of students, which the institute flaunts as qualified alumni. It also claims to have the best faculty for medical sciences.
From the hoarding, Target PMT seems the apt choice for his daughter’s ambitions, but Mr. Singh is confused. Every other hoarding claims the same. “All of them [coaching institutes] claim to have top-notch teaching faculty, which produce brilliant batches,” he says, “but the reality is under the shadow.”
Hoardings are part of the massive advertisement market, worth crores of rupees. In each academic session, the institutes market their qualities on regional newspapers, radio stations, and outdoor marketing.
All of them [coaching institutes] claim to have top-notch teaching faculty, which produce brilliant batches. But the reality is under the shadow.
An employee in accounts’ department at regional leading English daily, who does not wish to be named, claims that a full front-page advertisement costs 1,89,000 rupees, while the back-page costs 1,05,000 rupees. At an average, for each hoarding they pay around 60,000 rupees a month.
A major blunder was uncovered in July 2017 when Hope Classes placed an advertisement in a local daily flaunting thirty qualified students — each of JEE and NEET. Out of them, one ended up being Peshawar Army School attack victim from December 2014; another Pakistani YouTube sensation; and another a young model for Alamy images. Not only this, but multiple students also claimed that an individual, who qualified a competitive examination, is often claimed by multiple coaching institutes.
Shan Wasil Bilal was also tempted by one such newspaper advertisement he saw at his home in Kelam village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district in 2017. Mr. Bilal was not satisfied with the coaching he had received from Anantnag town for eleventh and twelfth standard. For better coaching for NEET, the 19-year-old drove sixty-five kilometers to study at Target PMT —“with an impression that institutes in Srinagar will be extraordinary.”
But time made him realise that he was wrong. “Believe me there is hardly any difference between tuition centres in Srinagar city and other districts,” says Mr. Bilal. He suggests everyone to not believe in advertisements. For instance, he called out institutes naming the faculty as Quantum sir, Algae sir and Erode sir —referring to the branch of particular subjects. After one joins the institute, Mr. Bilal says, these titles come ahead as mere show-off.
Numerous administrations at these institutes refused to share the data, including the percentage of qualified students and yearly revenue. While a few franchise-model institutes, including Target PMT, refused to share any data either.
“It was an awful experience,” Syed Abeer Ul Bana, a 21-year-old student pursuing Bachelor of Technology from Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora, says of his private coaching time-period.
In 2015, he joined KIE in eleventh standard. “Despite taking fees in advance, the teachers only covered sixty per cent of our syllabus,” he claims. “The fee was not refunded and the attitude of teachers also turned sour.”
To many parents, the coaching institutes are operating as business units and not as educational centres. For instance, a parent from south Kashmir’s Tral, finds the cost of the brochure —300 rupees — absurd. The institutes also offer ten days demo classes, but only when the brochure is submitted.
Students share that on failing to submit the fees on time the student is barred from entering the classroom. Hope Classes – who claim to have more than 3,000 students – mention the status of fees on students’ identity card. “If the card says ‘pending’ than the student isn’t allowed inside the classroom,” claims Sheikh Uzair, an aspirant at the institute.
A similar trend, with different prototype, was found at other institutes as well. For instance, at KIE, the students receive colour cards indicating their fee statuses —subsequently deciding if the aspirant can enter the institute.
“The student is humiliated if he fails to pay fee within two instalments,” says Yasir Majeed Wani, a student of eleventh standard at Hope Classes. Here, the economically backward students are affected the most.
In 2018, Directorate of School Education, Kashmir, issued a circular stating that the coaching institutes are abided to keep ten per cent of the seats reserved for the Below Poverty Line (BPL), orphans, destitute, physically challenged students.
While Aakash, another franchise-model coaching institute, doesn’t charge any fee from the students falling under the mentioned quota, other institutes including KIE, Mission E, and Wave, charge about 5,000 rupees for administrative expenses.
Farooq Ahmad Malik, a 47-year-old resident of Lagapora village of Kulgam, claims that despite possessing BPL ration card, his son, Danish Farooq, was denied free admission by any coaching centre.
After moving from pillar to post, Mr. Malik says that his son finally got the admission at Hope Classes. “The admission was not provided completely free, but with some concession [after paying 28,000 rupees],” he adds.
“This is what poor people get in the name of free admissions,” he laments. An auto-rickshaw driver by profession, Mr. Malik claims that the administration of the institute said that “every BPL student can’t be given free admission and their quota is full.”
Muhammad Shahid Dar, vice-chairman of Coaching Centre Association and an administrator of a private coaching institute in Srinagar, claimed in a media briefing in January 2018 that the list of students – falling under category of BPL and provided by Director of Education – was not apt. “We have proof that the students are not from below poverty line. Why should we accept them?” he had questioned. “We want to tell the government choose only one option; either to charge 18 per cent GST from us or free education to 10 per cent students.”
However, when media persons asked Mr. Dar whether 18 per cent GST was more expensive or 10 per cent quota students — he had fumbled and refused to share any revenue figures. Other than the tuition fees, there are multiple other expenses including books and living costs — unregulated by anybody. No tuition centre has its own library either.
There is lack of proper counselling too. It took Mr. Bilal, the resident of Kulgam, three years to realize that private coaching is nothing but fashion. He recalls an incident from his village where a parent sold his cattle to send his son for coaching in Srinagar —three years later, the son ended up shifting the subjects to arts.
President of Private School Association of J-K, and of CCA, Mr. Var admitted that education in private sector has become a business. “When a student is paying eighteen per cent GST [Goods and Service Tax], he is no more a learner but a product for both coaching institutes and the government,” Mr. Var says.
Mr. Var blames government for not taking education as a social service. “[Instead] the government is a mute spectator to students’ miseries as they failed to regulate these institutes,” he says.
A few institute administrations that spoke to The Kashmir Walla, excuses that there are rents, bills, and salaries to pay. On roll-restrictions, an administrator at a local institute, who does not wish to be named, says that “the fees have to be enhanced for that.”
“We cannot work when the students pay 30,000 to 40,000 per year,” he says, “and then accept free admissions as well. If people need quality they should pay fee accordingly. If students have to learn [then] they should prioritize good education and not facilities like air conditioners and gigantic infrastructure.”
The 2016 PIL, asking for a crackdown on illegal and unregistered coaching institutes, also informed the HC that no fee structure in these institutes has been fixed and it goes unregulated.
When a student is paying eighteen per cent GST [Goods and Service Tax], he is no more a learner but a product for both coaching institutes and the government.
Except Aakash’s Rajbagh branch, which charges more than 1,00,000 rupees per year, remaining coaching institutes charge between 30,000 to 45,000 rupees. Showkat Ahamd Mir, branch manager at Aakash, says that hefty fees enables them to maintain teacher-student ratio. “We do not put 200 or 300 students in a classroom but keep it confine to seventy to eighty students to maintain the quality,” says Mr. Mir. “It is absolutely impossible to teach 300 students in a go.”
In January 2020, Central Board of School Educationamended the mandatory attendance criteria — 75 per cent — for appearing in board examinations. J-K Board of School Education (JKBOSE) requires a student to attend 66 per cent of theory and 75 per cent of practical classes for appearing in board examination.
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Director School education, Kashmir, Mohammad Younis Malik claimed that the government has issued clear instructions to coaching institutes about the roll management, fee structure, and other facilities.
“If any tuition centre is found violating these rules, the monitoring committee led by deputy commissioners, additional deputy commissioners and chief executive officers can deregister the tuition centre and take appropriate action also,” says Mr. Malik.
But the violation of rules is taking place under the nose of the administration. A government teacher is disallowed to work in a private tuition centre and no government employee is permitted to leave office before 4 pm. The reality, however, is something different in these coaching institutes.
A south Kashmir based higher secondary school lecturer in the Department of Education reveals that there are nearly a dozen government employees who brazenly compromise on their main duties and are found working in coaching institutes.
The timing at most coaching institutes for the first batch of students during winter is 9 am to 3 pm and is revised to 3 pm to 8 pm in summer. Under the rules, no employee can leave the office before 4 pm; but many employees are seemingly managing it quite easily. Almost all the students —enrolled in either government or private schools —sitting in the institutes are violating these norms.
“How can a student from Handwara go to school when he is getting regular private coaching in Srinagar?” questions a senior lecturer, who does not wish to be named, working with Department of Education. “The government and private coaching management seem to be hand in glove with each other to violate the orders.”
It is not about just education, though. Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Dr. Ghulam Mohammad Tibetbaqal, a member of Expert Committee of University Grants Commission (UGC), believes that a student can study anywhere, but in school there is focus on individuals’ co-curricular development. “The coaching institutes focus on education and syllabus coverage but nothing on personal development,” he says.
Wherein the school administration is believed to, and supposed to, warn students in government-run schools about attendance shortage, their absence goes unchecked. “In case a student is found irregular at school, the principal puts the shortage notice,” says Niyaz Ahmad, a retired government teacher form Awantipora, south Kashmir. “The reality is that their children are studying at private coaching institutes in Srinagar as well.”
Arjuman Jan, who is enrolled at Government Girls Higher Secondary School in Nunar village of Ganderbal, was grieved due to teachers’ lack of attention. “The government teachers do not take pain of teaching students properly,” she says. “There is a lack of discipline and professionalism.” And that’s not it. When she enrolled at Aakash Institute for JEE, a teacher at the school advised her to not come daily. “Don’t worry you will be marked present even if you do not come for months,” she had told Ms. Jan. Only if the government would have taken education seriously, she believes, there would have been no need of opting for private coaching.
Director of Centre for Career Guidance and Counselling and an academician, Mohammad Yaqoob Khan, 62, says that there is a nexus between coaching institutes and the government. “Government has till date failed to form any policy for coaching institutes,” he says. “Whether it is roll regulation of students or fee structure, there are no such guidelines from the government.”
The private coaching has become a fashion among the students, he believes. “I have seen mothers selling their ornaments for better education of their children,” Mr. Khan says. “But unfortunately, the money is not used well.”
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Cover Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla.
Irfan Amin Malik is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.
The story appeared in our 24 February-1 March 2020 print edition.