Friday, June 02, 2006

Manufacturing "Merit"

These days in India, when "merit" and "social justice" have become an either/or issue, there is some merit in having a relook at how "merit" is defined - and created/manufactured - in our society.

Notwithstanding the criticism that the educational infrastructure did not grow in India since independence, the data gives an altogether different picture:

According to another report, the total number of medical colleges in India also grew from 30 to around 250 with an intake of just about 20,000 (India has about 0.6mn registered doctors for a population of more than a billion people!)

Inspite of such growth, however, two factors have impeded the positive impact of this growth in the educational infrastructure:

1. The population has grown faster, and the demographic profile of the country has changed in favour of a very large young and vibrant generation (India is one of the youngest country, with a median age of less than 25: *please see the postscript)... Every year, close to 40lac (4mn) students pass out +2 from the Indian pre-degree educational schools/colleges.

2. The quality of many professional institutes is much lacking. For instance, the more than 100 engineering colleges in Karnataka and 200+ in Tamil Nadu lack sufficient faculty and infrastructure, but demand exhorbitant fee. Similarly, of the close to 1,000 B-schools in the country, only around 50 are recognised by the AICTE, etc..

...And therefore, the demand for good-quality educational (and occupational) opportunities has fast out-stripped the available opportunities.

For instance:

  • This year (2006), around 3lac (0.3mn) students appeared in IIT-JEE for about 6,000 seats in IITs, IIT-BHU and ISM-Dhanbad. The 18 NITs put together have just around 7,000 seats. (The irony is that, as the table above shows, while there are almost 3.5lac seats available in Indian engineering institutions, the aspirants' target is only for the quality institutes, which cannot accommodate all of them. Thus, while the success rate for entrance in IITs/NITs is less than 2%, in many engineering colleges, the seats remain vacant).

  • The situation is similar in the "second-rung" engineering colleges. In 2004, about 3.75lac (0.375mn) students appeared for AIEEE, competing for about 9,000 seats across 117 engineering colleges across the country.

  • Similarly, in 2005, around 1.5lac (0.15mn) candidates appeared for CAT for the 6 IIMs (about 3,000 seats), and around 70-odd other B-schools. Just a few years back, in 1998, this figure was 87,000.

  • Aspiring for the medical and dental colleges, in 2004, about 1.7lac (0.17mn) students appeared for CBSE's All India Pre-Medical Test, competing for just about 1,600 seats in the top medical colleges

  • About 7,000 students compete for the 80 seats across all its 9 centres of the National Law School, one of the premium 5-years courses in Law.

  • This year, for XAT (XLRI's admission test, which is accepted by 30 other b-schools), around 30,000 students (of the total 60k who appeared for the test) applied for the 180 seats in XLRI, etc., etc....

    In many ways, the working definition of "merit" in contemporay India is a function of this big supply-demand gap, where less than 2% aspirants to professional courses qualify to have "merit", i.e., get selected to their desired courses... and a mere difference of less than 0.01%ile in the admission test can change one's status from "merit" to "de-merit"

    And so, to win in this Darwinian landscape, an entirely new industry has taken shape during last decade or so, which specialises in "Manufacturing Merit"...

    ...the "Coaching Institutes":

    Some Snapshots
    (1bn =1 crore):

  • The Coaching Institute industry is dominated by around 50 firms. This is fast growing industry with an annual turnover estimates that vary from Rs.3,000bn-Rs.12,000bn. (as an offside, the fast-food industry in India has a turnover of only Rs.500bn :0)

  • Among the pioneers of this industry was the Bansal's Coaching Classes in Kota, Rajasthan, which started in 1983. Kota, currently, has around around 130 coaching institutes with an estimated combined turnover of Rs.250-400bn. The cost of 10 months coaching at Kota can vary between Rs.60,000 to Rs.175,000.The students come from all over India, and according to one report in 2003, Kota produced 2/3rd of the IIT entrants.

  • Kakadeo, Kanpur hosts 75 engineering, 20 medical and 15 business management coaching institutes within a two kilometre radius.

  • Chennai-based Brilliant Tutorials which provides coaching for 17 different exams to 60,000 students. According to this list, 730 of its students qualified in the IIT-JEE entrance test in 2005.

  • According to Delhi-based FIIT-JEE, 2047 of its students got selected in the IIT-JEE 2006 (that's for a total 7,000 seats!!!)

  • Mumbai-based IMS Learning Resources, which has 66 centers across the country, and coaches 40,000 students in several common entrance exams including CAT, eight state level MBA entrance exams, GRE, GMAT, etc.

  • Delhi-based Career Launcher has a presence in 51 cities across India and the Middle East and offers career oriented training and entrance exam preparatory education to over 35,000 students.

  • Chennai-based Triumphant Institute of Management Education Pvt. Ltd (TIME) has 90 centres in 59 cities, and claims that more than 1200 of its students got selected in the 6 IIMs through CAT-2004.

  • Chennai-based Aspire Learning Company prepares 40,000 students for the IIT-JEE, ICSE, CBSE, Tamil Nadu state board and matriculation exams in 42 centres across south India and boasts a gross annual revenue of Rs.16 crore.

    ...the list goes on: Professional Tutorials, Sachdeva New PT College, Rau's Study Cirle for IAS, Delhi-based Akash Institute, Trichur-based PC Thomas Classes, Sahil Study Circle, Chanakya IAS Academy, Ascent Education, etc. etc....

  • [Note: Obviously, one needs to apply a "correction factor" to the claims of numbers by the coaching institutes;0)... Nevertheless, there is no denying that they play a critical role in creating "merit" in the current system.]

    ...and How do the Coaching Institutes manufacture "Merit"?

    There is no doubt that they - at least the "good" ones - help polishing the potential/knowledge that the aspirant must already be possessing (in fact, a few coaching institutes have their own "entrance test" or criteria for admitting the candidates for coaching!)

    Compared to the broad generalised coverage of +2 and other courses, however, the coaching institutes are more focused to make the aspirant succeed in the entrance exam. This has to be so, since in our given system, one's "merit" (or lack of it) is determined by a one-shot, one-day-cricket-match kind of entrance exams. One single wrong answer or one single missed question can bar one's entry into the domain of merit.

    Therefore, besides other things, the Coaching institutes, also

  • maintain a database of the previous years' question papers,

  • analyse the trends of questions asked over years in the entrance exam, and prepare the candidates for the kind of questions that are likely to come that particular year,

  • since most entrance-exam papers have "negative marking" component, it is often more likely to score higher marks by not answering some questions than by answering them. The coaching institutes also guide the aspirants how to minimise risk of losing marks,

  • if the final admission involves interview and group discussion, the coaching institutes also prepare the candidate for these "skills" (e.g., improving one's "GK", how to introduce yourself, how to interact in a group, speak proper English, self-presentation, etc.).

  • in some isolated cases (like this one), the coaching institutes also help the candidate by procuring the "leaked" paper for the test... Etc.

    In fact, these latter contributions of coaching institutes are often their USP/differentiating feature.

    From a purely socio-historical point of view, the coaching institutes, in a very short period of time, have revolutionised two major changes in the societal texture of India:

    1. they have redefined and evangelised a new meaning of "merit", which is essentially based on the supply-demand gap of opportunities in the society, and

    2. they have successfully created a small but vocal new "social class" which owns the "merit" (and its definition) in the society.

    *Post-Script June 4th,'06: I stand corrected on this claim about India becoming a "young country" in the recent years. Please see Dilip D'Souza's informative posting contradicting this myth.


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