This year’s NEET, a medical eligibility exam whose results were declared in October, was topped by Odisha’s Soyeb Aftab. Students who top the rankings in Indian exams become instant celebrities. They are featured prominently in the media. Friends, family and even politicians swarm their homes to celebrate.
In recent years, the star of these students has been rising because they are coveted by coaching institutes. Aftab participated in classes offered ALLEN Career Institute in Kota, Rajasthan. But after the results of the examination were announced, he found his face splashed in a raft of advertisements by at least a dozen such institutes.
Aftab told news agency IANS in an interview that while he is happy to have become a celebrity overnight, he was surprised because he only studied at ALLEN. “I would like to clarify that my preparation was aided by ALLEN faculty only,” he said.
Aftab’s comments are a rare instance of a student discovering the scramble by coaching institutes to take credit — mischievously — for the success of wards. Year after year, a number of such institutes use the photographs of students who haven’t enrolled with them in advertisements without their consent.
Top rank-holders such as Aftab, Kartikeya Gupta (JEE 2019), Vaibhav Raj (JEE Advanced 2020), Sumegha Garg (JEE AIR 12) are lodestars of coaching institutes who use their pictures to lure students and mint money.
The business model of the Rs 5 lakh-crore educational coaching industry in India is to get as many students as possible on the rolls. Reputed teachers especially those who have cracked exams are a big draw. A bigger draw are the students who have passed exams with big honours because of the recency factor.
Ergo, a photograph of a rank-holder in an advertisement, by hook or crook, can work wonders.
For engineering in particular, Kota-based ALLEN as well as names like Bansal Classes, Career Point, Resonance, Rao IIT Academy, FIITJEE, PACE IIT and Medical and Aakash Institute among others are the big players.
The rush for admission in these bodies, which charge Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh per student in a year, happens in the 10-15 days after the results are declared. Greater the number of rank-holders, greater the enrollments, the coaching institutes have found.
Industry-body Coaching Federation of India is planning to frame regulations to end the practice. But for now, snagging top-performing students in ads continues unabated.
Satish Kumar never imagined that he would be so much in demand after securing a rank in one of the top five of engineering exam JEE five years ago.
Kumar, who is now pursuing his post-graduation from an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) said within hours of the declaration of results, his family started receiving calls from coaching institutes congratulating him.
“This was strange because I wasn’t enrolled in any big brand. I had merely taken a distance education programme from Kota and completed the rest of the syllabus myself. But I quickly realised that the coaching institutes wanted to make me a part of the publicity material to attract students,” he added.
Though Kumar did not give explicit consent, his picture turned up in several advertisements in ads across Mumbai and Delhi.
Coaching institutes claiming engineering and medical toppers as their own has now become even more widespread thanks to the use of technology. There is exchange of money when students willingly agree to be the faces of these institutes. They turn brand ambassadors for free when there is no consent or the endorsement is unbeknownst to them.
“I have known students accepting money to feature in the list of toppers from a particular institute,” said Delhi-based education consultant Kirti Gupta. “Using a person’s picture without consent can attract litigation if a student chooses to complain.”
Money is also exchanged when some institutes invite toppers to their classes to share their experiences — as well as tips and tricks — with other students during these physical sessions.
How does the topper grab work?
Over the years, competition among coaching institutes has intensified. Everyone jostles for the crème-de-la-crème of students.
The head of sales at a large coaching chain told Moneycontrol that whenever the merit lists of JEE and NEET are released, there is a scramble to check the internal database for their names of the top ten rank-holders and see if they had studied at the institute.
“Often, a student may end up taking small one-to-three-month courses from multiple coaching institutes to improve their chances at JEE/NEET. This works well for us since technically the student has taken our assistance for the test,” he said, asking not to be named.
Some institutes are known to use 'fake toppers' in ads. It simply means the ‘students’ who appear in ads would not have written any exams or may not have excelled in the exams.
This strategy is used for all-India ranks above 500, which are often ignored by the general public. Displaying an ad with a multitude of faces reaps benefits, these institutes have discovered.
Chennai’s Prasanth S who was among the toppers of the state medical entrance examination said when his own institute called to ask him to address the present class, he did it as a good deed. But soon four other institutes offered to ‘pay’ for his services.
“I plainly refused because I knew accepting money or gifts could land me into trouble,” he added.
Is there any law against it?
There is no regulation that prevents coaching institutes from using an individual’s name in ads. However, if a student or parent decides to file a complaint against this practice, such erring coaching institutes could be in trouble.
“Nobody files court cases against such matters because it involves a lot of time and money. But everyone in the industry does it. Why target only small coaching classes, even the large ones are guilty of it,” said Kolkata-based Abhijit Tyagi who conducts coaching for JEE across the city.