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Tested by Covid, online rivals and startups, Delhi's coaching centres hit the reset button

From cracking boards, JEE, to UPSC, Delhi, like the rest of India, has coaching centres for every season and reason but as online learning picks up, these brick-and-mortar classrooms are embracing tech to stay in the game

February 27, 2022 / 10:36 AM IST
Representative image

Representative image


They have helped millions of students ace the toughest of the exams but now coaching centres that dot Indian cities, towns and villages face their biggest test as startups and online rivals snap up students, offering them learning from the safety of their homes in times of the coronavirus.

Hit hard by lockdown and restrictions brought by Covid-19, these coaching centres—tucked in a room of a home or housed in multi-storey buildings—are finding the going tough.

With limited finances, the small and medium-sized players are the most vulnerable in this multi-billion dollar industry.

“As if COVID-19 was not bad enough, we are facing attrition of students to online coaching and tuition startups, which gained prominence during the lockdown,” said Manoj Prabhakar, who runs Impact Tutorial in Laxmi Nagar, a coaching hub in east Delhi.

These days only 30 percent of the usual number of students is enrolled in the institute that offers coaching for engineering, medical and other competitive exams.

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During the peak of three coronavirus waves, there were no students. “Covid forced students to move to these online centres and learning apps but we are bearing the brunt,” he said.

Suman Misra of Topper’s Classes, a 25-year-old institute with branches in east and west Delhi, is facing a similar situation.

“Both Covid and online startups have affected our business, which is down to 50 percent but it is difficult to measure which of them had a bigger impact,” Misra said.

Also read: In-depth: Lido Learning episode a hard lesson for the edtech sector, but the bull market is still on

Double whammy

Most coaching institutes in Delhi spoke about the dual challenge—Covid and learning apps. Lockdown forced students to look for online alternatives, leading to a boom in the online learning industry.

The demand is so high that at least six of these education startups—Byju’s, Vedantu, LEAD Unacademy, Eruditus, and UpGrad—are now unicorns, companies that are valued at a billion dollar or more.

But the online space, too, is getting crowded and the competition fierce.

From school tuitions to coaching students for engineering and medical college tests, banking exams and even mandatory English language examinations for immigration, these online platforms have something for everyone.

The Indian online education technology industry is valued at $2.8 billion and is expected to grow to $10.4 billion by 2025, Statista, the online data platform, estimates.

The test preparation (coaching for exams such as JEE, NEET, CAT, IAS, GRE and GMAT) segment was valued at $0.8 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $3.99 billion by 2025.

The K-12 (kindergarten to Class 12) segment, valued at $1.16 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $4.3 billion in 2025, the estimates say.

Not just students, online platforms have poached teachers as well, many of whom found themselves out of jobs as coronavirus restrictions hurt business.

“Students shifted because of fear of Covid and they did not want to disrupt the learning process. The faculty shifted because some centres may have found it difficult to pay salaries and the teachers had families to take care of,” Misra said.

Arjun Ravindran, director of Vajiram & Ravi, one of the city’s oldest IAS training institutes in central Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar, another coaching hotspot, said they couldn’t hold classes for months after the first wave and lockdown in March 2020. In 2021, too, when the second wave hit, they had to shut down for a few months. In the new year, too, they had to remain closed for some weeks.

“Even for the months when offline classroom coaching was permitted, only 50 percent capacity was allowed,” Ravindran said. The fear of coronavirus, however, kept the students away, he said.

Offline coaching is a huge industry in India. A report by a human resource development ministry panel in 2015 estimated the yearly turnover of the traditional coaching industry at Rs 24,000 crore.

Kota in Rajasthan earned its name as the coaching capital of the country but as competition grew, coaching institutes, often derisively referred to as cram schools, mushroomed across the country.

Also read: Four EdTech regulations that are good for India

A total of 23.6 lakh seats were available in engineering courses for 2021-22, according to the All India Council for Technical Education, the regulator for technical institutes.

Around 88,000 seats were available for medical courses and 27,000 for dental in more than 500 medical colleges in the country, another report said.

Every seat is fiercely fought for and families are willing to spend to give their children a shot at a better life.

Also read: VK Bansal: The man who pinned Kota as the coaching capital of India

Rebooting for competition 

In Delhi, coaching centres have turned Old Rajender Nagar, Mukherjee Nagar in the north, Laxmi Nagar, Shakarpur in the northeast and Jia Sarai and Ber Sarai in the south have been turned into mini-student townships.

And these are also the areas where coaching centres are hitting the reset button to stay in the fight.

Many managed to hold on to their faculty by offering them financial aid even when the centres were shut. Others are either going for a hybrid model or overhauling their teaching methods.

Live online coaching, doubt-clearing videos, power-point presentations (PPTs), smart boards, demo classes, apps and dedicated mentors—these centres seem to be drawing from the playbook of their online rivals.

“Traditional institutes have taken up online classes and the switch was not difficult. Even when the situation improves, online classes would remain as it is convenient for a certain section of students,” Ravindran said. He expects offline enrolments to reach the pre-Covid level only by 2023.

Nibha Mishra, who runs Brilliant Academy in Shakarpur, preferred offline coaching had no option but to change. “Innovation is the key to being relevant,” said Mishra.

Brilliant Academy conducts Zoom classes whenever the need arises. “Students demand demo classes before they opt for a course, they want smartboards.” Edtech startups had changed the game, Mishra conceded.

A coaching centre operator in Ber Sarai, who did not want to be named, said they were trying to innovate with videos, PPTs and online lessons.

Also read:  Government to bring policy to regulate edtech companies

“We can’t match their financial muscle but we are changing as students are demanding. They search online before coming here,” the centre owner said.

Career Leaders in Laxmi Nagar now offers classes through its app, online assignments, recorded lectures, live chats and weekly online mock tests as well.

Success Mantra in east Delhi’s Nirman Vihar has both online and offline classes, demo modules, video lessons and dedicated mentors. It, too, has an app.

Misra of Topper’s said they had set up a studio for online classes. Students wanted things at the click of a mouse and didn’t want to step out. “We have to change stay in the trade,” he said.

The future is hybrid

Others are sticking to traditional methods and are hoping for a turnaround. Online teaching doesn’t give the same results as classroom learning and students will realise it soon, they argue.

“Face-to-face teaching is definitely better. We have been teaching for 20 years and know that. The results of online coaching have not been satisfactory enough,” Mishra of Brilliant Academy said.

Sudheer Singh, who runs Mathmania in Shakarpur, said it in online classes, it was hard to know if students had understood the concept, especially for subjects like math.

“If you are face to face, you can look into a student’s eyes and make out if he or she has gotten to the base of a concept,” he said.

Classroom atmosphere made learning better, something an app or video tutorial can’t replicate, Singh said. “But since students want online and digital, we are trying various innovations,” he said.

Suraj Bhan Singh’s Atul Learning Forum coaches school students as well as those appearing in competitive exams. He, too, vouched for classroom teaching.

“During the lockdown, students had no option and opted for apps and online centres. But when things are back on track, they will come back offline, which is the right way to teach,” Singh said.

Startups, too, would open physical centres once things were normal, he said.

Singh is not off the mark. The world’s most valued startup Byju’s recently announced a plan to open 500 physical tuition centres across 200 cities in 2022.

“Byju’s Tuition Centres address the needs of a large segment of parents and students who want a physical element in addition to online teaching support,” its chief operating officer Mrinal Mohit said.

Impact Tutorial is sticking to the traditional mode of teaching. Prabhakar said they were into group coaching, which won’t work online.

“Sometimes we have to teach students multiple times, handhold them, which is not possible online. Students will understand this and come back to physical classes,” said Prabhakar, who sees online tuition as a temporary phase.

Akhilesh Kohli, manager at Amulya Institute, a small coaching centre in Laxmi Nagar, is counting on their expertise.

“Many opted for online startups but we trust our experience and years of old school teaching methods, which always work. Things are off track now but will come back to normal,” he said.

Not everyone is sold to the online story. They are expensive and can they deliver what they promise? said Reema Yadav, a parent. How many can afford to pay for the high-priced apps and digital learning courses? she asked.

Ravindran and Suman Misra think hybrid is the way forward. Whether it is classroom teaching or online coaching, the end goal is the same—to help students get the best results.

“Offline teaching is better. Online can be a substitute but one cannot deny that the new-age methods aren’t going to fade away. The hybrid model will stay,” Misra said.



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Nilutpal Thakur is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi
first published: Feb 27, 2022 10:36 am
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