Can online coaching help Kota revive its local economy?

Kota, a reputed hub of coaching for competitive entrance exams, is tottering as students have gone back home and ancillary businesses catering to them have had to shut shop.

Through the years that saw it transition from being an industrial nerve centre to the country’s best-known hub of coaching centres for all kinds of competitive and other exams, Kota has seen a lot of action. But COVID-19 has brought the city to a screeching halt.

Once known for its flourishing manufacturing units, the local economy suffered a large negative ripple effect with the closure of its biggest unit JK Synthetics in 1997, which rendered 5000 people jobless. Other units like Oriental Power cables, Rajasthan metals and Samtel Group soon followed suit.

With the shutdown of government-owned Instrumentation Ltd in 2017 came the final blow. The company’s once bustling colony now lies abandoned, a forlorn reminder of Kota’s industrial past.

The city however adapted fast, and rebuilt itself into a new avatar: as a much sought-after centre of coaching classes. The transformation was begun by one man, V K Bansal, a retired mechanical engineer from JK Synthetics. Bansal started home tuitions with one student in 1983, which he built into a reputed coaching center, ‘Bansal Classes’, coaching thousands of students. It was a name to reckon with during the nineties in IIT-JEE coaching.

Though it shut shop in February, Bansal Sir’s legacy still rules the town. The closure apparently was due to the high attrition rate among its teachers which led to dwindling success rate among its students. Every teacher that joined Bansal dreamt of opening their own institute, besides getting lucrative offers from competitors.

Kota’s economy has for years now has been totally dependent on the large number of coaching centers, that had sprung up in the years following Bansal’s success. Some of those who came back to start their own coaching centres, such as Vibrant Academy, Resonance, Rao IIT academy and Vyas Edification, were once teachers at the Bansal centre. 

For instance, reputed Physics teacher Nitin Jain, along with six other ex-Bansal teachers, founded Vibrant academy. Another stalwart physics teacher R K Verma started Resonance. Top Chemistry faculty Shishir Mittal and B V Rao founded Vyas Edification and Rao IIT Academy, respectively.

However, one of the most sought-after coaching institutes in Kota in recent years is Allen Career Institute established in 1988, started by Rajesh Maheshwari, a former teacher. All the coaching institutes that started in Kota have expanded into other cities with Allen alone having branches in 25+ cities.

All was going swimmingly till COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown hit. The city of 10 lakh (Census 2011) is now having to deal with the closure of the coaching centres, with all students having returned to their hometowns. A once vibrant Kota now wears a deserted look, as most of the allied businesses, like hostels and eating joints which had catered to the thousands of students thronging the city, have had to shut shop.

Livelihood issues

“When JK Synthetics closed, there were no jobs. Life has now come full circle as Kota’s economy is in tatters once more,” said Beena, a resident of Kota and in charge of a student’s hostel. She is managing with 30 percent of her former salary, worried about the rents and loans she has to repay.

Beena says the livelihood of almost every local resident was dependent to some extent on the presence of outstation students. Even if someone were jobless, he could subsist by renting out one or two rooms if he had a house. Kota has six localities where coaching institutes, hostels and related facilities are concentrated.

Arijeet Acharya, a science graduate working as a warden in Kohinoor hostel, is in a similar situation as Beena. Though his salary was cut from Rs 16,000 to Rs 5,000, the native of Odisha does not want to return to the small shop back in his village, as he does not want to disrupt the good education his son is getting in Kota.

“I will wait for the crisis to pass,” said Acharya. “Everyone is jobless or just managing. Students spending Rs 100-200 daily on study material and food and snacks were the main contributors to the city’s economy. Now everyone is suffering, from the mechanic to the hostel, shop and restaurant owner”.

The wheels of the local economy

  • Kohinoor Hostel is located in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, a prime student area and located near Allen Career Institute. The five storeyed building has 64 AC rooms housing 64 students.
  • Room rent here varies from Rs 13,500 (single) to Rs 17,000 (double room but single occupancy). Mess charges included. Electricity charges are additional.  
  • Minimum staff strength is seven, which included a warden/caretaker, cook, mess helpers, sweeper, laundry person and a guard.
  • A water tanker would come thrice a day, charging Rs 300/visit.
  • The hostel also provided a livelihood to other service providers like vegetable vendors, grocery shops, and home repair services.

Many local residents used to advertise on websites offering hostel accommodation. For instance, beinghome has hostels in prime coaching centre locations renting rooms from Rs 8,000-Rs 12,000 per month. Hostels offering facilities like AC, geyser in bathrooms, elevators and recreational facilities attracted rents of around Rs 17,000. Rooms and hostels located far from the coaching hub used to charge rents between Rs 3000 and Rs 5000.

Kota’s once lucrative student hostel business now wear an empty look. Pic Pramaod Mewara

Investment in PG accommodation, hostels and studio apartments were a steady source of income,” said Acharya. “Most investments in Kota real estate in the last two decades was directly or indirectly supporting coaching institutes and students”.

“Every year an estimated 1.65 – 1.75 lakh students come to Kota from across the country, mostly from North India, to enrol in IIT-JEE and NEET (Medical) exam preparatory coaching” said Pramod Mewara, a former journalist, now working at a coaching institute. Though no official data is available, a 2018 survey done by Urban Improvement Trust, a state-run institution, estimated that the town has 2800 registered hostels, though unofficial estimates put it at 3000 hostels and 1500 mess (including in-house hostel mess).

Roadside dhabas and tiffin centres too flourished with students flocking to them. “Students come here as most mess do not provide quality and tasty food,” said Gaurav Madan of Punjabi Dhaba in Indraprastha Industrial area. Now he relies on truck drivers for some business. No such luck for dhabas and cafés near the coaching centres that are either shut or doing minimal business.

“There is not even 10% business in town,” said Anant Jain of Rajasthan stationery shop in Landmark city. He recalls previous years, when the streets would be chock-a-block with students and parents during June-July. The owner of two stationery shops, Anant had to shut one and sits in other from 10 am – 8 pm just to pass the long boring hours. “There were 500 shops/vans/vendors selling stationery items. I know cobblers, barbers and welders so desperate that they became vegetable sellers.”

In fact, it was the students that ran Kota’s economy. Average expenses of a student per year was around Rs 2-2.5 lakh:

  • Coaching fees: Rs 1-1.5 lakhs
  • Rent and food: Rs 80000-1.2 lakhs
  • Miscellaneous: Rs 10,000-20,000

Today Jain rues that the city has no other industry. A sentiment echoed during the 2019 election when locals demanded steps to revive industries. With big industries shut, the Kota small scale industries association blamed the government for not creating a business-friendly environment.

Going digital

With little hope that things will go back to the way they were, the coaching institutes are going digital to try and keep their business running. During normal times, classroom courses would run from April to February. So the 2019-2020 year-long courses were over before COVID hit.

Enrolment for the current academic year has been hit as the coaching centres have had to refund the admission fees paid by students, who had enrolled during February or adjusted it if the student joined online classes from June/July. Most repeater one-year courses would start only after IIT-JEE results declaration, but since that has not yet been held, there has been no enrolment in this segment in any of the centres.

However, most centres have started online admission tests for all classes. While the websites of coaching institutes show no increase in fees, they are not offering any discounts either, but are accepting payments in instalments and offering scholarship tests online.

For instance, the help line at Resonance Institute informs that for its classroom course ‘Vikaas’, the first instalment is Rs 87,800 (out of the annual fee of Rs 1,45,000), but parents could pay Rs 60,000 only. A decision on total fees will be taken later, it says. Reliable coaching is asking students to pay only 10% of fees now and secure direct admission online.

Fee structure put up on the Resonance Eduventures website

  • Yearlong classroom contact programme (2 years; XI-XII) Vikaas course for IIT-JEE Main+Advance coaching 2020-2021
  • First year fees is Rs 1.45 lakhs
  • For different programmes, annual fees range from Rs 1.45 lakh to Rs 1.55 lakh/annum
  • For one-year course for dropper/repeater it is around Rs 95000/annum
  • Medical coaching Rs 1.12 lakh-1.20 lakh

There has been an almost 40% drop in numbers as many students who would otherwise have come to Kota are now opting for online classes of Byju’s and Unacademy. Noting this trend, coaching institutes like Motion Academy in Kota has entered into a tie-up with Byju’s and some faculty of Nucleus has joined Unacademy.  

Other issues

Hopefully, the shift to online admission and classes will eliminate some of the unsavoury aspects of Kota’s coaching classes boom. For instance, the single point agenda of the centres for showing high success rates in the entrance exams took a toll on students. Anxiety attacks and depression were some of the issues that students have openly spoken out about, on various online forums.

In 2015 when student suicides in Kota reached 30, the town was dubbed the ‘killer coaching hub’. All stakeholders got a rude wake-up call and institutes added yoga and meditation sessions and hired psychological counsellors.

There were also unpleasant incidents with institutes blaming their competitors for poaching teachers. It was the quality of its teachers that catapulted Bansal classes to the top of the coaching business. But as their reputation grew, many teachers branched off on their own.

Later, as the coaching business became highly competitive, a few institutes became notorious for poaching teachers by offering them high annual packages. The teachers, most of whom had engineering, science, or medical degrees, were usually hired on one-year contracts with average pay packets of Rs 8-10 lakh per annum. The same teachers are now mostly curating digital courses for their institutes or joining other digital education platforms.

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