Exam pressure can prove too much for India's aspiring engineers and doctors

At least 23 student suicides have been reported in Kotam this year, the city in Rajasthan known as a 'coaching factory' for admissions tests

Adverts for coaching classes are everywhere in Kota, Rajasthan, from billboards at shopping malls to posters on walls and autorickshaws. Taniya Dutta / The National
Powered by automated translation

Amid the lively streets of Kota city, in India's Rajasthan, tens of thousands of students spend their days and nights at coaching centres, attending intensive lessons.

They all want to be accepted at India’s most prestigious engineering and medical colleges and, with the number of applicants far outstripping places available, the competition is intense.

The pressure for students to succeed is reflected in a grim set of statistics about suicide.

At least 23 students in Kota have died by suicide this year, and at least 45 others have made distress calls to the special police cell set up to help prevent this.

The latest suicides were reported in the last weekend of August, of an 18-year-old boy and another aged 16.

The deaths have reignited debate on the intense pressure placed on students to do well in the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to top government-run engineering colleges and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to state medical colleges.

Aditya Chaurasiya, a student preparing to take the NEET test, told The National there was immense pressure to outperform because of limited seats.

"All the students here are capable of pursuing MBBS [undergraduate medical degrees], but the cut-off is too high, which creates mental stress,” he said.

Window of opportunity

Among India's middle class, degrees in engineering or medicine are considered the clearest path to well-paid jobs that bring security and upward mobility.

The country produces about 1.5 million science and technology graduates annually, more than any other nation.

For aspiring engineers, the dream is to study at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that have produced business leaders such as Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and Parag Agarwal, the former chief executive of Twitter, now X.

But with a population of more than 1.4 billion and only 23 IITs and about 400 government medical colleges, the competition for places is fierce.

This year, more than 1.1 million students took the JEE exams with only about 40,000 seats available, while more than two million appeared for the NEET with just over 40,000 seats on offer.

The exams are a set of multiple-choice questions. Falling short of the cut-off score means failure, and another round of gruelling preparation for the next attempt.

This is where Kota comes in.

Industrial coaching

Once known for its limestone mining, the city in the western state of Rajasthan has gained a reputation as a “coaching factory” in the past two decades, with scores of institutions springing up to prepare would-be doctors and engineers for the entrance exams.

Some have sprawling campuses, others are small-scale operations, but all promise to give students that extra edge to get them over the line. Advertisements for the centres dot the city landscape, from giant billboards showcasing the successes of past students to posters pasted on walls, utility poles and even auto-rickshaws.

The city's transformation is credited to Vinod Kumar Bansal, an engineer who quit his job after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and started teaching students at his home.

He then opened a coaching centre, named after himself, that gained fame when one of its students won admission to an IIT in 1985.

Other coaching centres sprang up in the city, which now draws about 200,000 pupils from across the country, usually between the ages of 14 and 21 and mostly from middle-class families, for their courses.

Shahzad Hussain, a physics teacher at the Achievo Coaching Centre said Kota has some of the finest faculties in the country.

"If one is mentally prepared to take coaching classes, then it is the best place because it gives the best environment to the students, everyone is here for studies,” he said.

Pressure situation

The coaching is expensive and intensive, with students required to study for 12 to 16 hours a day and take weekly assessment tests. But despite all the hype, only about 14 to 18 per cent of Kota's coaching centre students succeed in the entrance exams.

The constant pressure to study, separation from family, relentless competition and apprehension about the exams create a challenging set of circumstances for students to manage. Many are also under pressure from knowing their family's have overstretched their means to send them to these classes.

Tuition fees for the courses range from $3,000 and $4,000, with at least $2,000 a year more needed for accommodation, food and stationery. That cost is high in a nation where the per capita income is about $2,000.

At least 100 students took their own lives in the past seven years, excluding during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, according to police records.

Teachers blame the education system and the unrealistic hopes of parents.

“Students are under pressure. Some have money problems and still their parents send them here, so they always worry what will happen if they don’t clear the exams,” said Priyam Aneja, a student aspiring for admission to an IIT.

Protecting students

The state government recently introduced measures to protect students, such as asking coaching centres to relax their teaching schedules, pause the assessment test for two months, and to identify those at risk of suicidal thoughts.

But some teachers say more is needed.

“There should be counselling sessions, and if a student wants a private session, the government should appoint a person to care of this,” said Prince Sharma, a teacher of biology at the Sankalp Institute.

“All the coaching centres should at least have one day for recreational activities to take the pressure away from studies.”

Mr Hussain, the physics teacher, said parents must consider whether their children would benefit from being sent to Kota.

“The parents should decide whether their children are mentally prepared to be in Kota. What if they feel homesick or fall sick because of the changed environment? They need to analyse their children first,” he said.

For help, you can reach Suicide Prevention India Foundation https://www.spif.in/ on 00919845074831.

Updated: September 04, 2023, 8:39 AM