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Training and Development

Is it 'Prom' time for Indian education?

I am sure everyone remembers the old song, Que Sera, Sera [YouTube video]: “When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me…”

Well, for Indian mothers and fathers, the answer will always be the same. You can either be an engineer or a doctor. There are no other honorable professions for Indians. Therefore the entire education system is geared towards producing these two beasts of burden.

On top of this, education in Indian is like remembering the Vedas (Sanskrit texts) – by rote. The whole education mantra is geared towards memorizing and disgorging old stated positions. And not surprisingly, most of the learning happens outside the schools.

One interesting article in the Economist expounds on how India’s tech workers are not as good as the country hopes. According to the article, only 4.2% of India's engineers are fit to work in a software product firm, and just 17.8% are employable by an IT services company, even with up to six months’ training. While, in his little known book ‘What High School Didn’t Teach Me’, Rajat Bhageria talks about our broken high school system. All this adds up to one thing - there is ample scope for organizations outside the ambit of traditional education system to provide learning opportunities.

The private coaching or tuition system has been big for a long time. Parents, who could not tutor their children because they were themselves uneducated or otherwise too busy with their work, outsourced the homework to private tutors. Private coaching soon took off in India and particularly so in the North.

Moving on to higher education, the pressure on Indian students is huge while competing for entrance to prestigious institutions like IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). And dozens of coaching institutes sprung up to cater to this humungous demand. In fact, a little known town in Rajasthan called Kota began specializing in tutoring students for IIT exams. This means more than 100,000 IIT aspirants make a beeline for Kota every year.

The total market for private coaching for IIT’s exceeds $50 million per annum, in Kota alone. And private equity has entered this lucrative market. Equity broker and financial services group CLSA and Milestone Religare, which has its headquarters in Hong Kong, has reportedly invested a total of $26 million in the sector while N.S. Raghavan of Infosys, has also invested money.

Private coaching or tutoring is not restricted to IIT entrance alone. It applies to numerous careers and although relatively easy to replicate online, surprisingly classroom instructions still seem to reign supreme.  Yet not surprisingly many startups have tried to occupy this space in which raw students are trained to become employable. FACE claims to be one of the largest skill development enterprises in the country. While Trusanga’s vision is to develop a holistic learning and development ecosystem founded on electronic media, which leverages analytical intellect, and most importantly assimilates human wisdom.

Lately, Indian startups are even daring to explore unconventional approaches to learning.  Knolskape is an immersive gamification and simulation software company focusing on talent transformation. Using experiential learning products, it helps organizations attract, grow and retain talent. In an event organized by 10000startups in Pune, I had a look at three innovative companies in the education space.

Previdus is building a unique gaming platform for students preparing for competitive exams (IIT’s and IIM’s). Ednexa is another online startup, replicating the classroom experience for students preparing for their school examinations and beyond. Insight Learning, is an internet platform providing tutoring solutions. All three made a pitch for funding in front of interested angel funds.

This event was followed by individual tutoring sessions for each of these startups. I came away with the impression that education startups have a natural advantage since the audience is visible and large. At the same time, the tutoring space is extremely crowded and there seems to be hardly any differentiation. What will really carry these fledglings across the deep ocean of learning is perhaps a strong marketing team. Collaboration with existing brick and mortar organizations will also hasten the learning process for these education startups.

The education space is attracting plenty of traction. There are competitions galore and hundreds of participants. Unitus Seed Fund and Sylvant recently launched “StartEdu” Startup Competition. Unitus Seed Fund has already invested in four education companies: Hippocampus Learning Centres, iSTAR, Curiositi, and Cue Learn. In this melee there are organizations working for the underprivileged too. Pearson  has invested in two education startups in India - Experifun and Sudiksha Knowledge Solutions, both helping the underprivileged.

There are a few investors who shy away from education startups due to lack of exit options, the Indian regulatory environment and slow growth. Overall though, there seems to be a general opinion that the Indian online education market will witness significant growth. So, while this many not ever become as big as online retail, education is certainly an area that many Indians are passionate about and looks likely to surge.

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Sankarambadi Srinivasan

Sankarambadi Srinivasan, ‘Srini’, is a maverick writer, technopreneur and a geek. He writes on transformational social processes and technology trends which influence our daily lives.

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