I sincerely believe my institute has made significant contributions towards improving the quality of education in Kashmir. However, there must be many people who would label me as just another businessman minting money. I understand where they come from. My message to them is that for me to be a REALLY good businessman, I need to be a very good teacher first. And If I am a very good teacher to your students, then where is the problem?
As a student preparing for IIT in the scorching heat of Delhi, if someone asked me what I would want to become when I grow up, I would say, a senior officer, an engineer, or some other random answer. But never would my answer be “a teacher”
In 2007 I secured admission to IIT Bombay. At that time, there was very little awareness in Kashmir about IITs. When I secured admission to IIT, I remember a few very well-educated relatives asking my parents why I was not able to get an admission to NIT Srinagar. Back then my parents and I found it very funny. I graduated from IIT Bombay in 2011. Immediately after, I joined a consultancy in Gurgaon.
One year into my job I realised how low the awareness about IITs and other premier institutes was among my cousins and friends back home. I learned that I was probably the first ever Kashmiri Muslim to pursue a B. Tech. from IIT Bombay. At that time IIT Bombay was already a more than 50 years old university. It was very disturbing to realise that many Kashmiris despite being intellectually competent and financially well-off are not able to make it to the best universities in India and abroad.
In 2012, I quit my job and moved back to Kashmir with the simple aim to increase the number of students from Kashmir who make it to IITs and other prestigious universities. Back then, 1-2 Kashmiris would make it to IITs every 2-3 years. Students did have a vague idea of what IITs were but had no idea how to prepare for it. It was very difficult to convince parents and students to start preparing for IITs from Class XI itself. When I started my coaching institute in 2012, the first batch to whom I taught all three subjects – Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics – there were just 4 students. I understood that this was going to be a long haul.
Fast-forward to 2016, four of our students made it to IIT. This was a landmark result not just for our institute but also for IIT aspirants from the valley. There were 4 students who had lived all their lives in Kashmir, not all from rich families, who had made it to IITs without spending lakhs or having to move out of the state. It made qualifying for IITs more achievable. One of my students from Shopian made it to IIT Bombay (is he the second ever!?). To this day this has been one of the happiest moments of my life.
Our next steps were to increase our impact. We had to reach out to more and more students. We decided to increase our fees. This helped us in two ways. One, we hired more faculty from IITs, and two, we could offer scholarships to those who could not afford the complete fees. More and more students started trusting us. The number of students who made it to IITs increased year after year. In 2018, two of our students made it to Ivy League colleges, Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania, with 100% scholarship. Since then, many students from Kashmir have started applying to prestigious universities in the US at undergraduate level itself.
This year, more than 15 students across Kashmir valley made it to IITs. Something that was just not possible in 2012. Fifteen is still a small number as per the population of the region but it is encouraging that the trend is upwards and I had a small role to play in it over the past 10 years. My relentless focus on preparing students for IITs pushed other institutes to do the same. Similarly, there have been numerous best practices at other coaching institutes that we have adopted at our institute. This is how coaching institutes are supposed to operate and push the boundaries of innovation and awareness among the student community. Schools can’t be expected to do the same as they are burdened with the prescribed curriculum and other constraints of the state.
I recently came across opinion pieces on regularising fees of coaching institutes. This is very shocking for personal reasons and technical reasons. Personal because if in my case I had to keep a lower fee I would not have been able to do two things: 1. Hire quality faculty from IITs and 2. Offer 100% scholarships to students from economically challenged backgrounds. Besides, coaching institutes operate as any other firm or establishment. They pay GST @ 18% and income tax, and follow all other compliances. They don’t get any subsidy from any government department. And J&K is the only place in the country where coaching institutes are stipulated to teach 10% students free of cost. These students are selected by the Directorate of School Education. No industry in the country that operates privately is supposed to offer 10% of its products or services free of cost. Coaching institutes in Kashmir face more frequent disruptions. Despite all these reasons coaching institutes in Kashmir charge one of the lowest fees in the country. I remember the fees I paid in Delhi at a reputed institute in 2007; it is similar to the fees that my institute charged in 2017 in Kashmir. Based on this data, coaching institutes in Kashmir are more accessible than their counterparts from across the country.
The role of the state comes in for ensuring minimum standard and safety at these coaching institutes. Do they have adequate infrastructure, are safety norms followed, do students have access to basic facilities, etc, something they already do through an annual registration process. There should be redress mechanisms for students and parents, just like there are for consumers of any other product/service. Parents and students are free to choose the coaching institute they want to study at, if at all they want to join one. Like all other sectors, the market dynamics take care of pricing.
I understand that everyone loves to hate coaching institutes. Not just in Kashmir but also in the rest of the country and other Southeast Asian countries where after school, coaching is the norm. Coaching institutes represent the failure of our education system. It’s a representation of what schools should be able to offer in the first place but fail to. The day schools start fulfilling the unmet needs of students, coaching institutes will cease to exist. However, until that day, coaching institutes are here to stay.
So, how do I solve this dichotomy for myself. I sincerely believe my institute has made significant contributions towards improving the quality of education in Kashmir. However, there must be many people who would label me as just another businessman minting money. I understand where they come from. My message to them is that for me to be a REALLY good businessman, I need to be a very good teacher first. And If I am a very good teacher to your students, then where is the problem?
Tomorrow, if my institute does very badly on account of teaching students – no one would prefer to learn from us. If we do well, students will join us. Today, students and parents are both well aware of what is happening at coaching institutes. It should not be assumed that they lack the intellect or agency to decide what is good for them. In the long-term, coaching institutes that offer quality education will survive and others will perish. However, if tomorrow the government decides to put a cap on the fees that coaching institutes can charge, it will disincentivise innovation and improvement at these institutes. 100s of youngsters like me who quit their career to tread on this path would focus their energies and time on other sectors. In the long term, the overall support system that exists in the form of these coaching institutes will deteriorate. This will arrest the current trend of uptick in Kashmiri students making it to top universities in the country and the world.
Coaching institutes have a responsibility of delivering the best to the students they serve. In fact, this responsibility was the primary reason for me to venture into this field, and the same is true for most of us in this field. So, this year, instead of operating in isolation I decided to join hands with Coaching Classes Association, Kashmir. At CCA Kashmir, Mr. Reyaz Majid is the general secretary and we all work under the dynamic leadership of Mr. Haamid Mufti, President CCA Kashmir. We aspire to improve the overall quality of coaching imparted at coaching institutes across the valley and create and sustain an environment which is beneficial to all stakeholders of the coaching fraternity, i.e., students, parents, and teachers.
—The writer is co-founder of Rise Institute, Srinagar. He is the spokesperson of CCA, Kashmir. He is co-founder of Wise App for online teaching and was awarded by J&K government in 2015 for improving the quality of education