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India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but a lack of funding and a shortage of school capacity means the country’s education system doesn’t work for the tens of millions of students trying to get through it each year.
The Indian government spends less than 3% of its annual gross domestic product on education. That’s helped create a deeply disappointing situation for those who spend a hefty chunk of their early teen years studying just to pass college entrance and career-placement exams.
The country has been slowly adding to the number of academic institutions, but it still needs to build 200,000 schools, 35,000 colleges, 700 universities and it needs to add 40 million seats in vocational training centers just to meet demand, according to the government’s own India Brand Equity Foundation.
Because of the limited space, simply getting into college is a steep mountain for many to climb, and studying for entrance exams starts early — often before a student graduates from high school. In many cases, it also requires paying for extra classes on the weekends at coaching centers and tutoring programs.
Those programs are aimed at helping students earn top scores — a percentage score in the high 90s is often required — on exams. That demand has turned into a big business: School tutoring is expected to more than triple from an $8 billion industry in 2011 to $26 billion by 2020.
But the pressure to score near-perfect marks takes a dangerous toll on young adults. Between 2014 and 2016, one quarter of student suicides — more than 26,000 in three years — were said to be connected to exam failure.
Below, meet four students studying to pass their exams, and a man who’s supporting them by running a helpline young people can call when academic pressure gets to be too much to manage.
I want to be a doctor because my sister is a doctor and she’s my biggest inspiration for now. I study six to seven hours every day. It’s exhausting, but we have no choice because we have to clear our entrance exams. I’m aiming for at least a 90%. I do other things, like see my friends; I’m active on social media.
I always wanted to be a surgeon, so that’s the plan. The best institute here in India is AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences], and you have to score really good marks. It’s very tough — 1.5 million students registered for the exam. There are 40,000-50,000 seats, max, in colleges, and registration will keep increasing every year.
I can’t cry right now, so I have to smile. What else can I do? On average, I study six or seven hours a day, but that varies depending on my mood. I watch interviews with people who got good exam results. I want tips – only a few didn’t put in 15-16 hours a day. But they were very smart. I’m not very smart. But I can be hard working, so I can put in more hours. If I don’t get into a good college, I plan to take the entrance exam again in 2020. I get results in mid-June.
I want to be a computer scientist, because it’s a hot field and the jobs and pay packets are extremely good. I’m simultaneously finishing secondary school and studying for the university entrance exam. I want to be in the top 150 students across India so that there’s no question I get a place at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. That’s the best computer engineering school in the country.
I’ve been cramming on the weekends since Year 10. Now I live near my coaching institute in Delhi, away from my family. I wake up at 6:30 a.m. I exercise for half an hour. I attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. I take an hour break to eat and rest. Then I study again 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and then again from 9 p.m. to midnight.
You have to work hard in life. You may as well push hard now, when you’re young, and get it over with.
I’m preparing for the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). The score is used for admissions to various Indian postgraduate engineering programs, as well as several publicly owned Indian companies where jobs are highly sought after because they promise better benefits and job security. It is one of the most competitive examinations in India.
I’ve come to Delhi because they have the best institutes here. I can only manage studying for 5 to 6 hours because I just started my coaching course. But, eventually, I’ll need to work up to 12 or 13 hours.
I need to work this hard because my family has a dream that I get into this industry, and it’s my dream, too; that’s what encourages me. Of course, I’d love to score 100% on the exam, but more important is that, at the end, I know I put in my absolute best effort and that I have no regrets about how hard I worked, whatever my result.
I started because when I was a student, I lost a close friend to suicide due to pressure and life situations. And that made me feel really bad, that I couldn’t save her or help her. No professional help was available. And that’s where the beginning of this organization started, in 1994.
Every suicide speaks to the vulnerability, the thinking of the society – not necessarily the thinking of the individual. Our education system is the most rotten system existing in this country. It’s a system that doesn’t allow any student to do anything on his or her own. It’s suffocating. It eats up your intelligence, your creativity, and doesn’t give you any space to do anything on your own. It’s a straitjacket protocol system: either you fit in it, or get out of it. And once you get out of it, you’re told you’re not good enough to be in society.
My message is that nothing is end of life. The people who are most successful, the majority, haven’t gone to those coaching centers. Why the rat race? A student should have confidence in themselves, look for other opportunity, look beyond this education rut. That’s how they can cope with it.
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