When Rashmi K, a homemaker in Bengaluru, signed up for a course at a leading edtech company a few months ago, she wanted to provide the best for her son who was in Class 9.
The process was deceptively simple, a sales associate contacted her on the phone a couple of times, he came to her house to conduct a demo and assured that the product was free for the first 15 days. “The salesperson said I could cancel anytime,” Rashmi says.
She bought a one-year subscription even though the money was tight. “In a month’s time, financial circumstances changed and so did my son’s school timings. I tried to cancel my subscription and was shocked when they told me that I could not,” she says.
“Even after trying to get in touch with customer care for 3-4 months to stop the auto-debit function and to cancel my son’s account, I have had no success,” she says. Rs 4,500 is cut at the beginning of every month since signing up.
With one earning member, another son to care for and a modest monthly income, the service soon became a curse. “Should I discontinue my son’s schooling? That is the only way I will be able to afford this course,” she asks.
Providing educational services through online videos, classes and interactive content, the Indian education technology industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. With companies like Byju’s, Unacademy and Vedantu leading the market, the industry was valued at $750 million in 2020. In just five years, its value is set to reach $4 billion.
Part of the popularity of edtech is owed to the increase in the number of internet users. In 2016, there were 386 million internet users in the country. In just four years this number had increased to 622 million and the population of users is set to increase by 45% in the next five years.
The success of the industry has come with its share of notoriety. Edtech companies have been accused of making false promises, ‘hard-selling’ products to parents who cannot afford them and even refusing to cancel subscriptions even after repeated requests.
Easy availability of personal data and a lack of regulation on sharing it have made it easy for companies to reach out to potential consumers.
With the advent of coaching classes and edtech classes, students have been plunged into a competitive environment right from Class 6. Parents, who are eager to give their wards a head start enroll in these courses.
Parents fall prey to the rhetoric of ‘a bright future’ awaiting, they think they might be denying an opportunity for their children to compete if they don’t opt to buy the product.
The result of such sales pitches, according to Nagasimha G Rao, a director at Child Rights Trust, is guilt. He has been on the receiving end of several calls and even a house visit. “Since the topic is children's future, the response is driven by emotion. Parents feel guilty if they don’t buy the product.”
The education market
The meteoric growth of the edtech industry has proved a double-edged sword for sales associates, parents and students alike.
Weekly targets of edtech companies in the market are generally sky-high. Several former and current employees who talked to DH recount that these targets would range around Rs 1 lakh per week. To meet these targets, they would have to put in 12-13 hours and even work seven days a week.
“Sometimes, managers push Business Development Executive (BDEs) to make down payments themselves until they are able to close the deal with parents,” says Anvesha*, a sales associate with one of the largest edtech companies in India.
Harsh* a former manager with an edtech company confirmed that the practice was not characteristic of one company but was common throughout.
Across edtech companies, pressure from the top often drives sales executives to ‘close’ the sale at any cost or to ‘hard-sell’, pushing parents who are unsure to buy these services on instinct.
According to Harsh, 30-40% of the sales force would indulge in what he calls ‘misselling’-- pressuring parents, lying about limited time scholarships and even making false promises. Managers, too, turned a blind eye, saying ‘targets would have to be met at any cost’.
Krishna Kumar Roy*, a sales executive, confesses that the push to meet targets meant that he could offer parents little to no time to consider their decision. “If I had the time I would allow them time to research and make their own decision,” he says.
When asked about the issues affecting the sector's credibility, Byju’s says it has put in a central audit system through which it monitors the calls and meetings with parents in an effort to cut down on malpractices. A spokesperson from the company says, “We have a robust central audit system to verify and reconfirm with customers their requirements registered by the sales team.”
The audit system, in part, has been successful in reducing malpractices according to a sales executive. But even then sales executives would have to rely on aggressive sales techniques to get the product to sell. “This is the case in the sale of any goods or services,” she says.
But the idea that education has become a marketable ‘good or service’ has ruined its sanctity and antithetical to its very purpose, according to Niranjan Aradhya, an educationist.
Fuelled by the perception of lacunae in the current education system, education technology could have been a potent tool in social transformation as it could increase access to high quality education regardless of social, economical and geographical barriers.
Shaping educational content around what the market demands sets a dangerous precedent, he adds.
Instead, edtechs have only used their services to commodify education. “These education modules are more exam-centric and they ignore the needs of the child who may have other intelligences,” says Shivanand Hombal, an educator who runs a resource centre in Dharwad.
The K-12 segment, which constitutes about 40% of the industry, is particularly interesting in this regard since it is traditionally not linked to other test-prep segments before, barring the Class 10 exams. The K-12 segment consists of children from Kindergarten to Class 12.
Sangeetha S* opted for an edtech course when her son was in Class 9. Many parents in her son’s peer group had started courses of their own. “There was definitely an element of peer pressure,” she says.
Even that would have been fine if the course had benefited her son who was studying under the ICSE board. “Despite our protest, they gave us CBSE course materials, saying that it would benefit him at the time of entrance exams,” she says. Contrary to helping, the syllabus caused her son’s grades to drop.
“He was not at all happy and he stopped attending the classes. We didn’t get the money back though,” she says.
When education becomes a marketable commodity, it is no longer driven by pedagogical concerns, says Rishikesh B S, an educationist who leads the Hub for Education, Law and policy at Azim Premji University.
“Most of these organisations choose course material based on what parents want or if the course will sell. But education should not be concerned with what sells, but with what is good for children,” says Rishikesh.
To make matters worse, there is no regulation on the kind of content that is provided nor is there certification for the kind of courses provided. “Someone should test these courses to see the difference in content. There are instances of some edtech companies marketing different courses to a lower income segment and a higher income segment,” Hombal explains. Most arguments of courses’ effectiveness comes from passing references from students who have cleared entrance exams or have scored well.
Alarmed by these developments, Member of Parliament Karti Chidambaram brought up the industry’s predatory practices, poor quality of content and lack of regulation in the Lok Sabha last December.
“These companies… are preying upon aspirational poor people, who want to give their children a better education, who want to supplement their education which they are not getting in government schools,” he said.
Speaking about the auto-debit EMI payments, he said, “They (edtech companies) are becoming like loan sharks where they are force-selling these courses.”
Apart from issuing an advisory in December last year, the Union government has done little to regulate the space. The advisory, among other things, warns ‘not to trust the “success stories” shared by the edtech companies as it might be a trap to gather more audience.’
Vishal Rao, Commissioner of Public Instruction in Karnataka, said, "We will follow instructions and rules that the government of India lays down. As of now, there is no overarching law in this space."
Abdication of responsibility
The reasons why edtech companies have flourished may be multifold but a matter of solicitude is the parents’ perception of the lack of effectiveness of the current education system. Excessive competition and lack of individual attention for students may prompt parents to seek out such courses. This, however, is only a quick-fix solution.
In many instances, schools have also encouraged, if not facilitated, the enrolment of children into edtech programmes through collaborations. This is an “abdication of their responsibility,” according to Rishikesh.
While innovation can go a long way in improving educational content, should this be the exclusive domain of those who can afford it? If so, poor parents who have aspirations they cannot afford will continue to make perilous financial decisions, falling prey to predatory marketing tactics and false advertisements.
Rashmi K summarises, “any parent will want the best education for their children and that’s why I fell into this trap.”