The New Coaching Class in Kota
Image: Amit Verma
ota, in Rajasthan, is one of those rare places named after a loser. When Jait Singh of Bundi slew the Bhil chieftain Kotya and captured Akelgarh in 1264, he was so impressed by Kotya’s bravery that he named his newly conquered principality Kotah after him. Ironical, as today thousands throng to this small town, some 240 km south of Jaipur, to win at a more refined version of combat—the entrance examination to top engineering colleges in India.
Situated on the banks of the Chambal River (yes, the same one that passes through ravines once lorded over by dacoits like Paan Singh Tomar and Phoolan Devi), Kota was known more for its saris and a fine-grained variety of limestone. But that changed when an engineer at JK Synthetics, VK Bansal, took up teaching after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a hereditary muscle disease for which there is no cure. He set up Bansal Classes to coach students for entrance tests. By the late 1990s, when Bansal’s students began to regularly figure in the top 100 of the IIT entrance test ranks, Kota became the place to go for those seeking a ticket to the top colleges and a plum job.
When other successful coaching institutes mushroomed (set up mostly by those who branched off from Bansal Classes), Kota changed from a sleepy town to one in which thousands of sleepless students prepared day and night for the tests. The fact that these students spend lakhs of rupees each on tuition and lodging allowed both the coaching centres and the residents of Kota to prosper. And when success comes, so does more competition.
Enter the Koreans
Etoos Academy, backed by the $104-billion SK Group (among South Korea’s top four conglomerates) and one of South Korea’s leading coaching institutes, has set up shop in Kota. Entrance tests are as critical in South Korea as they are in India, if not more. There, more than 80 percent of high-school students move on to higher-level education. So, doing well in the college entrance exams—also known as the College Scholastic Ability Test—is a prerequisite to getting into a prestigious college. Not that different from India, where every year more than 4,50,000 students take the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) entrance exam and only 3 percent of them are successful.
Infographic: Sameer Pawar
The Indian market’s potential is 10 times that of South Korea’s, says Choi Yung Joo, the Korean director, sitting in a small office in the Etoos building in Kota. “There are simply many more students here than there, and the idea of private coaching is very popular,” he says. Unofficial figures peg the Indian coaching market at Rs 15,000 crore. This prompted Etoos, with no experience of operating anywhere outside Korea, to open its first overseas office in Kota two years ago.
The first director of Etoos India, Kang Sung Jin, spent six months in Kota before starting operations. He soon realised that the real rockstars in Kota were the teachers. They were the magnets that attracted students to various institutes. So, he decided to hire the best ‘star’ faculty available.
Like Navneet Jethwani, one of the most sought-after teachers in town. In 2011, when working at Bansal Classes, he got a call from someone who spoke English with an accent. The voice at the other end told Jethwani about a new coaching centre called Etoos. “We are trying out a new approach,” the person continued. NJ sir, as he is known to students, was sceptical, but agreed to meet. Today, he is a faculty at Etoos, and earns more than he ever did.
To really appreciate the celebrity-like status of the star teachers in Kota, all one has to do is look at the billboards. In any other town, they’d be adorned with smiling pictures of film stars or sportspersons endorsing various products. But not so in Kota. Here, they are all about teachers—NKC sir, SK sir, NJ sir, and so on.
Jin ‘poached’ 21 faculty members from Bansal, Vibrant Academy (another top player) and other leading institutes. Of the 21, nine were ‘stars’. According to reliable sources, who wished to remain anonymous, these stars got a salary of about Rs 40 lakh a year. Etoos paid them around Rs 50 lakh-Rs 60 lakh, says a faculty at Vibrant Classes. The exodus of these star teachers dealt a severe blow to the top coaching centres, especially Bansal. It was just recovering from a similar setback in 2009, when seven star teachers broke away to form Vibrant.