From shopkeepers and autorickshaw drivers to the managers of hostels, almost everyone in Kota says the same thing: “This is the first time I have seen so many students in this city.” As the “coaching centre city” in Rajasthan welcomes tens of thousands of students after two years of a lull forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, posters exhorting “#ReviveKota” dot the landscape. The Talwandi area, where most of the coaching classes are situated, is bustling with eager-looking students waiting to get started on the gruelling preparation for medical or engineering entrance exams.
Around 2 lakh students joined coaching classes in Kota annually prior to the pandemic; this year, an additional 75,000 to 1 lakh students are estimated to have made their way here. Some institutes are reporting a doubling or tripling in the number of admissions when compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Nitin Vijay, founder and CEO of Motion Education, one of the biggest coaching centres here, said that for this “new [bigger] market”, ed-tech companies like Unacademy and Physicswallah, who have opened their first physical coaching centres in Kota this year, can take partial credit. His centre has also seen its classrooms swell by three times when compared with 2019, Mr. Vijay said.
While ed-tech companies were flourishing during the pandemic in the online mode, the smaller in-person coaching centres in Kota struggled to survive the shift, he added. Now, with in-person classes back, ed-tech companies like Unacademy and Physicswallah are admitting students to their new physical centres in Kota to survive the drop in demand for online coaching.
“A number of the students at the new centres had stuck with the ed-tech companies for online lessons through the pandemic but now want to benefit from physical classrooms for the final stretch of preparation,” said Nilay Kumar Ray, 19, who from hails from West Bengal, and was waiting for the completion of his admission paperwork to the newly-opened Physicswallah JEE coaching centre.
Others, like Balram Sarkar, also from West Bengal, said some of the physical classes in Kota cost less. The physical classroom format from Physicswallah and Unacademy is priced about ₹40,000 to ₹50,000 less than the older local coaching brands such as Motion Education, Bansal Classes or Allen Institute.
For some students, like Nikhil Jain, 18, of Bihar, the “centre did not matter as much — we knew I had to come to this town and figure the rest out,” he said, walking along the lanes of Talwandi as his older brother had before him.
While hundreds of students waited in packed halls with over 15 help desks for a spot in the third phase of admissions at Physicswallah, elsewhere at the facility, larger halls were filled with mounds of luggage, the owners sitting on suitcases as they waited for an “agent” to find them a hostel room — or any room at all.
“None of the hostels near the coaching centres are available any more. Right now, I’m trying to find rooms in another hostel for some students because mine has been booked up. We are not able to get new rooms ready on time,” said Prerak Shah, one among the dozens of agents procuring accommodation.
Well-known teachers from local coaching centres are at risk of being “poached”. Neeraj Dubey, now a mathematics teacher at Physicswallah, was with the Allen Institute for nine years. “I came because the lower price point made me feel I would be able to better contribute by teaching students who don’t have the money to go elsewhere,” Mr. Dubey said.
Swapnil Sharma, Physicswallah’s faculty acquisition officer, said, “I would say that we are not poaching teachers and students. Teachers are willing to join us because of our mission and we recruit from all over the country based on a lot of parameters.” Mr. Sharma was himself a manager at Allen Institute for over six years before joining the ed-tech company in June 2021.
“Ed-tech companies have generated a new market for Kota,” Mr. Vijay said but maintained that he wasn’t sure how long they would last. “When kids stay here for a few months, they realise what the industry is like — it’s the entire ecosystem that this town offers, the local support system. The difference in fees will not amount to much because students are anyway going to spend money on living costs. They [ed-tech companies] have to improve services exponentially to be able to survive and compete,” he said.