India’s education market: the Elite, the Pyramid Base, and everyone in between.

Nidhi Hebbar
Dec 12, 2019 · 13 min read

Digging into India’s learning ecosystem, it’s difficult to ignore or accurately summarize the starkly evident demographic segments. Here, I describe learning experiences across three Indian demographics and provide tips at the end for solution-builders looking at the Indian market.

In Three Groups

India’s large and diverse population, influenced by layers of stifling segregation, battles obvious racial and socioeconomic inequities deeply embedded in every aspect of its social fabric. As is the case in most countries, India’s social inequities manifest themselves very visibly in its education system.We can oversimplify India’s education system into three groups: the Indian elite, a loosely-defined middle class, and a populous lowest-income base of the pyramid. Each of these groups lives distinctly different lives, sends their kids to drastically different schools, faces different challenges, and holds a different view of the purpose of education and definition of its success. Naturally, the education “solutions” that companies and organizations build take vastly different approaches for each segment as well.

Counterintuitively, this deep understanding of a population’s needs creates dangerously limiting expectations: whereby the “solvers” decide for a given population which of their needs are most important to address. This has created a double-edged sword where education initiatives are well-attuned to each population’s diverse needs while also playing a role in maintaining them. For example, understanding a family’s struggle to feed their children near the mountains of toxic garbage in Ahmedabad’s slums may very well illuminate the desperate need for food and healthcare, but these children also deserve to develop their creativity and critical thinking skills, as much as if not more than their more wealthy neighbors; these skills typically get left on the chopping block. Education ecosystems (school communities, NGOs, education companies, and foundations) shouldn’t view these diverse needs as mutually exclusive. At the most basic level of educational equity is the belief that all learners deserve quality education. The definition of “quality” shouldn’t differ based on the population. It’s the mechanisms and solutions we build to get learners there, that should.

Counterintuitively, this deep understanding of a population’s needs also seems to develop dangerously limiting expectations: whereby the “solvers” decide for a given population which of their needs are most important to address.

The Elite

Members of the Indian elite have enough family wealth that their children have the luxury of exploring their interests, thinking for themselves, and building confidence in their ability to take on the world. Education is not driven by the fear of a sub-par future, as families largely operate “outside the system”, with networks and family connections that mean children don’t need to do well on exams to succeed. Success means developing the soft skills necessary to have an edge in whatever future endeavors they choose. “Holistic” education experiences that focus on social-emotional development, creativity, and problem solving are designed and priced for this privileged population, exacerbating issues of equity and access for the rest of the country. For example, KidZania, a Mumbai experience center for kids, boasts a “rich learning environment where kids foster their autonomy, creativity, decision-making skills, problem-solving and social values” for kids whose parents can afford the steep 1200 rupee entry fee.

KidZania Mumbai where children can address the needs of their own little civilization for a day.

Children of the Indian elite attend wealthy private or international schools where highly qualified teachers challenge them to think for themselves, collaborate with others, be creative, and communicate effectively — capabilities that will ensure their future success. Many classrooms emulate design studios with the modern tools and technologies, light-filled architecture, and access to a range of expensive extracurricular activities. Others like Rishi Valley or Sanawar look more like a meditation retreat or even like Hogwarts, evoking their long history of excellent status and education in Indian society. These families and schools have got it right and they don’t need the help of India’s public education system: small, intimate groups of students often supported by more than one teacher, contemplate ideas and work in groups, while well-paid teachers let them explore, fail, and learn valuable skills along the way. This segment of the population exists in every country, and India is by no means an exception. Children of the Indian elite leave these schools with a strong network of powerful individuals who will ensure their success throughout their lifetime. Their parents (families with economic and politic power who employ many individuals whose own children attend government schools) remain largely unconcerned with India’s education system; their children will succeed regardless.

Interestingly enough, even in schools for the Indian elite, tech is rarely a central focus beyond dedicated computer labs or coding classes. It’s rare to find students carrying around a school device throughout the day as they do in the states. Add to this Indian parents’ strong cultural values for education, and it’s clear why direct-to-consumer edtech products that sell to parents fare much better than those tailored for Indian schools. Without the need to tie content to India’s national exams, the same top creative B2C education products that do well worldwide have done exceptionally well with children of the Indian elite and will likely continue to do so. But many of these creative B2C products are developed by the western world; it would be great to see more development from Indian entrepreneurs in this space. There is growing demand from the Indian elite for culturally relevant education content, featuring Indian kids, values, and languages beyond Hindi and English.

The Middle

I’m cheating a bit here by claiming a single group for the ever-widening Indian middle class: house-cleaning mothers making $1000 USD per year and software engineering moms who enjoy their own house help for laundry, cooking, and cleaning both belong to this group. These socioeconomically and culturally diverse families are unified by the belief that education is a top priority and that hard work will ensure their child’s “success” (measured by national exam scores and future income). The OECD estimates that India’s middle class will grow rapidly over the next decade to make up nearly over one billion people — reaching nearly 70% of India’s population and nearly 85% of the country’s spending power. Coupled with a spike in mobile penetration to nearly 50%, India’s powerful middle class will garner nearly $10.5 trillion (not including increased access to credit) in spending power — a boon for companies playing in India. KPMG estimates India’s online education market will approach $2B by 2021 growing eight times as large as it was in 2016. While China’s middle class is growing rapidly as well, India’s population is significantly younger, creating massive demand for test-based and grade-school educational products that promise increased exam scores.

Even better for the education market, middle class Indian families spend an enormous and growing share of their income on education, often taking out loans or borrowing from family to send their children to school. In addition to school fees, which are required even for government schools, families spend $15 billion on private K12 tutoring and EdTech products that promise even marginal increases in test scores. This has created a massive market for skill-and-drill education and edtech products that optimize for content memorization rather than for meaningful learning. EdTech darling Byju Learning has an extensive repository of content focused purely on “competitive exams” (see image below) and its alignment to national curriculum standards has certainly aided its unicorn status. Children in India’s middle class face immense pressure and competition from a very young age, narrowly focused on entrance exams in a sliver of industries deemed reputable — at the expense of their curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking: the very skills we know are necessary for today’s global workforce.

EdTech darling Byju’s extensive repository of exam-based content.

Profit-seeking companies and traditional charitable organizations will continue to focus on exam-based outcomes until the Indian system adopts a new way to value (and evaluate) more meaningful skills. Many organizations are working to devise new evaluation methods and policies that focus on learning outcomes rather than rote learning or to secure university scholarships and acceptance guarantees based on evidence of 21st century skills rather than exam scores. Without demand from parents nor a willing system, innovative organizations must develop students’ skills outside of the system, through after-school or community-based programs. Many such organizations cite bureaucratic frustration, misaligned systems, and quality of implementation as reasons they prefer to work around the government-provided school system. Out-of-school solutions are not unique to India, but often do not exacerbate socioeconomic exclusion the way it might in the West.

Another out-of-school approach has created an education market post-grade school, geared for students who have left the system — as dropouts, or as high school and college graduates. Companies like Simplilearn and TeamLease have developed skills-based learning programs, well-aligned to market needs, that run the gamut from technically relevant trainings to holistic leadership skills students need to succeed. Requiring some level of income, these companies target India’s middle class — individuals with the need to skill or re-skill even after graduating from college. This is also not unique to India: graduates of many countries around the world face similar challenges today. While out-of-school solutions work in the short term, with India’s massive young population, it’s imperative that the Indian government shift focus to meaningful outcomes rather than grooming test-takers that require re-skilling fresh out of school.

Education solutions should critically assess whether or not they reinforce a test-focused system or enable the Indian-middle class to aspire to more meaningful learning goals. Edtech companies and nonprofit organizations that cite impact as improved testing outcomes, validated by revenue and usage, should look beyond these metrics at longer-term outcomes and their reinforcement of existing inequities.

The Base of the Pyramid

Parents of the lowest income class — both rural and urban — have rarely completed grade school themselves (especially mothers) and often struggle to feed their families. Basic needs like food, safety, and healthcare are top of mind, pushing education out of view. As recently as 2009, the Right to Education Act finally made it compulsory for students to attend school beyond primary age, up to age 14, but attendance drops drastically around that age. Mid-day meals are still a big incentive for sending children to school, otherwise seen as an opportunity cost to earning their own wages. Like the Indian elite, these families, too, operate outside the system, but in a very different way: the system has not fully opened itself up to this class of children. Government schools often have high teacher absenteeism and poor teacher training, let alone enough desks or basic pen and paper for students to use. Where schools exist and teachers are present, classroom content often relies on repetitive and uninspired math revisions or culturally irrelevant English book donations that barely tick off the check-box of school. Families have never envisioned a different life for their children than the ones they lead themselves. Government subsidies, NGOs, not-for-profits, and CSR initiatives focus on families’ most basic needs — supplying food, healthcare, and other supports to the villages and informal settlements in which they live. These are very necessary.

But the curious thoughts and brilliant ideas with which low-income children are born are stifled over time by the expectation (from schools and non-school interventions) that food and shelter, then basic math and literacy needs must first be met before anything else can be expected. The results of such an approach lead to 60 students in rows who are able to recite correct answers in perfect unison, so long as the questions are always asked in the same order. In one such school, I asked a little girl what her name was after an hour-long lesson on family members. She pointed to herself and said “this is my grandfather”.

A learning center constructed for students in a village to gather in the evenings to learn together.

More ambitious solutions are designing solutions that meet these students and teachers where they’re at — most notably, through parents’ and teachers’ mobile phones or in after-school tutoring spaces near their homes. As both rural and urban smart-phone penetration increases, companies have begun to look wide-eyed at the opportunity of the low-income Indian consumer, finding ways to distribute educational content through SMS or traveling vans that station themselves nearby informal settlements or villages.

With decreasing smartphone prices, increases in digital literacy, and a willingness to spend a significant share of family income, opportunities to reach billions (children and adults) with quality learning are limitless. Educational programming through smartphones has greater potential than what we saw in the 90s with TV programming in the West, delivering relevant, bite-sized content to families at price points that are affordable. High quality scaffolding is needed to help learners navigate the right paths for what they want to learn. Contrary to stereotypes, many workers in this segment are “time-poor” but not actively working throughout the entire day. For example, house help, security guards, and drivers often have idle time on the job during which employers (generally well-off Indian families with strong education values) could encourage time for learning. Everyone has a role to play.

It’s important that new solutions for this segment don’t simply package existing solutions into new distribution channels to the rest of India’s children. Organizations like the Inqui-Lab Foundation empower students to run innovation cycle programs at government schools to identify problems and build solutions together as a team to improve their own communities. In Hyderabad, Vande Mataram foundation houses engaged students of all backgrounds who eagerly peer-learn fundamental skills at their own pace, with minimal help from highly-skilled, caring teacher facilitators. In Mumbai, a hopeful Museum of Solutions would introduce design thinking to any child, not just those who can afford the expensive price tag. Often times these solutions won’t scale, but they will have impact.

Moving the Needle

It’s helpful to recognize India’s diverse population, yet even more important to understand the impact of education solutions on the larger ecosystem. How do our education products and services reinforce vs. transform the existing inequities and expectations of each population? Players in the education market should take responsibility for such questions. Schools, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and corporations alike should ensure that expectations of “quality education” don’t differ based on a child’s demographic information.

In summary, here are a few key takeaways for solution-builders in education:

#1: Consumer-based learning doesn’t necessarily exacerbate income inequality the way it often does in the West.

This is a necessary realization in any country where the public education system is not actually “free” and is far from providing quality education. For most Indian children, their best chance to learn comes from out-of-school interventions, in the form of parental support, B2C education offerings, or community-based organizations that serve students when and where they will best learn. For the lowest income class, this is typically during evenings at home or mobile learning on-the-go between their own or parents’ jobs and home.

#2: Poor children don’t just need food and shelter. Or even just math and literacy.

A child’s right to food and quality education should not be mutually exclusive. Solutions that ignite children’s curiosity and creativity don’t just give them a chance to be a kid, they develop effective problem solving skills that are critical to creating opportunity and improving their communities. This requires organizations bold enough to reimagine learning from scratch to best meet learners needs, even before schools demand it. It also requires a national education system that values these critical skills. India’s education ecosystem must work together to ensure the same ambitious definition of “quality education” for all income classes. Children are capable of learning and developing the same 21st century skills around the world, regardless of family resources.

Solutions that ignite children’s curiosity and creativity don’t just give them a chance to be a kid, they develop effective problem solving skills that are critical to creating opportunity and improving their communities.

#3: Don’t ignore the tension between scale and impact.

Some of the best education solutions are impactful because they were carefully tailored to a population’s particular needs. Although learning can be social and collaborative, it is intensely personal — every child learns differently. The irony of personalized learning products is that their first goal always seems to be scale. Get comfortable with the idea that you must first have impact before you have anything worth scaling. And even then, it may not scale. There are aspects of learning that are conducive to scale and others that are not. Make sure you realize which ones you are trying to scale.

The irony of personalized learning products is that their first goal always seems to be scale

#4: Get creative with distribution and access.

You’d be surprised by barriers of each population. Fear of consuming too much data is a real driver of behavior, so just knowing in advance how much data it will use up is key. Ensuring everything is mobile friendly and using icons rather than words can open up billions, inviting illiterate parents who only have access to a phone. Enabling on-the-go, pick-up-where-you-left-off, micro-consumption of low-cost learning content can enable someone working multiple jobs with no prior education to learn a new skill or offer better education to their children during intermittent free time dispersed unpredictably throughout the week.

#5: Education is a value for Indians of all demographics.

Stereotypes aren’t always a bad thing. Being well-educated holds immense cultural value to nearly all Indians, with the power to provide for upward mobility and overcome prejudice. These values offer a massive financial opportunity for the education market to cater to the education needs at all levels of India’s diverse populations.

#6: Everyone has a role to play.

As a solution-builder, take responsibility for the metrics you use to define success. Are you perpetuating existing inequities or working towards a more equitable future? As a parent in India, if you employ others, encourage opportunities for more meaningful learning or learning during idle time on the job. This can go a long way in providing access for a better future.

Just because the education market today demands test-focused products or because a child still needs access to food and clean water, doesn’t mean that child isn’t also capable of more.

Thanks to Geoff Charles

Nidhi Hebbar

Written by

education ramblings, all about school love, teachers and learners know best, ed-technologist, and design-thinker

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