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Jumping on the Bandwagon: Toll of Conformity on Student Mental Well-being

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mathematics and Science were the most popular subjects in school, as most students aimed to become doctors or engineers. Commerce and Humanities streams were considered for "underachiever" students. Nearly two decades later, while there are now many career opportunities requiring a background in Commerce or Humanities at the school level, the preference for Science remains unchanged. An article in the Times of India dated June 1, 2023, references a survey by PARAKH (Performance, Assessment, Review, and Analysis), Ministry of Education, showing that the number of students in grade XI is skewed towards the Science stream nationally. In South Indian states, the highest percentages of students opting for Science are in Andhra Pradesh (76%) and Telangana (65%).

Each year, more students are appearing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Exams) Mains: 11.3 lakh in 2023 and 11.7 lakh in 2024, up from 6.5 lakh in 2021. Despite the increasing numbers, many do not secure admission to engineering colleges, which are mushrooming across Indian cities. Notably, 48% of engineers are unemployed, according to a 2023 report by NITI Aayog. For instance, some of the top engineering colleges in Bangalore placed only 50% of candidates compared to the previous year: 601 placements in 2024 against 1122 in 2023 at RVCE, Bangalore (June 2024).

The medical field is even more concerning. Over 20 lakh students appeared for the NEET exam in 2023, rising to over 23 lakh in 2024, with a yearly growth of over 15%. With the cut-off being as low as 22.7% 13 lakh students qualified for 1 lakh seats in the recent NEET exam. Moreover, many medical students do not complete their courses or do not practice due to the long and rigorous period associated with the completion of the course. According to the National Medical Commission, 153 MBBS students and 1,120 doctors pursuing postgraduate medical courses dropped out in the last five years. Tragically, at least 122 medical students committed suicide between 2018 and 2023. Despite growing career opportunities in other fields, the primary focus remains on Engineering and Medicine.

The impact of coaching culture

The prevalence of coaching centres across states exacerbates these issues. Despite the Department of Higher Education's January 16, 2024, directive against enrolling children under 16 in coaching classes, children aged 11-15 are still enrolled, fueling the coaching business. With promises to place students in premier institutions, these centres create peer pressure among students to enrol in these institutions for a "glorious future". The Ministry of Education has linked student suicides to the pressure of balancing school and coaching centre curricula, emphasizing the need for improved safety and pedagogical standards with proposed operational guidelines.

The NEP 2020 focuses on Whole school health, emphasizing students' mental well-being to create a healthy and happy learning environment. It advocates for curricula addressing students' emotional needs and recognizes the harmful impacts of the current secondary education system, including board exams, entrance exams and the coaching culture. NEP 2020 proposes reforms to eradicate the necessity of coaching classes, advocating against their scheduling during regular school hours and enforcing mandatory school attendance, yet many schools and coaching centres operate seven days a week, neglecting the mental health of students.

Psychologists and psychiatrists in India recognize the growing mental health issues among students due to coaching class pressure. Over 80% of students struggling with regular school curricula enrol in these classes, finding it hard to perform during crucial years.

Education has become a business that thrives at the expense of students' mental, physical, emotional, and psychological health. It is disheartening to see educators and parents falling into the trap of instilling fear of "competition" in the young minds of students. In the age of FOMO (fear of missing out), students who do not enrol in these classes feel inadequate. A parent whose child wanted to pursue Commerce after grade X once told me, "I advised my child to do Science because I did not want her to be option-less later. If she doesn’t crack the engineering entrance tests, then she may decide to take Commerce." Parents believe that a future lies only in engineering, despite the lack of research supporting this belief.

While coaching centres convince parents, students, and educators that they define students' futures, the Foundational Numeracy and Literacy report has highlighted the lack of basic cognitive skills among children. The report by the Institute of Competitiveness and US-Asia Technology Management Center, Stanford University, based on the National Achievement Survey of 2021, shows that the highest foundational literacy and numeracy scores for large states and small states, were in West Bengal (59.49) and Punjab (62.31), respectively. The irony is that while students compete to become engineers or doctors, there is little effort to strengthen foundational literacy and numeracy, resulting in many professionals being unemployable. The inadequate foundation leads to significant incompetence in various life aspects.

The education system that is expected to build life skills has stripped children of the basic skill of resilience. "Unhealthy competition" is celebrated as a motivator for academic achievement. Worryingly, parents who themselves have not succeeded in facing this unhealthy competition are subjecting their children to it. Policymakers need to make education more enjoyable and meaningful, shifting the focus from assessments and performance to learning and skill-building. If this scenario does not change, we risk creating generations of ill-equipped students to handle challenges and crises, and leadership skills may soon become extinct.

In the education system, the student is the beneficiary, yet their voices are least heard. It is high time we treat students with respect and seek their feedback on improving education. In any typical product or company, the customer's voice is paramount, but in education, student insights are rarely collected. This neglect increases pressure on students to pursue fields of education they aren’t interested in or to attend extra coaching classes, believing it's mandatory for a better future, harming their mental well-being. Thus, prioritizing student input can help create a more holistic and supportive education system.

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