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Is Indian Edtech’s growth worrisome, or just what the future holds?



Tomorrow September 5 is Teacher’s Day. And more than a year after a pandemic upended the way we looked at teaching, don’t be surprised if an online app epitomises, at least to some, the future of teaching.

The weeks and months of pandemic restrictions that kept schools closed and parents scampering around for ways to supplement their children’s online classes have seen India’s till-recently-nascent edtech industry on an unbelievable roll; estimates indicate that nearly 30,000 crore rupees of funding have flown into the sector in the country over the past one-and-a-half years, and big names like Byju’s have seen themselves muscle up like Hulk on extra-energised gamma rays. 

“The advancements in technology and pandemic (have) accelerated the digital transformation of the Indian education ecosystem,” Raghav Gupta, managing director (India & Asia-Pacific) of leading edtech multinational Coursera, told THE WEEK. “A growing ecosystem dedicated to solving the needs of the learners and enabling institutions to offer greater access is the way forward for the country and the economy,” he added.

Besides Bengaluru-based Think and Learn, the parent company of Byju’s, three other Indian edtech startups have hit the exalted unicorn status, or a valuation of one billion dollars (roughly 7,500 crore rupees) or more – Unacademy, UpGrad and just last month, Eruditus. Big daddy Byju’s, meanwhile, have grown so big so quickly that when last valued, it was already worth 1.2 lakh crore rupees. Founder & CEO Byju Raveendran declared earlier this week that the startup, founded barely 10 years ago, was on course to clock a turnover of 10,000 crore this year. 

Not just that, the edtech startups of India have been on an expansion and consolidation spree like there’s no tomorrow. Byju’s spate of acquisitions have included the likes of competing online rival Toppr as well as Aakash, once the biggie of the traditional coaching business. 

However, the growing clout of Indian edtech—it helped that Chinese government’s crackdown of its learning platforms has left the field wide open for desi upstarts (with western businesses realising the potential of the field rather late)—has also spawned worries whether Indian edtech firms are flying too close to the sun. Too much, and too quickly for comfort? Online media as well as social media chats have recently singled out unscrupulous business practices like duping unwitting parents and a toxic marketing culture behind the aggressive growth of some leading players. Others feel most certainly that many of those rushing into the edtech gold rush will crash and burn. 

“Of course, more edtech players will fail than the ones who will hit high valuation,” commented an industry analyst. “How the startups ingeniously capitalise on the growth areas will make all the difference to their fortunes.”

That is a point. The high valuations and growth numbers the sector has been claiming has origins not just in the immense possibilities the Indian market and in particular the rising aspirations in small town India, but also the scope for expansion abroad. Some of the recent buyouts Indian edtech players have done recently involve companies abroad. Byju’s spent 500 million dollars to acquire the American digital reading platform Epic recently, while Eruditus acquired Silicon Valley startup iD Tech for 200 million dollars. Many firms now have majority of their users outside of India even.

There is also the scope for targetting multiple areas even within education. While the original focus was on providing supplementary coaching to school curriculum, many edtech firms are now focusing on specific growth areas, ranging from entrance coaching to higher education. 

“While edtech startups and unicorns have already disrupted the K12, test prep and continued learning markets, the higher education sector remains woefully underserved,” points out Chinmoy Rajwanshi, co-founder and chief business officer at ImaginXP, an edtech startup that is aiming at this niche.

While there are fears of a government pushback like what happened in China for edtech, or in this country itself against social media and Big Tech, top players remain optimistic. “Online learning got a major push from the National Education Policy that promotes online education to achieve the 50 per cent gross enrollment ratio vision,” points out Gupta of Coursera. 

The enthusiasm is such that even conventional players like school managements have gotten on the act. Sri Chaitanya, a leading educational group which runs in places like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and elsewhere recently got into launching a digital educational platform, by launching Infinity Learn. “We have been able to make a difference for students with schools across the country. With the Pandemic, we realised they were in urgent need of this help digitally and we immediately jumped in, to bridge this digital divide, explains Ujjwal Singh, CEO, Infinity Learn.

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