Ankit Brodiya, a 24-year-old techie from New Delhi, signed up his brother and nephew for an engineering prep course on Byju’s, paying a registration fee of 15,000 rupees (around $189) 0n June 8 after being chased by telesales executives of the world’s largest edtech firm for months. “I wasn’t convinced about it, but I thought of giving it a shot,” he told Rest of World. During the 15-day trial period, the two students found the classes unsatisfactory and logged a request for cancellation within 10 days. Almost two months on, Brodiya is still waiting for his refund. “When I tweeted out to Bjyu’s from my account and my brother’s account, it was only then I received a response from the company,” Brodiya said. He said he found hundreds of such complaints about edtech companies on social media.
Byju’s did not respond to an email from Rest of World seeking clarification on these complaints.
Such complaints – which can be found all over social media – have triggered demand for greater regulation of the edtech industry in India. Up until now, edtech companies have largely had a free run in terms of the courses they offer, the consumer data they collect, their grievance redressal mechanisms, and how they market and advertise products.
In January, after the government issued an advisory asking citizens to be cautious before signing up for online courses, edtech companies had come together to form a self-regulatory body, the India EdTech Consortium (IEC). In a meeting earlier this month, government officials warned edtech companies and IEC, for not conforming to advertising guidelines. The government threatened enforcement of stringent regulations if unfair trade practices, such as misleading ads, are not stopped.
“Government monitoring of the industry [is] a logical step to fix accountability, since it concerns the future of the kids of the country,” Karti Chidambaram, a member of the Indian parliament who has been a vocal critic of the edtech industry, told Rest of World. “How can they successfully regulate [themselves] when making money is the prime objective and not the quality of education? … So far, the government has just issued an advisory to the parents and students to be careful — it needs to do much more quickly.”
IEC has identified sales, loans, content, and teacher effectiveness as some of the most important issues facing the industry, an IEC spokesperson told Rest of World in an email. “From January to June, IEC received 1,440 complaints, mainly on refunds, content, marketing, and sales. Ninety-nine percent of them stand resolved,” the spokesperson said.
The issues with edtech players are far more widespread than IEC’s list, according to the complaints registered against companies on various platforms.
A Human Rights Watch report released this year highlighted that several edtech apps put children’s privacy at risk by harnessing their data. “At the moment, we don’t know how much or what sort [of] data is being collected by these companies and how is it being used,” said Eldho Mathews, deputy advisor with the unit for international cooperation at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), a research-focused university in New Delhi. “There are concerns that apps could be collecting data to track behavior of their students. And furthermore, financial and personal data of their parents.”
In January, Kavya, a research scholar from the southern state of Karnataka, received a call from a Byju’s executive who identified her by her six-year-old kid’s name. “He called my child’s name and asked me if I was the parent. He said it in Tullu, our local language. It was quite distressing. My first thought was if my child was okay,” she said. Kavya doesn’t know how the company got her details and was shocked at what tactics companies use to sell their products.
IEC did not respond to questions about data collection.
According to local media reports, in 2021, edtech was the third most funded sector in India’s startup space after e-commerce and fintech. Edtech companies raised $4.7 billion last year, up from $2.2 billion in 2020. This spectacular growth, however, has come under pressure as traditional brick-and-mortar schools and tuition centers reopen. The global startup funding crunch has only made things worse, and some of these startup stars are resorting to cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, cuts in advertising budgets, and the end of free company meals.
The call for greater regulation of edtech has been gathering pace for months. Last December, Chidambaram, a member of the Indian National Congress opposition party, raised concerns over how easy it was for edtech players to offer a plethora of courses without any vetting by a government body.
“Education is a basic right in this country and it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure everyone has access to quality education,” Chidambaram told Rest of World. “These companies are offering hundreds of courses, but they are not vetted by any government body, unlike how traditional schools and colleges have to seek numerous permissions before setting up. So, no one really knows the quality of these courses or based on what qualification they hire their educators.”
Misleading ads drove some of the growth that the edtech industry has seen so far. In 2020, edtech firm WhiteHat Jr, now owned by Byju’s, was widely criticized for an ad that claimed the company could teach 7-year-olds to code so well that investors would queue up to back their products. Great Learning, another company owned by Byju’s, recently came under fire over allegations of misselling a course supposedly offered by the Indian Institutes of Technology, a premier engineering institute.
ConsumerComplaint.in, an independent consumer complaints platform, has more than 3,450 grievances raised against Byju’s. Of these, 1,370 had been resolved at the time of publication, according to the website. These complaints range from delays in cancellation, failure to refund money, aggressive marketing calls, and problems with course material and teaching. The platform also has complaints registered against edtech companies Lido Learning and Simplilearn, Vedantu, Jaro Education, among others.
Meanwhile, social media platforms are flooded with complaints claiming unethical behavior by Indian edtech companies. At least six users who spoke to Rest of World narrated experiences of company executives ghosting them if they requested refunds within the trial window.
In May, Bharat Lahoti, who lives in the southern city of Hyderabad, signed up his niece, a seventh grader, in Byju’s tutoring classes. The three-year tutoring course would cost 93,000 rupees (more than $1,150), so Bharat opted for a loan option offered by the company. When he was signing up, Lahoti said, a Byju’s executive assured him that if the tutoring classes were unsatisfactory, he could cancel within the 15-day trial period and get a full refund.
Ten days into the course, Lahoti’s niece decided to opt out of the classes when she was assigned teachers for four subjects instead of six. But when Bharat turned to the company for a refund, he only received a 5,000 rupee (around $62) refund. His first-month payment of almost 7,700 rupees (around $96) has yet to be refunded, and a request to close the loan account is still pending. “For a middle-class Indian family, 8,000 [rupees] is important for bearing home expenses and [living] a normal life,” he told Rest of World.
Vivan Sharan, a partner at Delhi-based Koan Advisory, a public policy firm focused on new and emerging technology, believes the government’s attempts to regulate the edtech industry overall could be counterproductive because it could throttle innovation.
“The state is not a repository of all knowledge of [education],” Sharan said. “I’m not in favor of command and control by the state, because it doesn’t understand education, even though it should. But we see innovation outside of [the] state in education [today in the country].”
But he also sees a need for some degree of independent expert oversight of the industry. “Since you are dealing with children and young adults… there is a need for co-option of experts from academia and other relevant spaces,” he said. “There has to be an ombudsman-like role played by somebody outside of the industry.”