‘Hundreds of complaints’: Indian edtech startups fail to regulate themselves

Ankit Brodiya, a 24-year-old technician from New Delhi, enrolled his brother and nephew in an engineering preparation course on Byju’s, paying a registration fee of 15,000 rupees (about $189) on June 8 after having been sued by telesales executives from the world’s largest edtech company for months. “I wasn’t convinced, but I thought about giving it a shot,” he said. Rest of the world. During the 15-day trial period, both students found the lessons unsatisfactory and registered a cancellation request within 10 days. Almost two months later, Brodiya is still waiting for his refund. “When I tweeted at Bjyu from my account and my brother’s, it was only then that I received a response from the company,” Brodiya said. He said he found hundreds of such complaints about information technology companies on social media.

Byju’s did not respond to an email from Rest of the world seek clarification of these complaints.

Such complaints – which can be found all over social media – have sparked demand for greater regulation of India’s IT industry. Until now, edtech companies had a lot of leeway in terms of what courses they offer, what consumer data they collect, their grievance mechanisms, and how whose products they market and advertise.

In January, after the government issued a notice asking citizens to be cautious before enrolling in online courses, edtech companies banded together to form a self-regulatory body, the India EdTech Consortium ( IEC). At a meeting earlier this month, government officials warned IT companies and the IEC not to comply with advertising guidelines. The government has threatened to enforce tough regulations if unfair business practices, such as misleading advertisements, are not stopped.

“Government oversight of industry [is] a logical step to fix accountability, as this is about the future of the country’s children,” said Karti Chidambaram, a member of India’s parliament who has been a vocal critic of the IT industry. Rest of the world. “How can they succeed in regulating [themselves] when earning money is the primary objective and not the quality of education? … So far the government has just issued an advisory for parents and pupils to be careful – it needs to do much faster.

The IEC has identified teacher sales, lending, content and effectiveness as some of the most significant issues facing the industry, an IEC spokesperson said. Rest of the 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 are resolved,” the spokesperson said.

Issues with edtech players are far more widespread than IEC’s list, according to complaints registered against the companies on various platforms.

A report by Human Rights Watch published this year pointed out that several edtech apps put the privacy of children at risk by exploiting their data. “At this time, we do not know how many or what kind [of] the data is collected by these companies and how is it used,” said Eldho Mathews, deputy adviser of the international cooperation unit at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), a university research-oriented in New Delhi. “There are concerns that apps collect data to track the behavior of their students. And in addition, the financial and personal data of their parents.

In January, Kavya, a researcher from the southern state of Karnataka, received a call from an executive in Byju who identified her by the name of her six-year-old child. “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 painful. My first thought was if my child was okay,” she said. Kavya is unsure how the company got her contact details and was shocked at the tactics the companies used to sell their products.

The IEC did not respond to questions about data collection.

According to local media, 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 dramatic growth, however, has come under pressure with the reopening of schools and traditional tuition centers. The global startup funding crisis has only made matters worse, and some of these startups are resorting to cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, cuts to ad budgets, and an end to free company meals. .

The call for greater regulation of edtech has been gathering momentum for months. Last December, Chidambaram, a member of the opposition Indian National Congress party, expressed concern about the ease with which edtech players could offer a plethora of courses without any verification by a government body.

“Education is a basic right in this country and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to a quality education.”

“Education is a basic right in this country and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to quality education,” Chidambaram said. Rest of the world. “These companies offer hundreds of courses, but they are not endorsed by any government agency, unlike how traditional schools and colleges have to apply for lots of permissions before setting up shop. So no one really knows the quality of these courses or based on what qualification they hire their educators.

Misleading ads have been responsible for some of the growth the edtech industry has seen so far. In 2020, edtech company WhiteHat Jr, now owned by Byju’s, was widely criticized for an ad claiming the company could teach 7-year-olds to code so well that investors would line up to back their products. Great Learning, another company owned by Byju’s, recently came under fire over allegations of mis-selling a course allegedly offered by the Indian Institutes of Technology, a leading engineering institute.

ConsumerComplaint.in, an independent consumer complaints platform, has over 3,450 complaints raised against Byju’s. Of those, 1,370 had been resolved at the time of publication, according to the website. These complaints range from late cancellations, non-refund of money, aggressive marketing calls, and problems with course materials and teaching. The platform has also registered complaints against edtech companies Lido Learning and Simplilearn, Vedantu, Jaro Education, among others.

Meanwhile, social media platforms are inundated with complaints alleging unethical behavior by Indian edtech companies. At least six users who spoke to Rest of the world recounted experiences of business executives ghosting them if they requested refunds within the trial window.

In May, Bharat Lahoti, who lives in the southern city of Hyderabad, enrolled her niece, a seventh-grader, in Byju’s tutoring classes. The three-year tutorial course would cost 93,000 rupees (over $1,150), so Bharat opted for a loan option offered by the company. When registering, Lahoti said, a Byju executive assured him that if the tutoring lessons were unsatisfactory, he could cancel during the 15-day trial period and get a full refund.

Ten days into the course, Lahoti’s niece decided to withdraw from 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 refund of 5,000 rupees (about $62). His first month’s payment of nearly 7,700 rupees (about $96) has not yet been repaid, and a request to close the loan account is still pending. “For a middle-class Indian family, 8,000 [rupees] is important to support the expenses of the house and [living] a normal life,” he said. Rest of the world.

Vivan Sharan, partner at Koan Advisory, a Delhi-based public policy firm focused on new and emerging technologies, believes government attempts to regulate the IT industry as a whole could be counterproductive because they could stifle innovation.

“The state is not the repository of all knowledge [education]”, Sharan said. “I am not in favor of command and control of the state, because it does not include education, even though it should. But we see innovation outside of [the] state in education [today in the country].”

But he also sees the need for some degree of independent industry expert oversight. “Since you are dealing with children and young adults…there is a need to co-opt experts from academia and other relevant spaces,” he said. “There needs to be an ombudsman-type role played by someone outside the industry.”

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