Hothousing their way to the top

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Media captionStudent Surabhi Roy, 18, explains the sacrifices she is having to make in order to succeed at her 'crammer' in Kota

As India's economy booms, so getting into a top university has become harder than ever.

With demand massively outstripping supply, one elite college has even set 100% as the pass mark for its entrance exam.

The intense competition has resulted in a mushrooming of private colleges offering coaching lessons for pupils who need extra help before they sit exams.

Many parents now choose to send their children to crammers for up to two years to get them ready for the exams.

Some of the best known of these are in the small city of Kota, in the western state of Rajasthan, which now hosts up to 80,000 students a year.

"You know you don't get success if you just work for one day. You need to work hard and do everything your teachers say, because they know exactly how you can clear this exam," says 18-year-old Surabhi Roy, studying at the Career Point college.

'Very competitive'

Image caption Young people from across India move to Kota to study

Like most of the students there, she is hoping to get into one of the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, the prestigious engineering universities.

Surabhi wants to become an aerospace engineer, and her heroine is Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to travel into space.

On top of six hours of classes, she spends eight or nine hours on homework a day, only very occasionally breaking for a cup of tea and a read of her favourite science magazines.

Back home in Bangalore, she says, she would rather be watching Manchester United on the TV, or going to the cinema with her friends. But she has not come to Kota for fun.

"My aim is the IIT, that's the only thing I have in my mind. You know, like a horse. If you cover his eyes it can see only straight. I just want to see that IIT, I don't want to see anything else," she said. "Let's hope that six months down the line, this hard work pays off."

Surabhi's attitude may be exemplary, but her success is far from guaranteed.

In recent years, about 450,000 students have applied for the 8,000 IIT places on offer, making their entrance exams among the hardest in the world.

"For a student to qualify from this examination, he has to have a very high aptitude, extremely good analytical and logical capabilities, and at the same time you have to train him to solve the questions," says Pramod Maheshwari, the founder and chief executive of Career Point.

"It is really very competitive and the students have to put in an amazing amount of work."

'Real boon'

He knows better than most what it takes to pass the exams, since he is a graduate himself of an IIT, and has since made a successful career showing thousands of others how to follow in his footsteps.

Image caption Mr Maheshwari says that most IIT students have successful careers

He founded Career Point in 1993, after local students began asking him for help with their university entrance exams.

He started out giving classes in a garage, and now his school has 18,000 students. Earlier this year it was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Other tutorial colleges followed suit, and together they now dominate the town's economy.

"This industry has given a new life to the city, which was then dying. People who lost their jobs when the factories closed found work running hostels or proving food and transport for the students. It was a real boon for the city," says BL Gupta of the Kota Small Scale Industries Association.

Students come from across India, particularly from middle-class families who see a place in a top university as a guarantee of success.

"The majority of people who go to an IIT are very successful, not only in India but across the world," Pramod Maheshwari says.

"That's why parents think if their child gets into an IIT their future is secure."

Their ambition is helping drive India forward, he says.

"It is good for the nation that people are trying to excel. When they compete they are not only competing within the country, but also competing across the globe. That actually is helping India grow in the world economy, which is what we've seen over the past 10 years," he says.

But India's education system has many more losers than winners, and inevitably, the vast majority of Mr Maheshwari's own students end up disappointed with their results.

"We have to tell them that if they don't get into an IIT, they can still be successful. This system is not very healthy. It is rejecting more talented people than it is accepting, and the students who are not able to qualify start developing complexes and lose faith in their own capabilities."

Ten o'clock at night and Surabhi is back at her hostel having dinner with her friends. Work is not over yet, and she is not entertaining any thoughts of failure.

"I still have three or four hours to go. If you want to be ambitious you have to a have a tough routine, right? You can't be lazy."

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