Leading edtech platform BYJU’s is embroiled in a huge controversy with allegations of the unicorn buying phone numbers and coercing parents and first-generation learners into buying its courses.
Recently, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has claimed that edtech company Byju's was involved in unfair selling practices and sought answers from it.
Considering the matter as one of severe importance, the Commission has summoned BYJU’s top executive over the alleged claims. CEO of the company Byju Raveendran has to appear in person on December 23 in this regard. The company has denied all allegations.
Shreshtha Verma, Associate Editor, TICE News in an exclusive conversation with NCPCR chief Priyank Kanoongo sought to throw more light on the issue.
Why the NCPCR chose to Act?
“The Commission has come across a news article wherein it has been pointed out that the sales team of BYJU'S is indulging in malpractices to lure parents to buy their courses for their children. It has also been mentioned in the news report that some customers have also claimed that they were exploited and deceived, and had put their savings and futures in jeopardy,” said Kanoongo.
Why is the Commission Concerned?
“The commission's main concern is that BYU’s is targeting students and parents belonging to low income groups such as drivers, maids, labourers and first generation learners. They are literally threatening the first generation learners by saying if they do not take coaching from them, their future will be spoiled. The way their sales team operates is a double-edged sword as this is making young students go into depression as well as burdening their parents with financial liabilities," says Kanoongo.
Ethics and Edtech platforms
“BYJU’s also has corporate tie ups with non-banking financial companies and banks. A coaching service provider having tie-ups with NBFCs and banks and all their misdeeds show that the education platform has deviated from its basic work nature and has become more engrossed in commercial activities,” says Kanoongo.
Why is a coaching service provider charging annually and not monthly?
The next point of concern for commission is the annual fee which creates unnecessary pressure not just on parents but kids as well. “When a school, which provides huge infrastructure, teaching staff and additional facilities, can charge monthly fees, why is it not possible for a supplementary education system like BYJU’s to provide monthly subscriptions to students which are more feasible to buy and leaves the students with a room to choose whether they want to continue with the coaching or not?” questions Kanoongo.
“We understand that a monthly fee is required for any institution or organization to function but why do they charge annually? If they charge monthly, the students and their parents will have the opportunity to switch from BYJU’s if they don’t like the course. But with annual fees, both parents and students come under extreme pressure. While parents put their hard efforts to earn and save money for the fees, students cannot leave the coaching even if they don’t like the programme,” he says.
What has the commission done so far?
“In 2021, the Ministry of Education issued an advisory on recommendation of NCPCR which talks about what edtech platforms shouldn’t do!”
The MoE, in its advisory, said it has come to the notice of the department of school education that some ed-tech companies are luring parents in the garb of offering free services and getting electronic fund transfer (EFT) mandates signed or auto-debit option activated. According to the advisory, the decision to opt for such services has to be well considered by following several dos and don’ts and offers of free services must be carefully evaluated.
Kanoongo shares that the Ministry of Education sent a notice to BYJU’s last year also ordering them to comply with the edtech advisory by the ministry.
Further highlighting the efforts of NCPCR in this regard, he shares that the commission has also written to the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) to look into the doubtful financing of BYJU’s. Taking action on the matter, SFIO further wrote to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and RBI to initiate an investigation. An investigation is under process and the government bodies are yet to reach a conclusion.
As far as the present incident is concerned, Kanoongo said that NCPCR has not taken any action yet, they have only summoned BYJU’s CEO Ranveendran to appear in person and provide them a clarification on the allegations of malpractices going on in the sales team of BYJU’s.
NCPCR chief is very serious about child rights and has said clearly that the commission won’t spare the edtech platform if guidelines have been violated.
It is noteworthy that Raveendran is asked to present in front of the commission before 23rd December. However, there’s no official action noticed by BYJU’s.
“We have given a timeline to BYJU’s to seek clarification from them, we are waiting till 23rd December, if the platform is not involved in any malpractice, they are most welcome to come and provide us a clarification,” says NCPCR chief.
“Based on BYJU’s answer, we will analyze whether BYJU’s is complying with the edtech policies of the Government of India or not,” he added.
Research commission for edtech and gaming is in pipeline
Kanoongo shared that NCPCR and MoE is working to form a research commission which will dedicatedly look into how the edtech and gaming sector is functioning in the country. “With this new commission, we will be able to keep a close eye on the two rapidly growing sectors,” he said.
What does BYJU have to say? BYJU’S strongly denies buying student databases
A spokesperson of the unicorn told TICE that: BYJU'S strongly denies the allegation that it purchases students' databases. We categorically state that we have never bought any database and expect that the media will refrain from making such a baseless and unsubstantiated allegation.
“With more than 150 million registered students and with the top-of-the-mind recall that the BYJU'S brand has in India, we do not need to buy or use external databases. We emphasize that our lead pipeline comprises exclusively of our app users, walk-ins and incoming requests for consultation. BYJU’S is ranked No. 19 in the coveted Kantar list of India’s most trusted brands. We do not need to and we never make cold calls or unscheduled walk-in visits. We strongly refute any allegation that indicates otherwise,” said the spokesperson.
NCPCR seeks answers:
Responses in the media domain are unlikely to satisfy the commission.
“If BYJU’s is really not involved in any malpractice, why are they running away from answering the NCPCR notice? Why are they making statements to the media instead of directly talking to the body?" said the NCPCR chief.
Controversy: BYJU’S files "comprehensive response" to NCPCR’s notice
Byju's to make courses more "consumer friendly"? What the NCPCR told Edtech giant