Indian tech firm Byju’s hauled in by watchdog over Context expose

A girl looks at a page on the Byju's learning app on a mobile phone in Noida, India on October 18, 2022

A girl looks at a page on the Byju's learning app on a mobile phone in Noida, India on October 18, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji

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Indian edtech giant Byju’s said it will stop selling courses to low-income families, according to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR)

CHENNAI - Indian education technology giant Bjyu's has said it will stop selling tuition to poorer families who may struggle to afford it, according to India's child rights body, which summoned the company's CEO on Friday to answer over a Context investigation.

In response to a two-part Context expose of Byju's working culture and treatment of customers, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued the summons - saying that the company had "indulged in malpractices to lure parents".

On Friday, one of Byju's founding partners - Pravin Prakash - attended the closed-door hearing on behalf of CEO Byju Raveendran. It is believed to be the first such notice issued against an edtech company in India over its sales practices.

Prakash said the company would start carrying out "affordability checks" to ensure it did not sell its courses or offer loans to families with an income of below 25,000 Indian rupees ($302), NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo told Context.

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Byju's also put forward a revised refund policy at the hearing, according to Kanoongo. Context had interviewed several clients who said they had been exploited or deceived into buying courses, and were ultimately left unable to obtain a refund.

"We cannot regulate the functioning of a tech company but the impact of their exploitative tactics was definitely under our purview," Kanoongo said in a phone interview.

"Children have got some relief today from the psychological trauma they and their families were being put through by the company's aggressive policies," he added.

Byju's has not publicly confirmed or denied the NCPCR's version of events.

In a statement responding to the NCPCR's notice, the company highlighted its "robust sales audit process, high student satisfaction rates and large not-for-profit initiative".

Byju's said it did not "mis-sell" products, or encourage, order, or incentivise its staff to "pursue customers who are uninterested in or unable to pay for its products".

The company's statement also said it does not directly offer loans but connects parents of students that need financial support to third-party banks or financial institutions.

After the hearing, a Byju's spokesperson told Context that the firm had presented its "robust policies", said "every issue was taken on board", and that "improvements were being made".

Kanoongo said the NCPCR had also asked Byju's to provide a verified list of all of its staff - including teachers and mentors - who come into contact with the students it enrolls.

In addition, Byju's has been requested to prominently display details of where to file complaints on its website, and ensure parents' concerns are addressed promptly, Kanoongo said.

"A positive change will come soon," Kanoongo said.

Bengaluru-based Byju's, which was founded in 2011 and launched its learning app in 2015, saw business boom during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools shut and students turned to online learning. But demand began to wane as children went back to their classrooms and the global economic outlook worsened.

The company has faced several thousands of complaints on social media and consumer websites this year alone from customers who said they were profiled, pressured and tricked into signing up, putting their savings and futures in jeopardy.

Several parents told Context that Byju's staff exploited a desire to provide the best education to their children, and encroached on their privacy by ambushing them in public, harassing them at home, or secretly collecting their data.

In response to Context's investigations - published last week - Byju's denied any wrongdoing, saying that its operations were "centred around customer respect and satisfaction".

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling)

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