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The chairman of an online-tutoring startup connecting Indian graduates to Western schoolchildren by VoIP says he is not engaged in outsourcing education.

"This is about how you can get what is available to the rich, available to the common man," Krishnan Ganesh told the Guardian yesterday.

Ganesh's service, Tutorvista, recruits Indians with good degrees and language skills who live in remoter towns and will therefore accept lower wages. The company pays its tutoring staff just over £1.50 an hour; whereas a self-employed London tutor with a maths-based postgraduate degree can charge £50 an hour.

There's clearly some margin there. Eighty percent of the lessons Ganesh has sold have been maths ones, according to a Times article last month: perhaps reflecting the worsening shortage of mathematics knowledge in the UK.

And it is worsening. Consider this from the BBC, which suggests that UK science undergrads sometimes don't know how long the hypotenuse of a right triangle with 3m and 4m sides might be. Kids don't know maths: and there's some evidence that teachers don't know science either.

Ganesh told the Guardian that the UK merely had a "gap" in its schooling, whereas America had an "educational crisis". It seems clear he was merely being polite, however.

This may not be so much a case of outsourcing education to India, as buying back in expertise which we have mostly lost. Very cheaply. And in fact, Ganesh prefers to characterise his business as "using global resources for global markets." He says he's planning to offer Spanish language tutoring using Mexican tutors, for instance.

Just how much money Tutorvista could make isn't clear, as it doesn't just make use of broadband technology but also adopts a broadband-style pricing model. The service charges a flat rate (£50 per month in the UK), for which users get access to "unlimited" tutoring. Schoolchildren with a real hunger for knowledge could conceivably blow Ganesh's business model out of the water; but they would need to spend at least an hour with their online oracles every day.

Some might say that £50/month isn't exactly making stuff available to the common man. On the other hand, a fair number of people in the UK pay that sort of money just for TV, so Tutorvista could easily go mass market.

It isn't just Ganesh who thinks that paid-for online education could be big, either. Publishers are nosing around the idea, and companies like Pearson already offer internet resources. They don't have Ganesh's Indian personnel or scalable VoIP/tablet technology platform yet, but it may not be long before they do.

It could well be that a lot of pushy middleclass parents will cough up their £50/month to get their kids access to a teacher who actually knows some maths. The ones in the UK probably wouldn't have minded getting at least some of this kind of service free with their licence fee, in fact, but the BBC's free-at-point-of-use Jam knowledge service was torpedoed last month after complaints from unnamed paid operators. ®

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