Businesses are obligated to walk great lengths to ensure that none of their dealings throw up a conflict of interest situation. For instance, an insurance company cannot also be in the business of damage claim assessment. Or a news media company should not be in the real estate business. In universities, curriculum setting should not be entrusted to teachers hailing from families owning textbook publishing businesses.
Once such clause governs the Common Admissions Test (CAT) conducted by Prometric Services on behalf of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Clause number 17.0 of the Master Services Agreement (MSA) signed between the two entities in April 2009 says,
"Prometric shall not perform any services as an independent contractor, agent or employee of IIMs. Prometric and its sub-contractors will not offer any counsel or service to the coaching institutes or other similar institutions that prepare students for taking the CAT."
In other words, companies involved in conducting the CAT should neither offer CAT coaching nor assist anyone involved in CAT coaching. Allowing so brings up the danger of compromising the secrecy of CAT content and test processes, which the coaching business would clearly benefit from.
Everonn Education, the on-ground logistical support partner and owner of six test centers for the CAT in 2010 and 2011 has simultaneously also been in the business of CAT coaching through a product called 'Everonn Toppers Top CAT Classroom Training Program', which it has been offering in five cities since January 2011 on the website 'mbatoppers.com'. The program will be offered in 14 more cities soon, it claims. The website claims that it is owned by Toppers Tutorial Private Limited, a company Everonn acquired in 2008.
This is not only a conflict of interest, it is also a violation of the contract that seeks to protect the integrity of the CAT by prohibiting Prometric Services from sub-contracting agencies involved in CAT coaching.
The violation has gone unnoticed by the IIMs --- the owners of the CAT.
Prometric Services, which allotted the sub-contract to Everonn, however has been in the know and claims to have investigated Everonn and found no conflict of interest. On being enquired by PaGaLGuY whether there indeed was a violation of the MSA, Prometric's India Managing Director Soumitra Roy replied in the negative. On being asked why, he said, "We were very concerned when we were notified about Everonn offering test preparation programmes for CAT. An immediate investigation was carried out and no conflict was found. Toppers Tutorial is a private company and a separate entity engaged in the business of coaching students aspiring to attempt various higher education competitive exams. The company was incorporated in 1995 and became a subsidiary of Everonn in February 2008 and operates independently. Everonn Education which is one of Prometrics partners for CAT 2011, is not offering any test preparation material or coaching for CAT, and they are not involved in the operations of Toppers Tutorial. However, we will continue to be vigilant and keep abreast of any further development in order to protect the integrity of the CAT and IIMs intellectual property."
A look at mbatoppers.com's ownership however refutes Prometric's claim that Everonn has no direct involvement with the website. A 'whois' lookup for the web domain name 'mbatoppers.com' reveals the following,
Name: Kishore Kishore
Organization: Everonn Education Limited
Address: 96-99, Everonn House, Industrial Estate, Perungu
Postal Code: 600096
In plain terms, this means that Everonn owns 'mbatoppers.com'. It also brands the CAT coaching products offered on the website with its name. How much closer to the website does it need to be for Prometric to agree that mbatoppers.com is not a separate entity?
(Although unrelated to this, Everonn's Managing Director P Kishore was arrested in August 2011 on charges of bribing an income tax official to suppress taxable income of Rs 116 crores.)
Repeated email questionnaires, phone calls and SMS reminders to Everonn Education's media personnel over three days did not yield any answers.
CAT 2011 Convenor and IIM Calcutta professor Janakiraman Moorthy too was unaware of Everonn's being in the coaching business. A day after being informed about it by this correspondent, he agreed that the situation was indeed a violation of the CAT contract. He however said, "We are only 10 to 15 days away from the CAT and it is too late to switch to another sub-contractor. What is happening is clearly not correct and we will take a look at this more seriously once the exam is over. We will possibly not continue with this sub-contractor for next year's CAT."
"As for this year, we have taken all the measures to ensure the CAT's security. Nobody will have access to the questions. That has been taken care of," he added.
To a question whether there were terms between Prometric and Everonn seeking to protect the security of the CAT Mr Roy replied, "Prometric has a confidentiality clause with Everonn which prevents them from using or disclosing any information that they acquire as part of their role in supporting the CAT administration without prior written consent from Prometric."