CHENNAI: Guhan* cleared NEET not once but twice. Yet, he appeared for a third time this year. “On both of my previous attempts, I could not score enough to secure a government seat,” he tells Express. “My family cannot afford the cost of a private seat. If I cannot secure a government seat, I will have to give up my ambition of becoming a doctor. Clearing NEET will make no difference.” Guhan studied in a government-aided school.
When he started preparing for NEET, he realised that even the private coaching to crack the test was too costly for his family to afford. Luckily, he was selected for the free residential programme offered by the State government in 2018. While the coaching was helpful, it did not get him where he wanted. This time, Guhan has pinned his hopes on mock test papers. “I have been solving one every day. I hope I make it this time.” For Guhan, and a million other students like him, access to medical education has never been easy. It was not merit but money that was the biggest barrier in their path. Of the 539 medical colleges in India currently, close to half (260) are in private hands.
With admission and tuition fee running into tens of lakhs, these private colleges were out of reach for poor students even before the introduction of NEET. Competition for a seat in government colleges was tough. However in Tamil Nadu, a State with high number of government medical colleges, the situation was different back then. Students from underprivileged sections stood a good chance of becoming a doctor in Tamil Nadu, provided they scored well in Class-12 exams.
Data obtained through RTI by physician and academic activist Dr EzhilanNaganathan validates this theory. It shows that before the introduction of NEET in 2017, there were 22 government medical colleges in the State. A whopping 90 per cent of students getting admission in these colleges were from government schools, aided schools, or low-cost private schools teaching the State Board syllabus. In 2016, a total of 600 students from Tamil-medium government schools joined medical courses. All that stopped with NEET introduction.
The number of government school students securing government seats dropped to a paltry five in 2017, seven in 2018, and zero in 2019. Even those who had scored well in Board Exams were not able to clear NEET. Take for instance the case of Anitha, who killed herself three years ago after failing to clear NEET. Anitha was a shining performer in school, who would have secured a medical seat in an era before NEET. Pradeepa, another student who killed herself in 2018, was handpicked by a private school and offered a free seat for Class 12.
The school wanted Pradeepa on its rolls to boost its performance. Yet, Pradeepa also failed to clear NEET. Including Pradeepa and Anitha, so far 18 students in the State have died by suicide allegedly due to the pressure of NEET. Of these, five suicides were reported this year, when lockdown and the pandemic made matters worse. An analysis of the big picture shows that failure in NEET is hardly about academic performance. It is more to do with inconsistencies in the system, over which students or teachers barely have any control.
PROBLEM 1: ONE NATION, MANY SYLLABI
Reforms usually have a logical order. In the case of NEET, however, the government decided to write the answer even before the question was asked. In a country with tens of educational boards, curricula, and syllabi, it decided to fix one common, universal exam. The NEET is largely based on the NCERT prescribed syllabus for classes 11 and 12. Most State governments follow their own syllabi, which are drastically different from that of the Centre.
Tamil Nadu responded to NEET swiftly, by updating its State Board syllabus to narrow the learning gaps. However, the switch was drastic for current students who have been following the old pattern. “For the past 10 years my daughter has been studying in the Matriculation syllabus. Now, she has to study a CBSE-equivalent syllabus for NEET. How can she do it?” asks Pugazhendhi, whose daughter has made her third attempt to crack the medical entrance test this year.
The updated State Board syllabus of Tamil Nadu is said to be top notch in quality. Almost 97 per cent of NEET questions this year could be answered based on the State Board syllabus, said senior government officials. However, of what use is the syllabus if the students have no foundation in it? While measures are being initiated now, Tamil Nadu is trailing behind primarily because it failed to incubate low-cost CBSE schools for the benefit of the poor.
PROBLEM 2: WHERE ARE THE JAWAHAR NAVODAYAS?
There are over 700 Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas across the country, of which not even one is in Tamil Nadu. These residential schools, which are centrally funded, are set up to provide high-quality CBSE education to historically disadvantaged families in rural areas. The fear of Hindi imposition and the politics around it kept subsequent Tamil Nadu governments far away from implementing the Jawahar school concept in the State. Interestingly, these schools have a very high success rate, with over 12,000 students from these schools clearing NEET last year.
Activists say that if State and Central governments agree to universalise the education of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and related subjects (STEM) while customising social sciences and arts as per local needs, students across the country would benefit.
PROBLEM 3: THE PRICEY COACH CONUNDRUM
A government-organised entrance test in a highly privatised education sector comes with a unique bunch of problems, with coaching and tuition centres playing the role of middlemen. For every budget, there’s a coaching centre available to prep students for NEET. The success rate is, often, directly proportional to the money being paid. Sneha*, a resident of KK Nagar, cracked NEET last year and got into a college of her choice. Her parents claim to have paid Rs 1 to Rs 1.5 lakh every year starting from Class-9, just on NEET coaching. “In the last one year, I used to take at least four mock tests on my computer every week,” Sneha tells Express.
On the other end of the same spectrum is Shanmathi Priya from Erode, who made a second attempt at clearing NEET this year. Her parents are daily wage labourers who, together, earn only around Rs 95,000 a year. Still, to realise their daughter’s dream, they put her in a coaching centre and paid close to Rs 1 lakh. “I missed my first attempt because I studied in a Tamil medium school. This time, with the help of coaching, I am hoping to clear NEET.” Strategy is as much important as subject knowledge to crack NEET, says education activist PB Prince Gajendra Babu.
“Only coaching centres will teach students how to avoid negative marking, and to work on their strengths instead of being thorough. Good subject knowledge alone is not sufficient.” A similar observation was made by the former V-C of Anna University, M Anandakrishnan, way back in 2006, in his report submitted to the government on abolishing the Common Entrance Test. Speaking about the score differences of students in open and reservation categories, he said: “These students do not have the facility of coaching centres that are available to urban students and those coming from rich families.
Hence, entrance examinations create a special disadvantage for these students, even though their performance in higher secondary examinations is relatively comparable to the open category.”
Though the State government runs a free coaching programme for students, it’s far from satisfactory. For this year’s NEET, the free coaching began late – only by August last year. It was then suspended in mid-December due to local body elections. Later, the classes started but had to be paused when the lockdown came into effect in March.
PROBLEM 4: THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
When admissions were based on Board Exam marks, all that mattered was access to good teachers and textbooks. Both were provided for free or with heavy subsidies by the government. That is not the case anymore. Mock tests, smart devices, reference books… access to all of these can make a difference.
Tribal student C Ramya of Velliangadu scored 438 out of 500 in Class-10 and 421 out of 600 in Class 12. During the lockdown, the school education department helped the students access mock tests through its e-box learning software.
“But I don’t know how to operate a laptop,” says Ramya. “I also do not have an Android phone or internet facility. As a result, I missed the e-box learning opportunity.” In short, NEET ensured that students who spend lakhs on coaching, and have access to high-speed internet and latest learning techniques, compete on an equal ground with those studying on an empty stomach. In short, the system replaced equity with “equality”. Consequence: students struggling to work their way up from underprivileged backgrounds are slowly being elbowed out.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
While the government is forcing medical students into compulsory rural practice, it fails to see that aspirants from underprivileged backgrounds want to take up the profession not as a career choice but to serve their native hamlets. For them, becoming a doctor is more about improving access to healthcare for their kith and kin. Take, for instance, the story of Herthikanirani. For the last five decades, her family has been running a medical store in a village in Perambalur that has no clinic or hospital. The nearest health facility for them is a good 20 km away.
For emergencies, the family provided medicines to the entire village. Yet, when Herthikanirai’s grandfather suffered a cardiac complication, they had to travel all that distance to see a doctor. “That doctor is the reason why he is alive today. I started thinking that if I become a doctor, I could save many other people in my village, where there is no doctor.” Her parents saved up the money and put Herthikanirai in a private school in Namakkal, where special residential coaching for NEET is available, so that she can realise her dream.
Vignesh of Ariyalur had a similar dream. Last year, his father sold a piece of land they owned and pooled in Rs 3 lakh for coaching. Vignesh went to Kerala to prepare for NEET but could not crack into a government seat. This year, his father borrowed money from local lenders and paid Rs 1 lakh for coaching at a centre in Thuraiyur. That ended abruptly in March, when the lockdown was imposed. Dejected, Vignesh ended his life in September, just days before the exam.
Free coaching far from satisfactory
Though the State government runs a free coaching programme for students, it is far from satisfactory. For this year’s NEET, the free coaching began late – only by August last year. It was then suspended in mid-December due to local body polls. Later, classes started but had to be paused when the lockdown came into effect in March. Private coaching institutes have, however, been providing online sessions
90 per cent
School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan said 90 per cent of the 180 questions in the 2020 test were covered in the Tamil Nadu State Board syllabus. The updated State Board syllabus of Tamil Nadu is said to be top notch in quality. However, of what use is the syllabus if the students have no foundation in it?
The luxury of taking an year off
There has been a strong movement calling for NEET to be abolished on the grounds that it favours those who can afford and access coaching classes and go to CBSE schools. The luxury of taking a year off to study for the common entrance test is one few government school students can afford. While the State has tried to get an exemption for Tamil Nadu from the NEET, its efforts have been futile. Meanwhile, it has been upgrading the State syllabus to bring it on par with CBSE standards and providing some coaching to government school students.
In 2019, a total of 2557 students from government and government aided schools in Tamil Nadu cleared NEET. However, of them, only one student got a government quota seat
A dream instilled by hardships
Many in the rural areas of the State dream of becoming a doctor not to up their status, but to bring health services to their native hamlets which may even lack health centres. Class 10 student S Ifthika Sheereen from Peravurani, a small town in Thanjavur district, says she wants to study medicine as she was moved by the plight of her younger brother who is affected by congenital leg deformity. “I would like to pursue education and provide treatment to all persons with disabilities,” she says
With additional inputs from
N Dhamodharan, Deepak Sathish and MP Saravanan from
Coimbatore, Chandini R from Erode, Jevin from Dharmapuri,
M Sabari from Salem,
P Thiruselvam from Perambalur and N Ramesh from Thanjavur