Education

Testing times

Print edition : June 09, 2017

Students coming out after finishing the NEET exam at a school in Tiruchi. Photo: M. Srinath

NEET revives the debate in Tamil Nadu on the efficacy of a centralised examination for admission to medical and dental courses which may nullify the socio-economic objectives of the State, and on the quality of the State Board’s Plus Two syllabus.

RIGHT from its inception in 2010, the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses has been dogged by controversy, first over the Medical Council of India’s (MCI) jurisdiction in notifying, in December 2010, the conduct of a single entrance examination for admission to medical courses in government-run medical colleges, private medical colleges and deemed universities and, subsequently, when it became the Central government’s responsibility to make NEET mandatory, bypassing the interests of the States.

Tamil Nadu has been in the forefront of the battle against it. The State government offered two arguments for seeking exemption from NEET: one, NEET demolished the level playing field created by it for students from rural areas through a fair and transparent system of admission to professional courses on the strength of marks scored by them in the Plus Two examination; two, that imposition of NEET was an assault on the federal structure of the Constitution and that it infringed upon the State’s rights and its admission policy for medical institutions. All the political parties in the State are united in their opposition to NEET.

NEET, a test conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) based on its syllabus, was held on May 7, 2017. The examination was held for the first time in 2016. The Centre promulgated an ordinance on May 24, 2016, exempting Tamil Nadu and some other States from NEET in respect of government seats in government and private medical colleges for 2016. This year, all the States came under the purview of NEET.

NEET aimed at ending the sale of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities to the highest bidder and stop the commercialisation of higher medical education; sparing students the agony of preparing for multiple examinations for admissions to these courses at various centres; and creating a national pool of candidates eligible for admission to medical colleges and enabling meritorious students to become doctors. Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda went on record saying that the Centre was in favour of NEET to bring in transparency in the system of admission to medical colleges. The exam was conducted on May 7 under strict vigilance and followed a set of rules, which included a dress code.

When the MCI notified the conduct of NEET, in 2010, institutions such as the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, and the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu governments filed several cases in various courts in the country. On the MCI’s request, all these cases were transferred to the Supreme Court.

In its order dated July 18, 2013, the Supreme Court quashed the notification, saying it had “no hesitation in holding that the Medical Council of India is not empowered under the [Indian Medical Council] 1956, Act, to actually conduct the NEET”. The MCI and others filed review petitions. On April 11, 2016, a Constitution Bench allowed these review petitions, recalled the July 18, 2013, judgment and directed the matter to be heard afresh. Subsequent to this, a non-governmental organisation called Sankalp Charitable Trust filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a mandamus to direct the Centre to conduct NEET for 2016-17. The Supreme Court, in its orders dated April 28, 2016, and May 9, 2016, directed the Centre to conduct NEET with immediate effect. So, NEET became mandatory for admission to medical courses.

After the Lok Sabha passed the Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill, 2016, and the Dentists (Amendment) Bill, 2016, on July 19, 2016, NEET became the sole national test to admit students to medical courses. Thus, NEET has barred Tamil Nadu from admitting students to MBBS and BDS courses in government-run and private medical colleges on the basis of the marks that students obtained in Plus Two school leaving examinations.

Until 2006, the State had its own entrance examination, called Tamil Nadu Professional Common Entrance Examination, for admission to medical and engineering courses. In 2006, after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) came to power with M. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister, the examination was scrapped. The DMK government enacted the Tamil Nadu Admission in Professional Educational Institutions Act, 2006, making admissions to undergraduate engineering and medical courses purely on the basis of marks obtained by the students in the Plus Two examination. This was done by a centralised counselling method called the single window system. The Madras High Court and the Supreme Court upheld this law. From 2007 to 2017, this was the system that prevailed in the State, until NEET was introduced.

The late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, in a letter dated October 8, 2015, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, set out her government’s opposition to NEET, saying: “....A large number of socially and economically backward, meritorious rural students had benefited by the State government’s decision to abolish the Common Entrance Test.”

NEET would nullify these socio-economic objectives of the State, she argued.

She told Modi that her government’s consistent stand was that rural students and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds “were unable to compete with urban, elite students in such common tests, which are designed to favour the urban elite”. The rural students “lacked the resources to enrol in training institutions and access materials available to urban students”.

In another letter to Modi, dated May 24, 2016, Jayalalithaa, while advancing her earlier arguments against NEET, flagged a new issue. In providing admissions to postgraduate medical courses, the State government gave preference to those doctors who served in rural areas, with special weightage for those working in hilly and tribal areas.

The State government had also successfully obtained and enforced bonds from those completing their postgraduate medical education in government medical colleges to serve the State government for a minimum period [of two years], which had helped the State to meet its specialist medical manpower in government hospitals. But the introduction of NEET would “nullify” these socio-economic objectives of the State because the regulations of a national test might not have these enabling provisions, she said.

After Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, O. Panneerselvam, who was made Chief Minister, and Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who succeeded him, echoed Jayalalithaa’s standpoint on NEET in their letters to Modi. In his speech at the third Governing Council meeting of NITI Aayog on April 23, 2017, Palaniswami asserted: “Tamil Nadu’s admission system protects the interests of students, particularly from the weaker sections and rural areas because such students cannot compete with the urban, elite students in Common Entrance Examinations. A large number of socially and economically backward, meritorious rural students have benefited by the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to abolish the Common Entrance Examinations.”

Against the interest of students

Headmasters of schools, both serving and retired, are unanimous on two issues. They said NEET would go against the interests of students from rural areas and other disadvantaged sections, for there were no coaching centres in villages and small towns to prepare them for NEET, and rural-based students would not be able to afford the hefty fees charged by coaching centres located in faraway towns and cities.

Secondly, they blamed the government for failing to introduce a challenging State Board syllabus at the Plus One and Plus Two levels on a par with the CBSE syllabus. The State Board’s Plus Two syllabus had not been changed or upgraded since 2006, they said. The textbooks had also not been changed.

Besides, while the State Board Plus Two examination was rote-based, which induced students “to cram, memorise and merely reproduce”, the CBSE examination system was application-oriented. They dealt with concepts. The CBSE questions were of “top quality” and induced students “to think”, the headmasters said. All of them stressed that while the State Board syllabus for Plus Two classes was “good”, there was a dire need to “upgrade” and “update” it.

T. Padmanabhan, headmaster, Pennathur Subramaniam Higher Secondary School, Chennai, said rural students would definitely suffer under NEET because “they do not have exposure or means to update their knowledge”. Besides, there were no schools in rural areas that offered the CBSE syllabus. “The State Board syllabus does not support the NEET system,” Padmanabhan said.

The State Board syllabus for classes 11 and 12 “has not been updated periodically”, he said. Only the names of topics in some subjects underwent a change “but the content remains the same”. For instance, he said, the content of electronics was not rich. Padmanabhan, who teaches physics at the Plus Two level, suggested that Tamil Nadu be permitted to conduct a separate examination for admission to government medical colleges in the State. “Those who want admissions in medical colleges in other parts of the country can take NEET,” he said.

T.P. Janakiraman, former Headmaster, DRBCCC Higher Secondary School, Perambur, Chennai, said “NEET is not fair” because students who studied the State Board syllabus “do not have the exposure” to meet the challenges posed by NEET questions. “Some weightage could have been given to students who have not been exposed to the CBSE syllabus,” he said. There could have been reservation this year for students of State Board schools, he said.

Janakiraman, 86, said NEET was “a race among the unequals” in the sense that the standard of the CBSE syllabus was much higher than that of the State Board syllabus and students from rural areas had to compete with the privileged ones from urban areas.

Both Janakiraman and P.S. Subramanian, former principal, St. Mary’s Matriculation Boys’ Higher Secondary School, Perambur, said separately that the bane of the State Board examination system was that it was memory based. Janakiraman, who was also the headmaster of DRBCCC Hindu Higher Secondary School at Tiruvallur, found fault with the State Board’s examination system which entailed that no question should be asked outside the syllabus. Besides, State Board examinations had “blueprints” for question papers in various subjects, Janakiraman said.

The question paper setters were told “not to deviate” from the blueprints and no question should be asked outside of the textbook. “So if we upgrade our syllabus and change the examination pattern, our students will do well,” he said. The Andhra Pradesh State Board has been constantly revising its syllabus and the majority of students who join the Indian Institutes of Technology [IITs] were from Andhra Pradesh. “We should definitely revise our syllabus,” Janakiraman said.

Subramanian was clear that NEET was loaded against rural-based students. “There are only a few coaching centres even in cities. There are none in rural areas. Where there are a lot of private schools, coaching centres may come up,” he said. But students from poor families would not be able to pay the exorbitant fees that these coaching institutions would charge. Subramanian, therefore, suggested that headmasters and senior teachers themselves take special classes and coach the students after 4 p.m. Teachers had to equip themselves for this. Students should prepare themselves to write NEET.

“In NEET and CBSE examinations, the questions will not be direct. They will be application- and mathematics-oriented,” he said. He pointed out how the State Board students found the biology questions in NEET easy but said the questions in the physics and chemistry papers were tough because they were application-oriented.

Fr L. Gilbert, headmaster, St. Bede’s Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, Chennai, also contended that rural students did not have enough opportunities to tackle NEET. “Some of the students feel that the State Board syllabus is not adequate to prepare for NEET,” he said. It had “only a few basics” in different subjects. The students themselves had to “build up” on those basics. “Actually, [the State Board Plus Two syllabus offered] no chance for an in-depth study” of the subjects, Fr Gilbert said. The general opinion and “the talk of the town” was that State Board students would not be able to crack NEET.

State Education Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan has promised to revamp the Plus Two syllabus to meet NEET requirements.

P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN), attacked NEET on other grounds. He alleged that “the purpose of NEET is to satisfy GATS” [General Agreement on Trade in Services] and he was sure that NEET would destroy “the strongly built” public health system in Tamil Nadu. The State, from 2007, had been admitting students under the single window system to MBBS and BDS courses on the basis of the marks they had scored in the higher secondary examination and this had helped staff the primary health centres, taluk and district hospitals, and so on, with qualified medical doctors, he said.

“So, for five years [two plus three years], a doctor is made available for government service. Most of the villages have PHCs and there are government doctors working there. Tamil Nadu is ranked high in public health care in various indices. India has given an offer letter to GATS that it will open up market access to education and health sectors,” Prince Gajendra Babu said.

In GATS’ assessment, if private medical colleges and deemed universities had their own system of admission, rules and regulations in various States, it would be a hindrance to the market, he claimed. “So you bring in an all-India benchmark [like NEET]. Once you bring in such a benchmark, students can be admitted to any medical college in India and it will provide market access to the health sector.... That is the purpose of NEET. It is to satisfy GATS,” Prince Gajendra Babu argued.

What is puzzling is that the two Bills passed by the State Assembly unanimously on January 31, 2017, seeking permanent exemption from NEET never made it to the President’s office for his assent. They were lying with the Union Home Ministry for three months. This fact came to light in a reply sent by the President’s Secretariat to a letter sent by T.K. Rangarajan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha, to the President on April 17. Rangarajan had forwarded a copy of the memorandum sent by Prince Gajendra Babu on the two Bills to the President. While the Tamil Nadu Admission to MBBS and BDS Courses Act, 2017, aimed at continuing admission on the basis of marks obtained in the higher secondary examination, the Tamil Nadu Admission to Postgraduate Courses in Medicine and Dentistry Act, 2017, aimed at continuing the extant system of admission to postgradaute courses in medicine and dentistry in the State.

In his letter, Rangarajan pointed out that Tamil Nadu had the largest number of government-run medical colleges in the country and these 24 colleges charged a nominal fee, enabling even poor students to pursue medical education.

The President’s Secretariat, in its reply to Rangarajan on April 20, said his letter had been forwarded to the Union Home Ministry for appropriate attention “as no such Bills/ordinances have been received so far for the assent of the President in this Secretariat”. Prince Gajendra Babu said: “The Centre, sitting on the Bills for the past three months, shows its disrespect to the Constitution.” Why the two Bills were never forwarded to the President’s Secretariat is a mystery. Justice D. Paranthaman, retired judge of the Madras High Court, called it “total deliberate inaction on the part of the Central government”.

NEET was not concerned about the socially or educationally backward classes and it was concerned only about merit, Prince Gajendra Babu, said. “The affluent will completely occupy the medical colleges,” he alleged.

On April 14, 2017, Nadda said the State government could consider giving reservation to rural students to allay their concerns. Tamil Nadu was well within its rights to provide special consideration to students from rural areas, he stressed.

The fee structure for private and deemed universities would be decided by the State-level committee headed by judges. He made it clear on July 19, 2016, that NEET would not disturb State quota. The State Governments could fill 85 per cent of the MBBS and BDS seats.

“The all-India quota of 15 per cent set by the Supreme Court will remain as it is. The rest of the 85 per cent seats will remain with the States. Under NEET, we will write out the names of successful candidates, their domicile, rank and percentage and hand it over to the State, which can allot seats according to caste, creed and other aspects,” Nadda told the Lok Sabha.

Judge’s concern

But not everybody seems to be against NEET. On March 15, 2017, Justice N. Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court asked the State government: “Are you not ashamed to seek exemption from NEET?” The judge raised the question while hearing two petitions seeking directions to the State government to implement the Postgraduate Medical Education Regulations, 2000, and appropriate 50 per cent of the seats from private medical colleges so that they could be allotted to meritorious students who qualified for NEET 2017 through counselling.

When the Additional Government Pleader, Rajagopalan, replied that the State Assembly had already passed a Bill seeking permanent exemption from NEET and that it was awaiting the President’s assent, Justice Kirubakaran wondered on what basis the exemption was sought.

“Do you underestimate the ability of our students and the standard of education in Tamil Nadu? If it is so, can we conclude that Tamil Nadu has not provided standard education to its students?” he asked.

Justice Kirubakaran highlighted another important issue pertaining to NEET when he said: “It is argued that NEET would affect the interests of rural students in pursuing medical courses, but I believe that other States who are not opposing NEET also have villages and rural students.” ( The Hindu, Chennai edition, March 16, 2017)

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