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Vol. XXIX No. 5, June 16-30, 2019

NEET – Need to prepare for, and not politicise it

by A Special Correspondent

Much has been written, debated and politicised about NEET and its implications for Tamil Nadu students. The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test is the single threshold for admission to undergraduate MBBS and BDS courses in government and private colleges in the country. Now that the results of the 2019 test are available, it is time to analyse them and take an objective position on how to enable students to realise their aspiration.

The bona fides and purpose of NEET cannot be questioned when it seeks to set up one single common test for eligibility for admission to medical and dental colleges in the whole country in place of numerous tests of varying standards set by state governments and private institutions often giving room, thereby, for abuse and rigging. Multiplicity of admission criteria does not make for transparency, equity and fairness and is grossly against the interests of students themselves. In the system, as it prevailed, poorer classes were out-bid and the standard of the medical profession got compromised. In the circumstances, the short-sighted populism of agitating for total or selective abolition of NEET must be dismissed as a regressive step.

Education is a subject on the concurrent list, constitutionally allowing the Centre and the States to take decisions, necessarily, in close coordination. Introduction of NEET has led some to see it as a threat to federalism and justify the ­demand for making Education an exclusive State subject. States having exclusive say would lead to chaotic variations in syllabus in different parts of the country producing doctors of varying standards.

An objection is that NEET would harm the interests of students in the State, and, in particular, those from weaker sections and rural areas. The problem can be dissected into two parts. First, in Tamil Nadu, selection to medical colleges was by marks under the State Board syllabus which is lower than the CBSE standard. The CBSE syllabus as the basis for NEET, it is said, places State Board students at a disadvantage. This difficulty is valid wherever a syllabus lower than that of CBSE prevails and the affected States are taking steps to bring about parity. Similar reforms may be introduced in the foreseeable future, to make selection to other professional courses also equitable and transparent. Tamil Nadu must, in stages, upgrade the syllabus for the State Board examinations to prepare for such progress. In the interim, a bridge course to coach students for NEET must be institutionalised and regulated.

Of concern is the second part of the problem, which is more challenging – of government-run and aided schools lagging because of poor teacher quality and lack of accountability. Government teachers are adequately compensated and that cannot be the excuse for poor service. Students from the government institutions have not been able to cope with NEET despite coaching. Experts say that coaching cannot add value when students lack grasp of basic concepts. Special attention to enable this is unavailable. Some parents, disregarding the free education in government-run schools, desperately seek admission into private schools paying large fees and capitation, borrowing at high interest rates. Similar is the problem faced by rural students. Both these classes have been unable to meet even the relaxed criteria extended by the State “exercising the right to determine admission policies to medical educational institutions under the government’s policy”. In the circumstances, there is no meeting point between the capacity of these students and the entry standard under NEET. Any amount of relaxing eligibility will not help. NEET is not the villain but it has exposed the poor state of teaching efficiency in government schools. Students of government institutions are not yet ready for the CBSE standard of tests. Mentoring is required to advise these students to be realistic and choose diplomas for technical skills within their reach, at the same time, encouraging only the exceptional ones capable of breaking out of the system to achieve the difficult to take up NEET. Thousands appearing and thousands failing is cruel in its mass effect on young minds leading some to commit the extreme act of suicide.

Tamil Nadu should welcome NEET as part of modernisation of the selection process for admission to professional courses. That 14 lakh students in the country appeared for NEET and 8 lakh have qualified for 6,000 seats in MBBS and BDS shows the magnitude of demand and the need for a transparent selection process. NEET is advantageous in several respects. By avoiding multiplicity of tests for admission NEET reduces the pressure on students who had to prepare for several tests for the same admission paying multiple entrance fees and travelling to many venues. NEET does not interfere with the reservation system as operated by State governments. Nearly 69 percent of medical seats in Tamil Nadu were in the reserved category but based on Class 12 marks. Now the rankings will be based on NEET scores, reservation remaining at 69 percent. NEET, conducted twice a year, offers two opportunities instead of the earlier single chance a year. NEET allows students to answer in anyone of ten regional languages to help those studying in Indian languages.

To enable students in Tamil Nadu to adjust themselves to the new requirement a one-time exemption from NEET was made applicable only for admission to government medical institutions and the government quota seats in private medical colleges. Having availed of this breather, a total of 1,23,078 students appeared for NEET in 2019 from Tamil Nadu and 59,785 cleared the test. While last year 39.56 percent of the total candidates in the State had cleared the test, in 2019 the percentage has risen to 48.57 percent. The cut-off mark for the open category has also increased this year by 60 marks over 424 for the previous year due to overall increase in performance level. Another encouraging feature is that 1329 students scored more than 550 marks compared to only 81 in 2018. All these are indicative of the effect of coaching programmes to overcome the gap between NEET and State Board standards and of the ability of Tamil Nadu students to adapt to the new system given time and the support. As such, restraint is necessary in misusing an unfortunate incident or two to justify the demand for reversing a reform that is overdue.

The persisting failure of students of government-run and aided schools to rise to opportunities is the continuing challenge. This section had only one student scoring more than 400 marks out of 19,680 that took the test compared to 5,634 students from private schools crossing the 400 mark. The problem in government schools calls for urgent reform as it affects the destiny of socially and economically disadvantaged children, presently unable to avail of opportunities because of poor services. NEET is a mirror to the government on the state of the education system.

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