NEET or not: Calls to scrap exam gain traction

NEET or not: Calls to scrap exam gain traction

One of the most politicised issues in the recent past, NEET is a highly emotive topic in Tamil Nadu

An aspirant looks for her seat number before appearing in National Eligibility cum Entrance Test-2021 (NEET) at an examination centre in Kolkata. Credit: PTI File Photo

A string of suicides and subsequent protests have brought back the spotlight on the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), a political hot potato for the Tamil Nadu government which is seeking exemption for its students from the highly competitive medical entrance exam. 

The DMK-led government has passed a Bill to scrap the contentious test and also made public a report submitted by a high-level committee constituted to assess the social impact of NEET. The panel, headed by Justice (retired) A K Rajan, concluded that NEET discriminates against students from government schools and rural areas. It also said that the entrance exam attempts to replace "learning with coaching".

Also read: SC sets aside 'unnecessary observation' by Madras HC on EWS reservation in NEET AIQ

The committee has used available data to deduce that NEET is against "social justice" that puts rural students at a disadvantage when compared to those who study in urban areas. However, the figures are being contested by pro-NEET crusaders, who accuse the panel of using “data selectively” and speaking from assumptions.

After the Bill was passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, there were murmurs from non-BJP-ruled West Bengal and Maharashtra that they should also follow suit. Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Nana Patole wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asking him to emulate the TN model. He also red-flagged the irregularities that are being reported in the conduct of NEET.

One of the most politicised issues in the recent past, NEET is a highly emotive topic in Tamil Nadu, with at least 14 students taking their lives either due to fear of appearing for the exam or having failed to make it to a medical college. Dravidian majors DMK and AIADMK are on the same page on NEET but accuse each other of being responsible for the entrance exam.

Electoral promise

The NEET was announced in 2010 during UPA-II (the exam was first conducted in 2013), in which the DMK was an integral part, but the regional party says the state was exempted then and it was the BJP that made the exam compulsory in 2016. The issue is so political that doing away with the exam or any step towards it is part of the election manifesto — the Bill itself is the fulfilment of DMK’s electoral promise, but the ball is in the Centre’s court.

Many states did oppose NEET at its nascent stage but came around eventually. But Tamil Nadu has been consistent in its opposition, viewing NEET as an “assault” on the federal structure that prevents the state from having its own admission model. 

Tamil Nadu’s aversion to entrance exams is not new. In 2007, the then DMK government abolished entrance exams for admissions into medical and professional courses by making the marks scored in plus-two exam the sole criterion.

This is the second time that the state Assembly has passed a Bill nullifying the exam for the state — the first legislation was rejected by the President of India in 2017. 

Justice (retired) D Hariparanthaman says the Bill is legally valid, given education is on the concurrent list of the Constitution that allows both the Centre and the states to legislate on the subject.

"The bill is legally valid, but it will be signed into law only if the President puts his seal of approval. The Union government should accept the Bill and allow it to become a law. While this may be the logic, politics may ultimately decide the outcome,” he told DH.

Legal battle

With the Centre unlikely to heed, the only option before the state is to move the Supreme Court. Even if the petition is admitted, the legal battle will be long, which will only add to students’ anxiety.

"NEET is a clear attack on the federal structure of the country. Shouldn't states be allowed to frame their own admission policy? Tamil Nadu, which invested hugely in medical infrastructure, has no say in the admission process with the advent of NEET. Is this federalism,” asked Dr J Amalorpavanathan, the man behind Tamil Nadu’s organ donation system.

Those who oppose NEET call it “pro-elite” as extensive coaching is needed to crack the exam, which the “majority” cannot afford. They point to the recent incidents of question papers being leaked for lakhs of rupees in Rajasthan and the busting of a NEET racket in Maharashtra to argue that the exam does not ensure equality as is being claimed. 

Also read: NEET thwarts medical dream of underprivileged groups: Tamil Nadu panel

Tamil Nadu believes admissions via plus-two marks is the best method that will allow students from socially and economically disadvantaged sections to study medicine. However, those who support NEET project the exam as the panacea for all “previous injustice” rendered to rural students.

“NEET is necessary for a country like India and only a common entrance test can ensure equality in our society. The opposition to NEET in Tamil Nadu is purely political. If students in the state are not able to crack NEET, it is because of the syllabus. While other states upgraded their syllabus on par with CBSE, the DMK government in 2006 downgraded it,” E Balagurusamy, former vice-chancellor of Anna University, told DH.

However, Dr Amalorpavanathan, also a member of the State Planning Commission, strongly contests the view that the syllabus has a role to play in medical admissions. “If one must test the analytical capacity of students, it should be done after they complete MBBS and not at the pre-admission stage,” he told DH.

Contending that the majority of the students crack NEET only after attending coaching classes, Amalorpavanathan said the exam discriminates against those from rural areas and economically backward sections besides women as it allows multiple attempts.

“Family pressure will force many women students to opt out if they don’t clear the exam in the first attempt, but a male student will be allowed to appear multiple times, which would lead to male privilege. This will mean fewer female doctors in Primary Health Centres,” he said.

Need for a study

Dr S Sacchidanand, former vice-chancellor, Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Karnataka, said a study was needed to understand whether NEET has affected rural students or those who have been taught in their regional languages.

“There was a need to bring uniformity and NEET has made it possible. Students who could not travel to different places to take several exams for medical admissions did not have the same opportunities before NEET. So a study is needed to see whether it has any impact on rural and language-medium students,” he said.

In defence of NEET, Balagurusamy said coaching classes have become part of the education culture in India.

“Even when admissions were based on plus-two marks, coaching centres thrived in Tamil Nadu and other parts. Instead of blaming such centres, state governments should prepare students for NEET by upgrading syllabus at regular intervals and providing coaching for competitive exams,” he added.

However, Bengaluru-based educationist Ali Khwaja feels the standardised testing method always puts disadvantaged groups at an even more disadvantaged position. A one-size-fits-all approach to qualification is not the right way, he said.

“Most of these exams are based on the CBSE syllabus, those who haven’t had access to that have a lot of ground to cover. We should adopt a positive perspective and see how we can pump up students instead of letting them fall behind,” he said.

P M Yazhini, a medical doctor, flags a different problem altogether. She says Tamil Nadu will face a shortage of super-speciality doctors with the Supreme Court cancelling domicile reservation and discontinuing in-service quota. 

“The in-service quota allowed many doctors to work in rural areas and get admission into super-speciality courses in the way of quota. With the advent of NEET and Supreme Court rulings, all seats now go to the All-India quota. We are witnessing how doctors from other states who pursue the super-speciality course in Tamil Nadu are not interested in working here,” she said.

(With inputs from Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai and Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)