On the NEET Examination
THE confusion surrounding the National Eligibility Entrance Examination (NEET) -- a centralised entrance for the MBBS, BDS and PG medical courses --ended in the last week of May, with President Pranab Mukherjee’s assent to the ordinance brought by the central government following the Supreme Court ruling, which called for holding NEET from this year itself. Now, what does this mean in effective terms? The passing of this ordinance means that the Supreme Court ruling has been ‘partially overturned’ and state governments will now have a year to prepare for the NEET examinations, which will be held from the 2017-18 academic year.
CBSE used to conduct All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) until 2012, when the central government introduced unified test for the medical admissions. These tests were scheduled to take place from 2012 onwards, but had to be deferred by one year due to opposition from various states and private colleges. More than 80 cases opposing the NEET were filed by February 2013 (two by state governments and rest by the private and minority institutions). While the private institutions were concerned about the ‘loss of control over the admissions’, minority institutions were worried about the ‘erosion of the minority character’. NEET was held for the first time in May 2013. A three-member bench of the Supreme Court in a verdict on the validity of the NEET examinations held that the ‘MCI and the Dental Council of India lacked the legal authority to control admissions to MBBS, BDS and PG courses across the country’. A review petition challenging this judgement was filed by the MCI on October 23, 2013. This case had been continuing ever since and Supreme Court decided to reserve its judgment on April 7, 2016. On April 11, 2016, the constitution bench of the Supreme Court recalled the 2013 judgment, which had raised questions over the legal standing of the MCI and the DCI in conducting such exams. The apex court order also revived government’s December 21, 2010 notification for holding a single common entrance test through NEET with a clarification that any challenge on the issue would directly come before it and no high court can interfere in it. On April 28, 2016 the Supreme Court paves way for holding of NEET in two phases for the academic year 2016-17 with May 1 AIPMT exam to be considered NEET-1 and NEET-2 for those candidates who have not appeared in the first phase exam.
This gave way for another round of caustic criticism from most of the state governments and private institutions. The governments of those states have been most proactive, which have a large concentration of private medical colleges. Almost all the state governments held the belief that the examinations should be held from next year since holding the exam this year would not give any time for the students to prepare. The central government on the other hand, cited ‘practical difficulties’ in holding the exams this year. Supreme Court in its judgment on May 9 rejected the pleas of state governments and minority institutions to allow them to hold separate entrance exams for MBBS and BDS courses for the academic year 2016-17. However, the court has allowed all candidates who could not appear in NEET-I and those who had appeared but have apprehension that they had not prepared well, be permitted to appear in NEET-II, subject to seeking an option from the said candidates to give up their candidature for NEET-I. At this juncture, the central government called a meeting of the health ministers of various states. An all party meeting was also convened on the issue. What was shocking though was that the central government unnecessarily delayed such efforts and caused immense stress for students who are giving exams this year. In the all party meeting, all political parties except the PDP and the SP agreed to the suggestion of holding NEET examinations from next year.
Various positive suggestions came up in the all party meeting. Most important among these suggestions were two. First, NEET in the present form and structure is not acceptable to majority of stakeholders and hence it should be changed. Second, following deferment of implementation of the SC judgment for the current year, the government should hold in depth consultation with all the state governments and other stakeholders in the intervening period to arrive at a consensus as to how and in what system the medical entrance examination should be held and how state's right would be protected.
As far as the SFI is concerned, the CEC statement saw NEET in following terms: “NEET is different from the proposals of centralised entrances for undergraduate courses, due to the difference in the very nature of the medical discipline. While it is true that NEET would avoid multiple entrance tests and minimise corruption and irregularities in admissions to medical courses; many other questions remain unanswered.” These ‘other questions’ included issues related to the non-parity between the CBSE and the state board syllabi, the impact of NEET on the students from the marginalised sections, the impact on reservation policies of various states and the demand of making available the question papers in the vernacular languages.
The main rationale behind NEET is the futility of having multiple medical entrance examinations in the country. There are about 35 entrance tests for admission to the 412 medical colleges in the country. In 2009, Simran Jain and others filed a petition against the multitude of tests resulting in a Supreme Court direction to consider the possibility of holding a single national test. In December 2010, the MCI issued a notification to conduct the NEET subjecting all admissions, including in reserved seats, to the ranking obtained in the examination. (What followed next has been covered in the previous section.)
The concept of entrance tests started with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, followed by some government and private colleges. Many states admitted students based on Class XII marks. Even now, many states including Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala offer some medical seats based on the scores in the class XII state board examinations. As per a 1984 Supreme Court judgment, all government colleges were directed to set aside 30 percent of the seats, later reduced to 15 percent, for open admission on all-India basis, giving birth to the annually held All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT).
The main arguments in favour of NEET include -- first, multiple and often overlapping medical entrance exams. Second, rampant malpractices and corruption in the medical admissions, often keeping aside the merit considerations. (This became even more apparent following the killer Vyapam scandal of Madhya Pradesh). Thirdly, it is claimed that it will help bring some uniformity in the entrants to the medical profession in the country. While the first point is easily understood, there is still lack of clarity on how NEET will help get rid of the other two discrepancies. For instance, it may be postulated that with a centralised examination, the costs of the malpractices in admissions might go up, eventually widening the size of this black market. As far as the question of uniform standards is concerned, it cannot be achieved through such cosmetic efforts as long as a dual system of school, education exists in this country. A massive expansion of school education system with emphasis towards common school system is the only way forward if one is serious about the academic standards of the entrants in the professional and higher education sector.
Questions have been raised in some quarters that any move towards having uniform examination with uniform syllabi is in effect a move towards centralisation. There is a need of some deliberation on this point. A centralised exam and uniform syllabi in a subject like humanities or social science is fundamentally different from the same in basic sciences, owing to the difference in relation of the subject with the social surroundings. Hence, if adequate care is taken regarding the question paper in multiple languages, reservation policy, examination centres in geographically remote areas of the country etc, then this cannot be labelled as ‘centralisation’. This more so ever when there are ample evidences suggesting how multiple entrances have become a money making business for the private colleges and the coaching industry. A question might arise now and rightly so that what defines the model for the unified syllabi or why the NCERT syllabus is the best fit for it.
The overarching fear is that NEET will provide a huge advantage to students of Delhi-headquartered boards such as the Central Board of Secondary Education. Students from these boards also tend to be urban, upper caste, rich and less likely to be from non-Hindi states, apart from the principal language of non-Hindi states not being their first language. We have already witnessed how privatisation of school education has displaced the state boards to a considerable extent. There are apprehensions that if adequate measures are not taken then this may lead to further weakening of state boards -- which goes against the constitutional status of education as a ‘concurrent list’ item.
All this is not to underestimate the importance or scope of NEET, but to stress that NEET in itself cannot be a solution to all woes. What is required is a multi-pronged strategy -- one, serious effort to stem out the role of the ruling class’ politician-bureaucrat nexus in the admissions in the professional education. Second, ensuring that NEET does not give rise to another IIT-JEE coaching industry, which leads to a situation wherein the success or failure in the examination, becomes a function of the availability or unavailability of private coaching. Third, qualitative advancement in the public school education, as has been pointed above.
There are some who feel that an exit (on the lines of the All India Bar Examination for Lawyers) examination might help in maintaining uniformity between the doctors who are coming out of our medical colleges. In fact, a ministerial decision in this regard was taken in 2010 based on the MCI recommendations. Such a view ignores the root cause behind the presence of a large number of unregulated, sub-standard medical colleges, which lie at the heart of the problem. Any effort in this direction hence has to start by working towards bringing all such unscrupulous and unregulated institutions under scanner. It cannot be taken as a case for dismantling the MCI altogether, which many of the apologists of privatisation have been arguing. Efforts in this direction have been made in the recent past. In 2010, pushed by the PMO, a draft bill revamping the MCI and replacing it with the National Commission for Human Resources for Health (NCHRH) was tabled in the Rajya Sabha. In October 2012, this was returned to the ministry with concerns of violation of federalism and autonomy of states, centralisation and faulty selection procedure of regulators, providing scope for abuse. SFI has been arguing that checking the education mafia and depleting standards in the private institutions will essentially require a legislation, which can bring such institutions under social control. On the contrary, we are today witnessing a process where public money is being shifted to private institutions without any public accountability what so ever.