Will the NEET debate trigger a move to refine selection process into medical courses in India?

The Tamil Nadu government has been vehemently opposing the NEET – the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

NEET exam
On Tuesday, February 8th, a special session of the Tamil Nadu assembly re-adopted a bill that seeks to dispense with the NEET examination for admission to undergraduate medical courses in the state.

On Tuesday, February 8th, a special session of the Tamil Nadu assembly re-adopted a bill that seeks to dispense with the NEET examination for admission to undergraduate medical courses in the state. The Tamil Nadu government has been vehemently opposing the NEET – the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). M K Stalin, the state chief minister, in an editorial page article in The Hindu on Wednesday, February 9th, argues against the examination on the grounds that it ends up being discriminatory and against social justice. He also points out that the examination has been challenged in 115 cases across India with his state leading the charge. He goes into reasons why his state was in favour of the NEET Exemption Bill and why he believes the NEET model is only benefiting private training institutes and marginalizes students from low-income families.

Right or wrong, the state is well within its rights to voice its concerns. But then, the debate does raise some fundamental questions about how the Indian examination model has been designed, especially in selection of students for professional courses.

First, in areas where there is element of impacting several lives as a professional – a doctor or even an engineer today, should the selection pattern be based on just one examination score. Should performance in three science subjects be the deciding factor when aptitude, empathy, knowledge of subject fundamentals areequally important especially for a doctor.

Standardisation & Uniformity

One strong argument in favour of a NEET model was the principle of standardization across the country that came with it and thereby a chance to maintain a certain standard and quality when selecting students into professional courses. “Under the circumstances, there was need for standardization across the country and NEET was the closest possible that we could get to ensure a uniformity across the country in terms of quality of talent in a crucial area like medicine and if any state has reservations against the method then it could sit across the table and get it sorted out,” says Dr Arvind Lal, chairman and managing director of Dr Lal Pathlabs, a leading chain of diagnostic centres across the country.

CBSE versus State boards

Other have argued that a state government will argue against a NEET examination because the examination is more suited for CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) board as against many state boards, which have arguably overtime diluted their syllabus. Therefore, a much better approach is to instead invest more in strengthening the state boards so students can compete much more easily at a national-level than to dilute or change the current system. Also, it has been argued that all candidates need not be from a particular state and a nationwide selection is always better.

A baseline score argument

But then, at a more fundamental level there is also a perception that the NEET examination is at best a good baseline and not a commentary on how a brilliant student in physics, chemistry and biology is just cut out to be a doctor. The head of a well known Indian pharma company, who did not wish to be named in the article, was of the view that NEET score was under the current circumstances, the only option to arrive at a standard nationwide score. But then, felt that it should be treated as just that – a score and as only one of the selection yardsticks, much like a GMAT or a SAT score into educational institutions abroad. Those scoring very high could get a direct admission while others may need to clear an added layer of interviews or individual medical college designed examination.

2018 & Now

Differences on this matter are not new. Even when the issue was looked into in 2018 and a parliamentary committee sought expert views there were differences of opinion. Dr K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), who had also made a deposition before the committee, had felt that NEET for admission to undergraduate medical course raised legitimate concerns about unequal conditions created by varied school curricula and different languages used for school education across different states and Union territories. His argument was that when state level school leaving examinations were considered valid for undergraduate admissions into prestigious Delhi colleges like St Stephens or Lady Shri Ram college then why not undergraduate medical admissions where leading national institutions like the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) network or JIPMER (Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research) conduct their own examinations.

The CMC model

Has then any alternate model worked? Some have referred to the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore. It had its own selection process before NEET. The CMC examination used to be about general ability, knowledge in English, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. This would be followed by three days of interviews with those who had cleared the written test. In the interview, elements such as ability to work alone, as members of a team, take on leadership role would all be assessed. This is apart from individual discussions with the candidates to see how well they were cut out for a career in medicine. In fact, one of CMC’s most celebrated virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang, says, “in the 40 years that I have been associated with CMC only one student was not able to complete the course and there were no drop outs.”

She feels “if education is intended to be social engineering then marks are not the only thing that count in determining who has access to different kinds of education.” And, at an undergraduate level when you are looking at a larger pool of students across different geographies then, she feels, “the only criteria in deciding the right talent cannot be just one examination score in three subjects. The selection process needs to be must more holistic.”

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First published on: 09-02-2022 at 21:59 IST