The Tamil Nadu government has got itself into a big mess regarding medical college admissions this year. It has shown its ineptitude in dealing with the rule that all medical college admissions should be based solely on the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, or NEET. Tamil Nadu is the only state which is still resisting NEET. The neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala have all fallen in line. By rejecting NEET, the state government has caused a great amount of uncertainty regarding medical admissions this year, which have already been delayed by a month.
Tamil Nadu has been saying that education is a state subject and that the Centre cannot infringe on its rights. Admissions to professional colleges in the state are based on 12th board exam marks. As followed by most of the states, students of Tamil Nadu need not write entrance exams. Until 2005, admissions were based on the 12th board marks and an entrance exam. From 2006 onwards, the practice of the entrance exam was discontinued and admissions were based on 12th board marks alone. Students writing state board exams have clearly been at an advantage over the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and matriculation students. Those who follow other than state boards have done comparatively better in all-India entrance tests.
NEET is an entrance examination for students who wish to study a graduate medical course, dental course or postgraduate course in any government or private medical college in India. It is conducted by CBSE. NEET replaced the All-India Pre-Medical Test and all individual MBBS exams conducted by states or the colleges themselves in 2013.
NEET, which was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013, was restored in April last year, after a five-judge constitution bench recalled the earlier verdict and allowed the Centre and the Medical Council of India (MCI) to implement the common entrance test. However, last year, following requests from states like Tamil Nadu, a law was passed granting an exemption from NEET, only for government colleges, for one year.
Tamil Nadu has had a long convoluted history with medical admissions. For many years, they have not been merit-based. The moment the private sector was allowed to set up medical colleges in the state, a new money-making mechanism got started. Seats could be bought for enormous sums of money. Justice K Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, who has been following the admission chaos for many years, said, “Sixty-five years of confusion, wrong policy decisions and various changes in the law allowed many ineligible candidates to become doctors. The government was quite aware of what was going on. The courts have set aside many of the wrong rules. However, they have also allowed the students who have been already admitted to continue.”
The Tamil Nadu government’s arguments about NEET are all untenable. They say that allowing NEET is against social justice. Reservations for the underprivileged will be abandoned. You cannot ask students studying in Tamil language to write the tests in English and Hindi. As NEET is CBSE-based, students appearing under the state board will be at a clear disadvantage.
Union health minister JP Nadda has said that for the students of the state board or for those from a rural background, the state government has full freedom to have its own reservation policy. It is up to the state government to take a call and it can give a “special reservation” to such students. In these 65 years, there has never been any complaint of students falling under reservations being deprived of a seat. As far as Tamil medium students are concerned, it has been announced that students can take the exams in Tamil for NEET. Several other languages have also been included.
What the Tamil Nadu government is not saying is that medical education in the state has never been inclusive. According to data collected through RTI, only 0.7% of MBBS students in government medical colleges and 1.1% in private colleges come from government schools across the state. In fact, government school students could secure only 213 of the 29,925 seats in government medical colleges. It is even less in the case of private colleges, where only 65 seats were obtained by students from state-run schools, according to a report in the New Indian Express. The data is for the period between 2006 and 2016. The cause of social justice has been ill-served by the successive governments.
Having failed to prepare students under its school education board for the much more demanding NEET, the state attempted a last ditch attempt to save face. It passed an Act to reserve 85% of the seats for Tamil Nadu board students in state-run medical colleges. The problem was that classifying students based on the board through which they passed their higher secondary examination was legally impermissible. A single judge of the Madras High Court struck down the order. A division bench also upheld the decision. They said that it is up to the state government to upgrade its syllabus and infrastructure so that students from Tamil Nadu do not lag behind their counterparts elsewhere. The state government could not defend before the judiciary its bizarre decision.
With all the toing and froing between NEET, assembly and the judiciary, students are getting a raw deal. Just when they thought they were going to get their seats based on NEET results, there has been yet another development because of political compulsions. It is well known that the BJP wants a toehold in Tamil Nadu and is trying to get the warring factions of the AIADMK together to get their support.
In its desperation to get around the NEET barrier, the state government had passed two Bills seeking to preserve its existing system of admitting students to medical and dental courses based on class 12 marks. Union commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman said a few days ago that the Centre is ready to cooperate with Tamil Nadu in its efforts to obtain a one-time exemption from NEET and has promised to give it a reprieve for a year. The Bills are waiting for the President’s assent. The students are also waiting.