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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The anti-NEET movement in Tamil Nadu is misguided
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The anti-NEET movement in Tamil Nadu is misguided

Emotive politics over medical admissions mustn’t get the better of what’s good for Indian healthcare

The anti-NEET bill and protests raise larger concerns about the role of education and the power of petty politics to affect the social rubric. Premium
The anti-NEET bill and protests raise larger concerns about the role of education and the power of petty politics to affect the social rubric.

Suicides related to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the controversy around medical seats in Tamil Nadu being put outside the purview of NEET for admission to undergraduate medical courses are unfortunate and raise serious concerns. Tamil Nadu has opposed the NEET since it was made compulsory in 2017. The test was alleged to be inimical to the interests of its state board students since it is conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In 2021, the state’s government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of a retired high court judge, Justice A.K. Rajan, to study the impact of NEET on medical admissions in Tamil Nadu. The 165-page report (bit.ly/47qNIYm) invoked “social justice" and “protection of vulnerable student communities from discrimination" in medical college admissions and cited “social accountability and professional ethics" as part of the Hippocratic Oath of physicians. It linked medical education to social accountability and called for more diversity in the medical student base.

The report dismissed the NEET on the grounds of it being based on a “rote framework" drawn from only three subjects (biology, chemistry and physics), and not on common standards and criteria. It criticized the test’s content-based multiple choice format as a poor substitute for the more holistic school-based/board exam. Questioning the NEET’s lack of “predictive validity" on the success of students in higher studies, it argued that board exam scores provide a “reasonable yardstick" to “measure and predict the student’s academic ability and readiness to pursue medical education." The report condemned the NEET as promoting a coaching culture rather than learning, and as perpetrating cultural, regional, linguistic, and socio-economic biases that go against disadvantaged groups. It was alleged to favour CBSE students who attend coaching classes, study in private English-medium schools and are from affluent urban backgrounds. Further, based on a range of statistics to ‘prove’ that Tamil-medium students had a raw deal compared to their English- medium counterparts, the report called for state legislation to drop the NEET.

Based on this report, the Tamil Nadu government passed an anti-NEET bill, titled the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, 2021, which sought to replace the NEET with Class XII marks as the criterion for medical admissions in the state. The bill, rejected by the state’s governor in 2022, currently awaits the President’s assent amid a spate of controversial suicides.

However, the anti-NEET bill and protests raise larger concerns about the role of education and the power of petty politics to affect the social rubric. The field of Indian medical education is highly skewed, with 85% of seats in government-run medical colleges across states already reserved for domiciles of the respective states, with only 15% being all-India quota seats. Any such bill will merely ensure that 85% of seats are filled through Class XII marks rather than a common entrance test. The assumption that such a system would be more ‘equal’ is riddled with biases and assumptions about the nature of the existing playing field for various social groups in the state. Tamil Nadu already has the highest reservation quota (of 69%) among all Indian states. With this policy putting upper-caste students at a relative disadvantage, as open seats are too few, the state has seen an exodus of deserving students from these groups. The anti-NEET bill will exacerbate existing flaws in the state education system and also promote lower diversity.

Education, especially medical education, should be founded on equity rather than mere equality. The assertion that Tamil- medium students should be given an equal chance as English-medium students, assuming no disparities in educational quality among their respective schools, is fundamentally flawed. Emphasizing equality in this context could promote mediocrity and complacency, especially within schools, which need the most improvement. The bill has the potential to worsen existing inequities by stipulating that 7.5% of all seats, where admission would be based on Class XII marks, must be reserved horizontally for students who have studied in government schools from classes six to 12.

Importantly, physicians entrusted with healing people and saving lives must be competent in their chosen fields. Using a ‘nativity’ argument and considering the comprehension of “complex social structures and beliefs" as a selection criterion, as proposed in the report, diminishes the sanctity of the Hippocratic oath. Would other common entrance tests for engineering, management and the civil services also be subject to such arguments?

Equally surprising is the naïve suggestion that abolishing the NEET and relying solely on Class XII marks would eradicate the scourge of ‘coaching’. In reality, an intricate interplay of factors, including the rot in the education system and escalating parental aspirations, has already driven numerous students towards coaching classes. The bill would only strengthen these trends and ensure that coaching becomes the norm for conventional school education.

Political parties should not use student suicides to arm-twist policy. Dealing with the emotionally-charged NEET issue requires prudence of the state government, which must not fish in troubled waters.

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor, finance & economics and executive director, Centre for Family Business & Entrepreneurship at Bhavan’s SPJIMR. 

These are the author’s personal views.

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Published: 16 Aug 2023, 09:11 PM IST
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