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INDIA
Despair over new medical college admissions changes

The tragic suicide by medical school hopeful S Anitha, 17, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu after she unsuccessfully fought against the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET in India’s Supreme Court has touched a nerve in the country, and has become a symbol of the despair of thousands of other young aspirants like her.

Anitha’s dream of studying medicine was shattered when the country’s top court last month upheld its own earlier order that admission in the MBBS – Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery which is the degree level qualification to enter the medical profession – in private and government medical colleges across the country must be solely on the basis of the student's NEET performance. Tamil Nadu was not exempt from the NEET.

Anitha, whose father was a daily wage labourer or coolie of the Dalit caste – India’s lowest caste – had scored around 98% in her school-leaving examination, but did not perform well in the NEET and consequently did not gain admission to medical college.

“I am the only student scoring such marks in the district,” she said proudly of her high school performance in the district of Ariyalur, scoring 100% in mathematics and physics, a formidable achievement for someone of her background. Her mother died when she was young and she was brought up by her grandmother, attending Tamil-medium schools.

“I don’t know what the NEET is, and my father who has done his best to give me a good education, cannot afford NEET coaching classes,” Anitha had said before her death earlier this month. Yet she had taken her fight all the way to the Supreme Court, pleading that the NEET is against the interests of rural students.

Court battle

The NEET was introduced by the Medical Council of India, or MCI, for admission to medical colleges, but before this year was held only in 2013, before being subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court which declared it ‘unconstitutional’.

The union government and the MCI requested a review of the Supreme Court’s earlier order saying it wanted to ensure a uniform standard for medical education across the country. In April 2016 the Supreme Court reversed its previous order of 2013, restoring NEET and ordering that NEET would be the only common entrance test for medical students from 2017.

This year’s NEET was held on 7 May for 60,000 MBBS seats in 474 private and government colleges in India with results released two weeks later.

The Supreme Court ruling was a big setback for students who had successfully obtained admission to medical and dental colleges on the basis of their performance in the school-leaving examinations in several states.

State’s opposition

Anitha’s suicide led to widespread protests against the NEET in Tamil Nadu with many schoolgirls joining in. But on 8 September the Supreme Court asked the authorities to take action to end anti-NEET protests, particularly in the southern state.

The Tamil Nadu state government has steadfastly opposed NEET from its inception on the grounds that the NEET is based on a national-level Central Board of Secondary Education, or CBSE, syllabus, while Tamil Nadu state board schools follow a curriculum which is very different from not only CBSE but also from other state boards.

The state’s government argued that it would difficult for a Tamil Nadu student to become a doctor if the NEET became the sole determinant for medical admission.

Several other states including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and West Bengal also opposed the NEET.

Irregularities

Making the NEET mandatory for admission to medical courses was intended to improve the quality of medical education in the country and increase its credibility after a series of scandals.

However, large-scale irregularities were reported in several states during enrolment of students in medical colleges on the basis of the NEET results.

Government-designated counselling authorities that conduct the medical admissions process allegedly circumvented guidelines from the Union Health Ministry and the Supreme Court, admitting students with lower NEET scores while deserving candidates with higher scores were left out in many states like Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Puducherry and Punjab.

In Bihar the final round of admissions consultations began at 5pm on 31 August, the last day of admissions in that state. Candidates were asked at the last minute to bring demand drafts of more than Rs1 million (US$15,400) drawn in favour of colleges.

However with no banks open after 5pm, many worthy candidates could not fulfil this demand, denying admission to some higher ranked students who said they had not been told in advance of the payment mode, which excluded online payment.

Bihar medical education director Prabhat Kumar rejects this. “We gave candidates the time till 1 pm the next day to submit the (bank) draft,” he insisted, though he conceded the payment mode was not mentioned in the advertisement and many students said they were not given the time the following day.

2,000 km trip for nothing

Deepak Kumar Gupta, a resident of the Gorakhpur district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said he received a text message at 11pm on 4 September from the counselling authorities in Karnataka asking him to appear in the counselling session in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) – some 2,000 km from his place of residence, at 11am the next day.

Gupta rushed to Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital and caught a morning flight to reach the admissions office in Bengaluru by 10am but he said he was not allowed to appear in the counselling session as he didn’t have the bank draft and officials did not agree to an online transfer.

“Thus they denied admission to the deserving candidates and furtively sold seats to unworthy students. Officials and middlemen connived to deny admission to suitable candidates,” Gupta claimed, saying he had heard of middlemen who had helped arrange the admission of undeserving candidates.

In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Prabhat Khare, a prospective student, said he was denied a seat even though he had scored 400 marks, while a candidate with 193 marks was apparently admitted. “Many candidates with over 400 marks were not successful in securing admission,” he said.

A Madhya Pradesh official explained seats are reserved for home state candidates despite lower scores compared to out-of-state students.

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