Indian medical students fleeing Ukraine demand study places
Several buildings, schools, hospitals and other institutions in Ukraine have been demolished or damaged under sustained Russian attack. For example, VN Karazin Kharkiv National University and the Kharkiv National Medical University, among the most popular with foreign students, are in eastern Ukraine, the area worst hit by Russia’s invasion. Classes have been suspended and there is no indication of how or when they will continue.
“Given the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, it may not be practically possible for these medical students to return to their colleges there to continue their studies. The uncertainty is likely to prevail even after the cessation of hostilities and till the restoration of normalcy in their universities,” MK Stalin, chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, said in a letter this week to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He said the prime minister should take up the issue with the National Medical Commission (NMC), which regulates medical education in India, and relevant ministries. Other state chief ministers have written similar letters to the prime minister.
Student campaign group
Medical students constitute a majority of the approximately 18,000-20,000 Indian students who have been studying in Ukraine. China, Russia and Ukraine together account for around 60% of Indian medical students abroad.
The students who have returned from Ukraine have formed a group calling for a more liberal attitude by the government and demanding that they be accommodated in Indian medical colleges.
“It is impossible for us to continue our studies in Ukraine. It will take years for them [institutions in Ukraine] to recover from the present situation. The majority of students were studying in cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv, where so much devastation has happened that there is no place to live,” said Pulkit Pareek, who is spearheading the student campaign.
“We will be meeting opposition party members this week and ministers next week to press for our demands,” he told University World News.
Almost 5,800 medical students have joined the Telegram social media group set up by Pareek. They include Indian medical students studying in China who have been shut out of their host country since early 2020 owing to border closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although some Ukrainian universities suggested, early in the conflict, that they would move to online teaching, it is far from clear whether this will be possible or when it will happen. In any event, the NMC does not recognise online education for the licensing of doctors to practise in India – a problem that Indian medical students locked out of China also faced when their universities in China switched to online teaching.
Push to increase medical seats
The Indian Medical Association (IMA), the national voluntary organisation of physicians in India, has asked Prime Minister Modi to increase existing seats by 2%-5% in all government and private medical colleges in the country as a “one-time” measure.
In a statement the IMA said all evacuated students could be absorbed as a one-time measure by existing medical schools in the country which would not require an increase in the annual intake capacity, and should permit students to progress through the remainder of their MBBS (undergraduate medical degree) course.
After graduating from Indian educational institutions, these students would be of the same standard as Indian medical graduates, it said. (An argument against providing places to returned students is that some foreign medical courses, including some in Ukraine, are considered sub-par compared to Indian qualifications.)
Medical experts said amendments would be needed to the National Medical Commission Act and regulations to provide extra places.
IMA Secretary General Dr Jayesh Lele said the government would need to “bring an ordinance to give places to these students here. Both the government and the medical colleges will have to decide. It is a complicated process.”
“There were around 18,000-20,000 students in different years in Ukraine. We also have a shortage of doctors, which came to the fore during COVID,” Lele added.
Vivek Jain, chief business officer at Shiksha.com, an educational consultancy, told University World News that although recent discussions suggest that the government is “working towards increasing seats”, such a measure would “take a few years to fructify. Moreover, students can seek opportunities in other universities abroad through lateral entry [transfers] but every country has specific criteria that should be fulfilled to get admission”.
According to reports, Poland is offering places in its universities to medical students rescued from Ukraine. Armenia and Hungary are also offering refugee programmes which students can join to continue their courses without having to repeat a year.
Others are urging caution. Dr G S Grewal, president of the Delhi Medical Association, said that if the system accommodates students from Ukraine, demands will increase from students studying in China.
In the past two years the NMC has not responded to requests from students shut out of China to be allowed to continue in medical colleges in India. It also says in its guidelines that English must be the sole medium of instruction for recognition of overseas medical degrees, which makes it difficult for Indian medical students to transfer from some countries which offer bilingual education such as Russia.
However, calls for greater flexibility have increased as more Indian students go abroad for medical education to fulfil the dream of becoming a doctor. In a country like India, an MBBS degree is a guarantee of good employment.
According to Jain, the number of seats available to study medicine is less than 6% of the total number of aspirants in India.
There are only about 90,000 MBBS places in 540 public and private medical colleges in the country, while in 2021, more than 1.6 million candidates registered for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET, India’s medical entrance exam.
Places in government colleges require a very high NEET score, while private colleges are expensive, hence the large number of applications to countries like Ukraine and China where fees and entry requirements are much lower.
Numbers going to Ukraine rocketed after 2014 as Ukrainian universities actively recruited Indian students.
The cost of study in a private medical college in India is about INR7 million (US$91,400). However, in countries like Ukraine, medical education costs about INR2 million (US$26,100).
Earlier this month, there was a slight shift in policy relating to students returning from Ukraine who were in the final stages of their medical qualifications. The NMC said in a circular that stipends would be given to the students who pass the Foreign Medical Graduates Exam (FMGE). In the past, stipends were not awarded to any students completing medical degrees from abroad.
The NMC said medical students from foreign universities who already had their MBBS degree but who could not complete their hospital internships due to circumstances beyond their control, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and war, could receive the stipends which Indian medical interns already receive.
It said in view of the “agony and stress” of medical students who had been studying abroad, they would be considered eligible to complete the remainder of their internship in India. Similarly, state medical councils can process student requests to complete a hospital internship in India provided they pass the FMGE before making the request.
However, the pass rate for the FMGE, conducted twice a year, is low, with just 17% of 23,691 candidates passing the exam held in December 2021.