Increase in MBBS seats is welcome. But it will take more to address the deficits in medical education
Over the last 10 days, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has cleared decisions that will add dramatically to the number of medical professionals India trains each year. On January 2, the CCEA approved a proposal to set up 58 new medical colleges in states, creating 5,800 more MBBS seats. A week later, it gave its nod to the addition of 10,000 seats in state and Central government medical colleges.
The addition of 15,800 seats to the existing 50,000 is aimed at improving India’s abysmal doctor-patient ratio, which languishes at 1:2000 — well below the WHO recommendation of one per 1000 people. Any decision that aims to address this shocking deficit is welcome. But boosting the capacity of the healthcare system will take more than an increase in the number of seats. Attention must also be urgently paid to filling the gaps in infrastructure and upgrading the quality of instruction. How will already stressed medical education institutions cope with added demand in the absence of a commensurate expansion in the availability of teachers, laboratories and equipment?
The dispiriting story of creaky infrastructure, low teacher-student ratios and the yawning gap between the number of quality higher education institutes and the demand for them, is not limited to medical education. The state’s challenge is to balance the competing goals of rapidly expanding access to higher education to keep pace with the ambitions of a fast-growing number of school graduates, and ensuring that these young people are properly trained and employable after obtaining their degrees. To that end, instead of directing its energies towards creating barriers for private players and foreign institutions in the higher education sector, it should encourage their participation in the creation of many more and better equipped colleges and universities.
It is not incidental that the foreign universities bill, meant to regulate the entry and operations of foreign universities in India, has been in legislative limbo since 2010, along with three other bills pertaining to higher education reform introduced in the Lok Sabha.
Notwithstanding the HRD ministry’s attempt in September last year to bypass the legislative route to allow foreign institutes to set up campuses as non-profit companies via the new Companies Act, private and foreign players in the higher education sector continue to be regarded with a reflexive suspicion. This is both misplaced and counterproductive.