Updated: September 17, 2021 8:55:42 am
The Tamil Nadu government’s efforts to exit the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) system for admission to undergraduate medical colleges make for unsound policy. The state assembly this week passed a bill restoring the system of admission on the basis of Class XII marks — an electoral promise of the DMK government — which now awaits the President’s approval. The state has pointed to the data gathered by a nine-member government committee as the rationale for such a legislation. Indeed, the panel has highlighted a worrying trend: The proportion of students from rural areas, economically weaker backgrounds, Tamil-medium schools, and state board schools has decreased significantly in Tamil Nadu’s medical colleges since the state moved to NEET in 2017-18. Switching back to the older system, which the state claims has served its robust public health system well, will correct the skew in favour of the privileged, the government reasons. A spate of suicides by students appearing for the entrance test also makes for an emotive issue, especially in a state with an enviably high percentage of students enrolled in higher education. However, it appears that a politics of Tamil subnationalism is also stopping the DMK government from acknowledging gaps in the state curriculum and forcing it into unnecessary hard positions.
NEET came up as a solution to the problem of a profusion of entrance examinations to medical colleges across states, the lack of standardised assessments and allegations of corruption in admissions. The Supreme Court has upheld its validity. Instead of breaking away from a national test and trying to cushion its students, the Tamil Nadu government must support them in the transition to a new system. This can be done by upgrading its curriculum and training medical college aspirants in problem-solving for competitive examinations, which were not held in the state for a decade between 2006, when the state scrapped a common entrance examination to medical colleges, and 2017.
For NEET, too, the findings of the TN panel must be a prod to acknowledge and spot its gaps. The exclusions of class, caste and gender privilege built into the entrance test must be found and addressed. But one blind spot remains. The irrationally high social value placed on medical and engineering college education across India and the mismatch between available seats fuel the hyper-competitiveness around admissions, resulting in high-stakes elimination tests such as NEET. A conversation that looks at education outside those two options must also be broached to take the pressure off students and colleges.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 17, 2021 under the title ‘The wrong answer’.