THE SUNDAY STORY There are now as many as 9,000 Indian medical students in China

As the costs of a medical education in India continue to rise, an increasing number of students are heading to foreign shores, with China, in particular, emerging as a favoured destination.

A six year-education at an approved Chinese medical university, consultants say, can cost Rs. 25 lakh, including one-year internship and annual travel to India, although costs vary at the nearly 50 approved medical colleges.

With capitation fees alone at some Indian colleges amounting to more than double that figure, it is not surprising that there are now as many as 9,000 Indian medical students in China.

Financial incentives are the prime reason behind China’s emergence as a popular destination for medical education. Yet for students who commit themselves to an education in China, the challenges are many.

There are, of course, the difficult lifestyle adjustments, from the language barrier to problems with the cuisine. Chinese universities are, however, increasingly going out of the way to court Indian students, whether by setting up private kitchens for them or by opening all-girls dormitories, which many Chinese colleges do not have, to cater to the needs of female students.

Tough MCI test

The more serious concern for most Indian medical students is a Medical Council of India (MCI) screening test which they will be required to take in India after graduation. The exam is a mandatory requirement for students who study overseas.

Students in China complain that the exam is excessively difficult, with far higher standards than required of MBBS students in India. They point to a pass rate that has hovered at a low 25 per cent in recent years to make their case. The MCI, however, argues, with some merit, that students who study overseas cannot be allowed to practice in India unless they are rigorously tested.

Last year, only one in five students passed the exam. For students who have invested a life’s savings — and borne heavy sacrifices — in acquiring an education in the harsh climes of northern China or eastern Europe, failure can be costly.

“The Chinese universities do prepare us for the exam, but we feel there are many problems with how it is administered,” said one student at a medical college in northern China in a recent interview in Beijing.

Hidden costs

Beyond the MCI test, the student, accompanied by two classmates, said “hidden costs” that mounted during the course of their six year-education were a bigger problem. They had no choice but to pay, the students said, as they wouldn't be allowed to graduate. They did not want to be identified out of fear of angering the university.

Indian officials say agents who misstate costs to lure students are part of the problem. “Students are exploited by some agents in India who present a false picture of what life is like in China and by unscrupulous educational institutions,” says an advisory that is posted on the website of the Indian Embassy in Beijing.

“Because of incorrect information received from agents or other sources,” the embassy says, “it has been seen that many students come to China without the required financial resources or support.” It advises students to “thoroughly check the background and other details of the agent before coming to China” and to check with the universities if agents are contracted.

The Embassy says there have been cases of students “cheated of their money by unscrupulous agents by promising them admissions on fake University letterheads.” Some students have even found themselves unable to practice in India after being enrolled in a university not recognised by the MCI.

The MCI’s website lists the 49 universities that have been approved by China’s Ministry of Education to enroll foreign students.

Problems notwithstanding, the number of Indian students who head to China is only expected to rise in coming years as the costs of an education in India remain out of reach for many.

An education in China can also be rewarding, students say, at well-regarded, approved universities that offer world-class facilities at affordable costs.

Even the three Indian students in Beijing said that despite the problem of hidden costs, they had no regrets.

“If you look at how much we have to pay in India,” one student said, “this is still a better alternative.”

(ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in)

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