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Does NEET privilege the privileged?

With the Tamil Nadu government seeking to ‘dispense’ with the requirement for candidates to qualify in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to undergraduate medical courses in the State, the controversy over NEET is alive again. T.N.’s position is rooted in the conclusions of the Justice A.K. Rajan Committee report, which claims that NEET has undermined diverse social representation in MBBS admissions. J. Amalorpavanathan and Sumanth C. Raman discuss whether NEET has adversely affected the disadvantaged groups, in a conversation moderated by Ramya Kannan. Edited excerpts:

T.N. has been opposing NEET since the inception of the test in 2013. While the other States that opposed NEET then have subsequently come to terms with the exam, T.N. continues its crusade. What is the reason for this? Is it simply a question of politicking or one of ensuring social justice?

J. Amalorpavanathan: You are asking us what is unique about T.N. Let’s remember that the State (and even Madras, as it was then called earlier) has always been unique. It was the first to demand reservations based on caste and property rights for women. It introduced early on progressive legislation such as property rights for women. Therefore, T.N. is, and always will be, unconventional and progressive. The issue with NEET, too, is a case of the State seeking to assert its federal right on education, running its own medical institutions, and selecting candidates in the manner that it deems fit. So, I’m not surprised that T.N. took the issue of the erosion of federal rights seriously — and rightly so. If other States had commissioned a study on the impact of NEET on the State (like Tamil Nadu did with the Justice Rajan Committee), they might have come to similar conclusions. It is the dissenters who usher in progress — in politics, in science, or in any other field.

 

Sumanth Raman: The reason for a common entrance test is that different States have different modes of education and all of them are not necessarily benchmarked against each other. While some States have stringent criteria, others do not. So, the thinking behind NEET is that for certain areas like professional courses — typically, medicine, engineering and law — there needs to be a common entrance test.

The decision of having a common entrance exam was, in fact, taken by the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government of which the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] was an integral part. Of course, the difference was that at that time, the modalities or the mandatory nature of this exam had not yet come into force. In fact, it was said that some States would adopt it and some States may not.

The Justice Rajan Committee report is, in fact, an example of why an entrance test like NEET is probably necessary. I don’t think he [Justice Rajan] thought that a lot of the data that he put out as part of the report would actually support the pro-NEET arguments.

 

Look, nobody is saying NEET is 100% fair. But you have to look at it in the context of the earlier system, which was grossly unfair and which was deemed as social justice, where 220 students would get admission from one school and close to 30% of the seats would be cornered by eight to 10 schools. The unfortunate part is that the Tamil Nadu government maintains that Class 12 exam results are infallible and are the right way of evaluating students.

Unfortunately, NEET became a political issue. And once it became political, it has continued to be used for political objectives rather than economic ones.

Both of you mentioned the A.K. Rajan Committee report. Its data point to a lower absorption of first-generation graduates, Tamil students, and rural students into MBBS courses. Do you think the report has been fair to the actual position in the State?

Sumanth Raman: I’m not even very sure that he has applied his mind to the data, which he says was provided by the government. For instance, he says 99% of all students who got admission into MBBS underwent NEET coaching. The source of the data is not mentioned here. The government has a duty to explain where all the data came from.

 

It has become apparent that there is cherry-picking of the data. The classic example of this is that for students who got admission into MBBS courses from government schools, the data are only given from 2014 and not from 2010, unlike all other data. The reason for that, which we subsequently found, is that the number of government school students had started dropping from 2010 itself, but there was no NEET then.

The biggest concern is that the outlier data of 2017-18 have been used to justify preconceived conclusions. The previous AIADMK government had given 7.5% reservation for government school students, but the data had started to trend towards the pre-NEET levels from 2019-20, the year before the introduction of the 7.5% quota.

The report says the CBSE students have now claimed 26.8% of all seats, whereas earlier they were claiming 0.11%. You will also have to look at the number of students who applied. In 2010-11, 489 CBSE students applied for MBBS courses compared to the 17,518 applicants from the State Board. In 2015-16, the number of CBSE applicants rose to 1,151 and the number of State Board applicants peaked at 30,777. In 2020-21, the number of CBSE applicants went up further to 7,808, whereas the number of State Board applicants almost halved from the 2015-16 figure, to 15,556. So, is it not logical that when the number of State Board students remains more or less constant or starts to go down, and the number of CBSE applicants goes up, the number of seats that CBSE students take up will also rise?

 

J. Amalorpavanathan: I must confess that I have not read the entire report, but I have read the data put out by The Hindu, culled from the Rajan report. The statistics may vary a little bit here and there. And according to the data you have shown, there is a serious problem in terms of a high percentage of students who repeat the tests and the proportion of first-generation learners, and Tamil medium students have dropped drastically.

I would continue to oppose NEET because of the larger question of States’ rights being taken away: the right to run medical institutions and select students according to the healthcare needs of that State and according to the requirements of the State’s primary healthcare centres and district hospitals.

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I have data from two papers published — one in The New England Journal of Medicine and one in The Lancet. The NEJM paper talks about the checkpoints for a medical programme and how they affect diversity — namely, the class and race of selected students. It called for closing the gap and making school admissions more equitable. Medical schools can prepare the workforce to care for socio-economically divided, racially and ethnically diverse populations by redoubling their efforts to recruit applicants from under-represented groups. But to do so, however, schools will have to fundamentally change the way they evaluate the applicants.

The Lancet talks about a review of admissions to medical school. There is some evidence to support the contention that the marks required for entry into medical school can be lowered substantially, to ensure diversity, besides keeping students motivated. I would say that measuring merit alone is a very bad indicator for selecting students into medical schools.

A key issue that has been raised repeatedly here is the standard of State Board education. The recommendation to State Boards is that they should up their game, and the poor quality of teaching in schools is attributed to children going to coaching centres. Is this a fair assessment?

J. Amalorpavanathan: This understanding that State Boards promote learning by rote, whereas CBSE encourages analytical thinking is superficial. This is not based on any scientific study. The best way to make an assessment is to do a random double-blind control study with medical students who graduate, drawn from the State Board and CBSE. Find out who has more analytical capacity and who has less. Until then, I won’t accept that the State Board is inferior.

 

Sumanth Raman: I agree that we should do such a study. The government has proposed an exit test that can benchmark students, but that is also being opposed by those who oppose NEET. A number of State Board students who were getting MBBS seats before NEET were to a large extent from coaching institutions/coaching schools from one district, and they paid several lakhs for the schools. The school itself might have doubled up as a coaching institution.

We need to look at the annual ASER reports. The 2017 report said that more than 50% of Class 5 students could not read Class 2-level Tamil texts. We need to ask ourselves whether the quality of education in the State Board is adequate or not. We can choose to ignore these figures, but if there is something that we need to correct, we have to accept it.

Education is on the Concurrent list, allowing the Central government to legislate on it. That makes this a constitutional issue. So, are we at an impasse? If the Centre and T.N. stick to their stand, will there be a resolution at all? Do you see any possible scenarios that suggest a way out of this?

Sumanth Raman: Honestly, I don’t see a possibility of this getting reversed. There has to be an extremely good reason for giving one State an exemption. But this is a land of possibilities. We have seen the Supreme Court change stance on an issue after a period of time, we have seen governments do political deals to facilitate assent. Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa managed to push through 69% reservation and get constitutional protection for it.

Also read | NEET eliminated multiple entrance tests: former Anna University Vice-Chancellor Balagurusamy

But do I think it is probable? No, I don’t think this will get presidential assent. And even if it does, will it stand the scrutiny of the court? This means that NEET is likely to continue, at least in the near term.

But in the meantime, don’t make false promises to students saying that we will abolish it next year, until you get a written order saying that it is not going to be held. As long as NEET is there, ramp up the coaching in government centres for the exam. It is the duty of the government to make sure that as many students as possible, especially those from weaker sections, have the infrastructure and government support to crack the exam. Importantly, please do not politicise suicide and do not give compensation to the families of students who reportedly died due to NEET. This has to stop, and adequate counselling should be provided to students. If students don’t crack NEET this year, they have two more opportunities, and if they don’t crack it then, there are other career options available.

J. Amalorpavanathan: Yes, I have a strong belief that the President might give his assent because this is an extraordinary situation where two subsequent governments have passed the Bill. I think the Central government will accord consent. It is like what we achieved in the jallikattu issue. Exemption was given for this State alone. Ultimately, democracy has to accede to people’s genuine legal rights and legal demands within the framework of the Constitution. There is a High Court case demanding that education be brought back to the State list. Let us wait for the judgment. And even if the judgment goes against the plea, the parties can still go to the Supreme Court and agitate the matter. Therefore, there’s a long legal way ahead.

Sumanth C. Raman is a doctor and political analyst; J. Amalorpavanathan is member, Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission


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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 1:10:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/does-neet-privilege-the-privileged/article36638545.ece

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