The one unequivocal finding in the 165-page Justice Rajan Committee report is that the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) has adversely impacted the chances of less privileged students in gaining admission to government medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. Several parameters have been used by the Committee to assess privilege (or the lack of it), such as studying in a Tamil medium school, studying in a government school, being a first-generation graduate, and belonging to a household with an income of less than ₹2.5 lakh. Every one of these criteria demonstrate that the already abysmal share of the less privileged in medical education became even more abysmal after NEET was introduced. One needs no other reason to accept that admission based on higher secondary marks serves the cause of equity better.
School education is inequitable
But a caveat is necessary here: admission based on higher secondary marks is by no means equitable. The number of government school students who were able to gain admission to government medical colleges in the pre-NEET era was around 38 per year. This came down to three or four post-NEET till the 7.5% quota for government school students was introduced. The number then rose to 336 in 2020-21 (page 55). The repeated assertion by the Committee that NEET coaching skews the results of the medical exam is true, but the Committee ignores the fact that the results of the State Board examinations can also be skewed through coaching. The domination of medical admissions from coaching schools in Rasipuram in the pre-NEET area clearly demonstrated this. The blunt truth is that school education in India, including in Tamil Nadu, is grossly inequitable. There is a spectrum of inequity in education with the government schools catering to the most underprivileged and a range of private schools catering to various strata of the privileged. Unless this inequity is addressed, all talk of coaching is empty.
If one were to delve into the report for answers to questions that the Committee engages with, such as what type of student should be selected for medical education, what mode of selection will ensure that such students are selected, and how we can best reconcile the perceived social needs of medical education with the aspirations of individual students, one will be deeply disappointed.
Furthermore, one can appreciate the descriptive statistics, but the inferential statistics are terribly flawed. The entire document is peppered with logical fallacies. For example, on page 26, the report says: “The analytical section of this report, in the later pages, also vindicates that the ever present socio economic disadvantages and other educational, geographical and linguistic backwardness facing the students of the Tamil Nadu state do not favour the practice of a common entrance exam as it causes injustice to the disadvantaged majority people of the state.” Do these disadvantages not cause “injustice” in the result of the 12th Standard exam?
Further, on pages 83 and 84, the Committee compares the Higher Secondary School marks with the marks obtained in NEET and says, “Now, the question remains before us is who is meritorious (in terms of percentage marks) - those who secured ‘98.16 % (HSc)’ or those who secured ‘89.05% (HSc)’ and simultaneously 49.65% (NEET)’? Surely, it is 98.16% is the answer.” Recognising that this argument sounds rather silly, the Committee then says, “Comparison between the HSc and the NEET scores is like comparing orange with apple, but it is not in the wisdom of this Committee to compare this way, however, the Committee has to do so in response to the arguments of the critics of HSc who argue that NEET is the best assessor of students’ standard and abilities, because of its assessment and syllabus superiority.” To refute one logical fallacy with another is hardly good policy.
The greatest disappointment with the report comes from its failure to engage with the most inequitable of all factors in medical education: the insurmountable barrier placed by the very high financial commitment required in private medical education, said to be in the order of ₹1 crore and more. The opaque admission methods and extremely high charges incurred in private medical education was the cause for repeated challenges in the courts, which finally resulted in the NEET. Abolishing NEET without addressing this problem will be a farce, with little real benefit. The statistical prowess of the Committee does not extend to revealing the fees and other charges being collected by these institutions, the background of the students in these institutions, how many of them serve in rural areas, and so on — all of which are criteria that the Committee uses to say that NEET will be detrimental to social justice. Private medical education now accounts for around 50% of seats. The remarkable silence of a Committee, whose terms of reference included “advancing the principles of social justice”, is deeply disappointing.
The way forward
The experience of the NEET has highlighted the grossly inequitable school system in Tamil Nadu. The number of government schools has greatly increased but learning outcomes are very poor. An article in this paper by Kalaiyarasan A. ( Dravidam 2.0 as a time to reflect, for action ) pointed out that Tamil Nadu scored the lowest among the southern States in the Performance Grading Index in 2019-20.
Using the higher secondary marks for admission to medical colleges will help a few of the most disadvantaged students get admission to government medical colleges. But it will do nothing to advance the cause of social justice which requires, in the short term, access to the 50% of medical seats in the private sector which are now reserved for the extremely wealthy, by virtue of the high financial commitments required, and in the long term, a vast improvement in the quality of education imparted in government schools. Anything short of this is mere window-dressing.
Dr. George Thomas is an Orthopaedic Surgeon in Chennai