What the NEET controversy in Tamil Nadu means for all of us?

It calls for a critical re-examination of some of our fundamental values in the educational system.

 |  7-minute read |   12-09-2017
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The suicide of 17-year-old Anitha - a medical aspirant from a socially and economically underprivileged family - who fought against the National Entrance Eligibility Test (NEET) in the Supreme Court, has created a huge political and social upheaval in Tamil Nadu. The popular opinion as witnessed in the form of agitations, social media posts and panel discussions on TV channels, are mostly centered around the call for scrapping NEET - an exam which now decides who can study medicine and who can’t in medical colleges across India.

While the call has an intrinsic merit, many of the protests - just like the dissenting voices in the Jallikattu case  - have been carried out in an emotionally charged manner, with limited understanding of the complexities involved.

NEET has been consistently opposed by the Tamil Nadu government right from its conceptualisation in the past decade. While all other states aligned with the norms established by the central government, Tamil Nadu, cutting across party lines put up a stiff fight by stating that NEET would prevent the rural and poorer students from becoming doctors.

From 2006 till last year, admissions to medical courses across Tamil Nadu were held on the basis of Class 12 marks alone. However, this year, despite having given repeated oral assurances, the Tamil Nadu government failed to get the state exempted from NEET exam-based admissions into medical colleges. It is in this context that we need to understand the suicide of Anitha, who had scored 1176 out of 1200 in her Class 12 exams.

anitha_091217063525.jpgImage credit: ANI photo

Had NEET not been made compulsory, Anitha may have well been on her way to become a doctor, as proclaimed by many of the protestors. On the other hand, data of the last 10 years shows how the entry of government school students like Anitha into medical programmes was more of an exception than an example.

In the past 10 years, 314 students who had studied in government schools joined medical programmes and 74 such students joined private medical colleges. In total, only 388 students from government schools joined medical programmes. In the same 10-year period, almost 2,600 students from private matriculation schools - often referred to as " "educational poultry farms" for their denial of independent thinking and insistence on mechanised processes - qualified for the medical programmes.

While these private schools do give a rigorous training, the education is mostly driven towards rote-learning, conducting series of exams and ensuring a culture of studying Class 12 syllabus even before touching Class 11 curriculum. That only 13 per cent of the government school medical aspirants qualified out of 3,000 students speaks of the dominance of this skewed private education model in Tamil Nadu.

If the system is so obviously biased toward the private players, then NEET introduction is likely to be seen as - an objective and meritorious mode of selection - a positive shift. Even the recent NEET results in Tamil Nadu could be used to build the same perspective. Unlike the previous years, the selected medical students are now distributed more widely across different districts. Earlier, it was mostly concentrated in four or five districts where the "educational poultry farms" were at work.

Should we thereby conclude that NEET has come in as a fair mode of regulating medical aspirations among students? Not exactly.

There are quite a few angles from which NEET appears to be grossly unjust.

1. It creates a coaching class culture that favours the economically privileged student communities or those living in urban areas.

2. It fosters confusion about the state syllabus as the student is required to write the entrance exam, which is based on central board syllabus.

3. NEET becomes the overriding determinant in the process of selecting the students for medical colleges, without considering their scores of Class 11 and Class 12.

4. The idea of "merit" which is fundamental to NEET, is against the socialist principles of our Constitution.

The culture of coaching class and economic privilege

Before the introduction of NEET, Tamil Nadu had "tried and tested" entrance exams for medical and engineering aspirants in the name of Tamil Nadu Professional Course Entrance Examination (TNPCEE) till 2005. But the then state government under J Jayalalithaa took a firm stance and ruled out all such entrance tests to create a level-playing field for rural students.

Until then, there were plenty of coaching centres that demanded exorbitant amounts, conducted smart-scoring training sessions, and promised favourable results. This was no doubt in favour of the rich, urban students who were able to afford such coaching. Their rural counterparts were either unable to make financial arrangements or unable to switch over to the ruthless competitive model, and thereby got easily shunted out. NEET reeks of the same bias.

Curriculum confusion 

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has a pan-national NCERT curriculum. In contrast, Tamil Nadu state board schools follow a different curriculum, which is distinct from not just CBSE, but also from other state boards. So, there is no uniformity in what students in different boards study.

NEET as a filtering platform is based on CBSE syllabus - it demands mostly objective responses in contrast to state board models, where the emphasis is on descriptive answers - and uses evaluation patterns which are either new, if not totally unfamiliar, to state board students.

It's surprising that most of the educationists in other states have failed to address this crucial concern.

NEET- the single determinant for medical admissions

While many students may have scored as high as Anitha in their Class 12, it will not determine their fate as far as getting admission into medical colleges is concerned. NEET becomes the sole factor for such a career-choosing and may be, even life-altering possibility. That the performance in one such entrance exam on a single day has such a momentous role is rather odd and unconvincing.

The myth of merit

NEET operates on the basis of rewarding the talented performers, in an unhealthy competitive atmosphere. Often, such merit-based rewarding turns a blind eye to the lack of equal, nurturing platforms. The Union and state governments that are keen on ensuring the implementation of NEET are unfortunately overlooking the classification of our educational systems - state board, central board, ICSE, etc.

We have to remember social, cultural and economic indicators which play a crucial role in the upbringing of a community. So when a student from a rural government state board school competes with an urban, private CBSE school-educated student in a NEET platform, we need to examine what role privilege plays in our educational system.

Further, in the rat race for clearing entrance exams such as NEET, CAT, JEE, etc., what goes unnoticed is the sheer absence of humanities and social sciences in the higher secondary school sector.

Somehow, the supposition of medicine, engineering, and management as "professional" programmes, which are capable of giving lifelong financial rewards, has come to upset knowledge domains like history, economics, literature and even basic sciences like physics, chemistry and mathematics.

As a society, we need historians, philosophers, social scientists, mathematicians, and poets. So, there is a basic requirement to nurture all knowledge domains.

Such elitist educational policies, political mishandling and an approving middle class have ensured the defence of NEET, and thereby destroyed the hopes of many like Anitha.

As individuals, as states, we need to reflect. The paradoxical acceptance of NEET in most states and the opposition posed in the Tamil political domain is not yet another cause to be sidestepped.

It calls for a critical re-examination of some of our fundamental values in the educational system.

Also read: Why Supreme Court making NEET results a reality is historic


A Rajesh A Rajesh

The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies, Christ University, Bangalore. He is an ardent reader of Tamil Nadu politics and writes about the same.

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