New Delhi: In November 2021, Mohammad Saalim sent his two daughters (names withheld), aged 20 and 18, to Kharkiv National Medical University in Ukraine. The older one is pursuing MBA, while the younger one is studying medicine. With his income from a small restaurant, Saalim could not afford the high fee of private colleges in India and decided to send his daughters to Ukraine instead.
Four months later, his daughters are holed up in a basement of their university with just a backpack of essentials. In the last call he had with them Friday morning, they told him that they could hear gunshots and blasts.
“We are also panicking here. They do not have an internet connection and their phones will soon run out of battery. The agencies who sent them cannot give more than moral support at this point,” said Saalim.
Like an estimated 18,000 other students, most from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, Saalim’s daughters found places in Ukrainian universities through a network of contractors.
A medical degree in Ukraine costs Rs 15-17 lakh for a six-year course — cheaper than private medical colleges in India — and is a popular option for students without the grades to get into publicly-funded Indian institutions.
The students come from many social backgrounds: The children of doctors, hoping to inherit family practices and nursing homes, and children from middle-class families aspiring to the prestige of being medical professionals.
A day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Indian government issued an advisory Friday, asking Indian nationals in the country to move to its borders with Hungary and Romania.
But crammed in basements of their respective universities, thousands of Indian students in different cities of Ukraine say they cannot risk travelling to the border unless they have a safe transit. And they are posting desperate pleas to be evacuated.
Destination for cheap MBBS
Indian students’ push towards Ukraine started about a decade ago.
“Private Indian contractors tied up with universities in Ukraine and they found plenty of students in India who wanted to go abroad,” said Manish Jaiswal, who runs a private consultancy firm called Aspiring Life in Kolkata.
The private consultants who send students to Ukraine also explained to ThePrint how some of the state-run universities in Ukraine are known for their quality education globally, and Indian parents prefer to send their children to these universities, instead of paying a hefty fee for little-known private medical colleges in India.
“There are around 16 medical universities in Ukraine which are popular among Indian students. These universities have been running for decades now and even those students who score high marks in the common entrance exam for medicine in India, called NEET, opt to go to Ukraine,” said Maidul Seikh, director at the Edurizon, a private consultancy firm based in New Delhi.
Once the students return to India with foreign MBBS degrees, they have to appear for the Foreign Medical Graduate Exam (FMGE) held by the National Board of Examinations to obtain the licence to practice in India.
Each year, close to 4,000 students with medical degrees from Ukraine sit for the FMGE, but only about 700 clear it. The lower pass percentage, however, does not deter students from enrolling in universities in Ukraine.
Once students clear the FMG exam, they are at par with doctors who get their degrees in India.
‘Unfair perception that all colleges are poor’
Dr Saurabh Sachchar, assistant professor and consultant, radiology, at SGRR Institute of Medical Health Sciences and SMI hospital, Dehradun, who completed his MBBS from Russia, said “it is an unfair perception that all colleges abroad are poor”.
“It depends on students how students study. These countries are advanced and the colleges there are recognised and approved by the WHO and by the Indian regulatory bodies. Before we take admission in these colleges, we have to take permission from the Medical Council of India (now National Medical Commission) to enrol there,” said Sachchar.
He added that the colleges in countries like Ukraine and Russia are government colleges, where the management sets aside a few seats for foreign students. These are cheaper than private colleges in India.
Sumit (who only goes by his first name), a fifth-year medical student in Dnipropetrovsk State Medical University in Dnipro city, who landed safely in India Thursday, just before the Ukrainian airspace was shut down, explained that for him and his family, spending about Rs 80-90 lakh on a five-year medical course in India was impossible.
“I was not on the merit list in my NEET exam and I could not pay the high fee in private Indian colleges. Ukraine for me was a rational choice as I will have to spend only Rs 25-30 lakh for a six-year course,” said Sumit, who is back home in Panipat, Haryana.
Assured that Russia won’t attack
When the tensions started escalating between Russia and Ukraine, Sumit and his friends checked the prices of flights. For them, paying upwards of Rs 60,000 for a one-way flight was too steep, and they kept waiting for prices to drop. The two-way fare to Ukraine in times of peace is approximately Rs 37,000.
“Most of us in colleges there are from middle-income families. We cannot afford such expensive tickets. We kept hoping that the flights sent by the Indian government would be cheaper, but tickets for those flights were equally expensive,” said Sumit.
He finally booked a ticket on a private airline and used his student ID to get a slightly cheaper fare. But many of his friends, he says, had to return to their universities from the airport as the situation escalated within a day.
Besides, students said their universities assured them that Russia won’t attack.
Some universities continued to hold physical classes and students, especially those in their final years of medical education, feared missing crucial lessons.
Hiding in bunkers
Those not as fortunate as Sumit are currently hiding in the basements of their universities with no clarity on how they will reach the borders.
In a crisis like this, Seikh, who has been sending students to Ukraine and Russia for the last 12 years and has offices there, is using his local contacts to arrange for buses for students to reach the border with Poland.
“I have spent Rs 5 lakh per bus for two buses. And I am paying around $300 an hour for 10 buses which are waiting,” he said.
Suraj Kumar, a fourth-year student of Bogomolets National Medical University in Kyiv, told ThePrint that around 300 Indian students in his hostel moved to the basement of the university Friday.
His university is also sheltering Indian students from various other cities like Kharkiv, Lviv, Uzhhorod, Ternopil and Vinnytsia.
“The Hungary border is more than 1,000 km away from Kyiv. It’s a 15-hour journey and the situation is very unsafe. A strike can happen anytime anywhere. There is no way we can reach the border on our own,” said Kumar, who is from Bihar.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)