Karnataka’s Naveen Shekarappa Gyanagoudar went to Ukraine to study medicine and died from Russian shelling this week while waiting to buy food. His father, Shekarappa, said that Naveen was forced to go to Kharkiv to study medicine because he was not able to secure admission in India due to lack of money and caste-wise allocation of seats in Indian medical colleges. He also mentioned that the 21-year-old had secured 97 per cent in his board exams.
This triggered a debate on social media and hashtags like #ReservationKilledNaveen started trending on Twitter. Users blamed the Indian quota system for the plight of the students who want to study medicine.
Naveen’s father primarily said three things:
1. Naveen performed well in his Class XII exams. Despite scoring 97 per cent in PUC, he could not secure a medical seat in India.
2. To get a medical seat, one has to spend crores of rupees, whereas education abroad in Ukraine costs less.
3. Medical seats are being allotted on the basis of caste.
Let’s scrutinise these three premises, with due respect to the grieving family.
How NEET puts state board students in a bind
Following a Supreme Court ruling, the NEET examination was introduced as a single-window entry for all medical colleges. Incidentally, marks obtained in twelfth grade are not considered for NEET ranking. So, even if someone gets the highest marks in school, there is no guarantee that he or she will get admission to a medical college. So Naveen getting good marks in Class XII did not help him get admission in India.
As Naveen passed from the Karnataka state board, he was in an even more disadvantageous position. NEET is an all-India examination and its syllabus is based on the CBSE curriculum.
This fact was highlighted by Justice AK Rajan committee constituted by the Tamil Nadu government to study the effects of NEET. The Tamil Nadu panel study, quoted in The Indian Express, showed that after the introduction of NEET, the success rate of students from CBSE board jumped 38.84 per cent, which was earlier only 0.9 per cent. At the same time, the success rate of state board students went down from 98.23 per cent to 59.41per cent. As the Karnataka government has not undertaken any such study, I can only extrapolate that Karnataka board students also suffered a similar fate.
In any case, NEET has been designed on the basis of the CBSE curriculum and that is one of the reasons for the proliferation of coaching centres that prepare the students accordingly. According to the same report, 99 per cent of the students who secured admission received some or other form of coaching. In the list of successful candidates, the proportion of students from English medium schools has also increased.
Another important finding is that the chances of getting a seat on the first attempt are decreasing drastically. In 2011-2012, 99.29 per cent of students cleared the exam in their first attempt. In 2020-2021, only 28.58 per cent of students got seats in their first attempt. It also tells the same story that coaching has become a prerequisite to NEET success. This is an advantage for students from privileged and well-off backgrounds.
‘Reservation for the rich’
The role of money in getting medical education manifests itself in the fee structure of private colleges. The private colleges can charge anything in the range of Rs 1 to 1.5 crore as tuition fee. This fact was highlighted by Naveen’s father as well. Admissions in private colleges are not based on merit and yet it does not perturb those who raise the bogey of reservation and find it detrimental to the idea of merit and equality.
To keep the fee high and fill up seats, the qualifying marks for NEET are artificially kept low so that almost everyone can bid for private seats. In 2021 NEET-UG, 15.44 lakh candidates appeared and 8.7 lakh cleared the exam. This was because the qualifying cut off was kept as low as 138 out of a possible 720 marks for the general category. So a person with the rank of 8,70,000 can actually get admission to a medical/dental college in India. Such a large number of candidates are clearing NEET at a time when the total capacity for MBBS admissions is hovering around 82,000. Publisher Maheshwar Peri aptly describes this system of high fees as “reservation meant for the rich.” argues that a low cut-off sustains the system of costly medical education because students with lower marks rush for a limited number of private seats.
Reservation the problem?
Is reservation reducing opportunities in medical education? This question can be answered differently based on the location of the person making the inquiry. Reservation provides opportunities to the underclass of India, who constitute the majority of the population. This system was brought in to mitigate the historical lack of financial, cultural and social capital of the SC, ST and OBCs. Incidentally, the upper caste middle-class, with an annual income cap of Rs 8 lakh, is also getting EWS quota from this year.
Naveen was one of those lakhs of candidates who cleared NEET, but as the total intake capacity was limited, could not study medicine in India. This remains the case, even if for the sake of argument we assume that there is no reservation.
The Telegraph reported that in NEET-UG, 2021, over 83 per cent of the OBC candidates, more than 80 per cent of the SC candidates and 77 per cent of the ST candidates have scored more than the 50th percentile cut-off meant for the ‘General’ category. In absolute terms, in the list of those who cleared the threshold for the unreserved candidate, 4.52 lakh or 59 per cent were from OBC, SC or ST groups. Only 3.18 lakh general category and EWS candidates were able to pass this threshold. It implies that there is a larger number of SC, ST, OBC candidates who will not get admission to Indian colleges despite clearing the NEET exam.
The problem is not reservation. The real issues are the steep rise in the cost of medical education, the NEET exam, which is making coaching almost mandatory for admission, its discriminatory character, and the way it excludes state board and Indian language students and of course the capacity constraints. The solution lies in opening more medical colleges, so that medical education becomes less glorious and pricey, and increasing government expenditure on medical education and expanding health infrastructure, especially in the northern states. NEET should be abolished and the system of State Entrance Test or admissions based on Class XII marks brought back. We can cap the number of times a candidate can attempt to get a seat at three. This will limit the influence of coaching centres.
Medical education in India is in need of a complete makeover. Naveen’s death and Indian students getting trapped in the Ukraine crisis is a much-needed wake-up call.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)