The business of NEET: Postponement of exams is a lifeline to private colleges
Sir, what do you think about NEET?
In many variants of an ongoing online joke, somebody puts this question to a politician.
Netaji replies: ''Neat, with water, soda or just a few ice cubes. It doesn't really matter if the whiskey is good."
To many, the ongoing controversy about the preferred procedure for admission to medical colleges is just a joke, spun on the many delicious meanings of the acronym for National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) and the propensity of politicians to serve just their own interests.
But, when students, owners of medical colleges and brokers hear NEET, they don't think whiskey. They think business that runs in several hundred crores.
To understand the business of NEET, search for MBBS admission consultants on Google. You would get a wide range of names and numbers of people eager to help you secure admission in a medical course, become a doctor.
This is how it goes.
For securing admission in private medical and dental colleges in India, you have to write a private exam conducted by these institutions. Just before the process begins, the consultants — a euphemism for brokers — approach students and guarantee admission for a substantial donation/capitation fee, ranging from 50 lakh to a crore. The money is passed on to owners of these private colleges by the broker after retaining a small commission.
Typically, the entrance exam is fudged. Aspirants who have already paid the advance are asked to leave most of the answer sheets blank. They are filled up later to manipulate the merit list. Sometimes, even those who have paid in advance are made to cough up more than the amount agreed upon on the pretext of being on a wait-list.
Many owners of private medical colleges are pure businessmen. Their only objective is to sell seats to the highest bidder and make the maximum amount of money possible in the admission season — and even after that.
Aware of the rampant loot in the system and other systemic flaws, the Medical Council of India (MCI) issued a notification in 2010 mandating a single admission test — NEET — for all medical colleges in India.
The MCI decision, incidentally, was born out of another 2010 SC judgment that had advocated a single exam for all colleges. In their 2010 verdict, a two-judge bench argued a single entrance test would save poor and meritorious students. The judges said it will spare them the physical stress and financial burden of travelling for multiple entrance tests in the hope of securing admission.
Students hailed the decision as a major reform. Apart from ending corruption and making medical education a privilege of those with deep pockets, it also obviated the need to write multiple entrance.
According to The Hindu, the NEET was welcomed by students and parents because of transparency and the respite it offered from the ordeal that the aspiring doctors had to endure until last year when they had to file multiple applications and shuttle between cities across the country to take entrance tests, which medical colleges would hold with no co-ordination among them. It had also curbed the room for the promoters of several medical colleges to extort hefty capitation fees.
The decision was a big blow to private medical colleges. In one brutal blow, it deprived them of a source of huge capitation fees and illegal donations. Hit by the MCI notification, it is widely believed, the owners got together to find a way to circumvent the new law. Huge amounts of money — some say every college pitched in with Rs 3 crore — were pooled to fight the diktat.
In 2013, in a surprise decision, a Supreme Court tri-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, who was to retire the next day, scrapped the NEET. CJI Kabir and Justice Vikramjit Sen formed the majority to hold that the notification mandating NEET for all violated private medical colleges' rights to carry on business guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) and the constitutional guarantee under Article 30 to the minority community to set up and manage educational institutions.
In the Supreme Court, however, Justice A R Dave did not agree and, in a strong dissent, stressed that there was no proper discussion on the draft majority verdict which appeared to have been rushed because the CJI was to retire in a few days.
A few days after the top court asked colleges to revert to the old system and junk the single-entrance exam, several educationists, health sector experts and members of the MCI exhorted the then minister of health Ghulam Nabi Azad to appeal against the verdict. For some reason known only to Azad, the government refused to act.
In an unprecedented move, in April this year, the Supreme Court recalled its 2013 decision scrapping NEET and reintroduced it this year. The Narendra Modigovernment has, however, brought an ordinance to allow states to conduct their own exams for one more year.
The government's argument is almost similar to former CJI Kabir's argument. It claims that the government needs at least a year to make NEET a level-playing field for students, especially because the proposed entrance exam is loaded heavily in favour of those from schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
But, it has ignored the spirit of the dissenting note Justice Dave had put up in 2013 while objecting to the scrapping of NEET: "If only one examination in the country is conducted and admissions are given on the basis of the result of the said examination, in my opinion, unscrupulous and money-minded businessmen operating in the field of education would be constrained to stop their corrupt practices and it would help a lot, not only to the deserving students but also to the nation in bringing down level of corruption."
By deferring the single-exam system for at least one more year through an ordinance, the Modi government has given private colleges a huge lifeline.
They must be raising a toast to it. NEET.