Doctors see U-turn in entrance order

(From left) Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde at the swearing-in of Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday. “We are very upset,” Azad said, commenting on Thursday’s ruling against the common medical entrance test. The ruling was “a little demoralising for us because we wanted to clean up a number of things”. Asked what the government planned to do, Azad said: “There is a legal recourse. There is no other way.” (PTI, AFP)

The Supreme Court order abolishing the common national entrance examination appears to be a 180-degree turn from the court’s earlier observations on such a test, government officials and doctors have said. Senior health ministry officials said they were studying yesterday’s 203-page order quashing the common entrance tests for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in medicine and dentistry.

Sections of medical educationists and health officials today pointed out that the Centre had introduced the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) after consultations with states keeping in mind the Supreme Court’s observations during earlier cases. “The Supreme Court itself had articulated the benefits of holding a common entrance test,” a member of the board of governors of the Medical Council of India (MCI) told The Telegraph. “The court wanted the exam held by 2012, but the government had to seek a postponement because of logistical difficulties.”

About 90,000 doctors had taken the common postgraduate NEET during November-December 2012 and over 700,000 students appeared in the undergraduate NEET in May this year. The 2:1 verdict from a three-judge bench held that the MCI was not empowered to impose common entrance tests as such a move violated constitutional provisions that guarantee citizens fundamental rights to set up and administer their own private unaided educational institutions without government interference. “This ruling is most unfortunate,” a senior government official said. “There has not been a single complaint yet (about the NEET) from the candidates who took the examination or from the student or parent community.” A senior faculty member at a government institution said the Supreme Court had itself observed in a ruling in 2005 that a candidate requiring to appear in several tests would be subjected to “unnecessary and avoidable expenditure and inconvenience”. “The verdict yesterday seems like a 180-degree turn,” said M. Vivekanandan Pillai, a senior faculty member at the Indira Gandhi Medical College and Research Institute, Puducherry. “It ignores observations made by earlier benches.”

In a ruling delivered on August 8, 2005, the court had said that a common entrance test conducted by an agency with the “utmost credibility and expertise” would ensure the fulfilment of the twin objectives of “transparency and merit”. “(A) CET (common entrance test) is necessary in the interest of achieving (these) objectives and also for saving the student community from harassment and exploitation,” the court had observed in 2005. “Holding of such common entrance test does not cause any dent in the right of minority unaided educational institutions to admit students of their choice.” The court had said such institutions could pick students of their choice from the list of successful candidates prepared through the common entrance test without altering the order of merit of the students so chosen. 

Several private medical colleges and states such as Tamil Nadu had opposed the NEET, arguing that the diversity of educational standards across states made such an examination impractical. Sections of the medical faculty in private colleges opposing the NEET had argued that the test would also erode the autonomy of private institutions. “Let the central government create its own colleges and use the NEET there,” said T. Gunasagaran, the dean of the Saveetha Medical College, Chennai.

While proponents of the NEET acknowledge the need to provide autonomy and flexibility to educational institutions even in the matter of admissions, they argue that the practice of selling medical seats to candidates is so rampant that the NEET was seen as a way of cleaning it up. “We cannot let some colleges allow candidates in the 20 percentile region to become doctors,” said a senior government official, requesting anonymity. “Without the NEET, children may need to take anywhere from six to 15 exams.”

But those opposing the imposition of the NEET point to the admission processes in Canada, the UK and the US where individual medical schools can set their own criteria to choose their candidates. While university medical schools in Canada and the US require students to take a medical college admission test, they also use additional criteria such as the subjects taken in earlier classes, work experience and even recommendation letters to decide who is offered admission. In the UK, medical schools pick students on the basis of their grades in the qualifying A-level examinations and an interview where the panel may also take into account factors such as extra-curricular work performed by candidate in the community or hospitals.

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