Abolition of NEET: Giving legal sanction to colleges of scandal

Guest article by Vatsala Vedantam

When a national television channel telecast a sting operation last month revealing the auction of undergraduate and post graduate seats in three private medical colleges, one heaved a sigh of relief that public awareness and activism were still alive in this country.

The sigh turned into a moan when the highest court in the land passed a startling judgment shortly afterwards giving such colleges legal sanction to continue their illicit activities.

The three judge Supreme Court verdict banning the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test (NEET) from admitting students to the 345 medical/ dental colleges in the country from the academic year 2014 has ensured that 45,000 substandard doctors and dentists will be unleashed in India’s hospitals in the next five years. 

The judgment was in response to 115 petitions from private managements whose business interests were hit when the Medical Council of India rightly ruled that all medical and dental seats should be filled only on the basis of a single entrance examination hereafter. 
The apex court ruled that the MCI order was constitutionally invalid -- which still does not make it academically or democratically unsound. 

In a country which needs more than a million doctors still to fill its primary health care centres that cater to the poorest patients, it is suicidal to unleash under qualified medical personnel on an unsuspecting public which already suffers a serious shortage of doctors in rural areas where 80 per cent of the population resides. The dissenting voice of one judge confirms that there is still hope for health care and its inputs to be restored to their proper place.

It is no secret that the present state of medical education in the country is in a shambles. Not only is it ridden with insurmountable problems like innumerable entrance tests which make students run from college to college seeking admissions; but it has no guarantee that the most deserving alone will gain entry into medical colleges. If they do, the best among them leave the country in search of greener pastures abroad, as working conditions in hospitals here are deplorable. 

Among those who stay back, few will want to serve in rural areas and hospitals where living conditions do not make it conducive to work. As for the institutions themselves, it goes without saying that ill equipped private colleges can only turn out ill equipped doctors and dentists. Their ‘private practice’ will be a poor substitute for conducting proper medical duties. As for the few autonomous medical schools in the country which are well ordered and train their students to perfection, they would prefer the doctors whom they trained at great cost to work in their own hospitals when they graduate, and rightly so. 

Poorly equipped medical colleges

State medical colleges which admit students through the common entrance test in each state are themselves poorly equipped and managed as they are completely controlled by the state governments. Nepotism, corruption and political interference plague these institutions. Their teaching hospitals, though rich in patient strength, reek of unsightly filth and mismanagement. Lastly, the ugly face of the capitation fee culture looms large over private medical education which has mushroomed in uncontrollable numbers in many states. Financially crippled students, however deserving they may be, cannot gain entry into these institutions which are managed by private trusts, business houses and politicians in power. 

In this ugly scenario, neither the student nor the patient stands to gain. The only beneficiary is the politically influential, socially irresponsible business magnate --read ‘educationist’ — who gains by ‘launching’ such unviable medical colleges for ineligible students.

In the light of these severe drawbacks in the field of medical education, the single National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) proposed by the Medical Council of India was a boon. It was too good to be true. It may have had certain constitutional limitations. Or, lacked proper examining criteria. It may have been too theoretical and lacked practical inputs. Yet, none of these justified its total abolition. Its weaknesses, if any, could easily be corrected. Its legal aspects amended. 

If the MCI guidelines did not permit it to conduct entrance examinations through the CBSE or otherwise, those guidelines could be suitably revised. Instead of being a mere regulatory body, it could be made the authority for regularising and planning the mechanics of admission to undergraduate and post graduate courses in medical colleges. As for the test itself, as pointed out by the Director of the Christian Medical Hospital in Vellore, it could be revised so that greater attention is paid to practical work and bedside skills – two very important qualifications for doctors. 

These are details that can be put in place instead of totally scrapping the NEET itself -- which would be like throwing away the baby with the bath water! The dissenting judge in the case rightly said: “Holding the NEET is legal, practical and the need of society.” If a single test can enable 300,000 high school leavers to compete for admission to 45,000 seats with no other strings attached, what better options for medical education? The apex court must take another long look at this aspect.

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