Why I support NEET in Tamil Nadu

Last Updated: Tue, Sep 12, 2017 11:47 hrs
NEET supporters in Tamil Nadu

(Image tweeted by @SupportNEET)

Tamil Nadu has a track record of treating itself differently from the rest of India, setting itself apart from the rules imposed by the Centre as well as the judgments of the Supreme Court, on issues ranging from reservation to language, from jallikattu to the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET). Some of these have been necessary, but some cannot be justified. And in this instance, it is crucial that the Centre does not give in to the state’s continuous demand for exemption from the NEET.

Yes, there are problems with the implementation, and both the Centre and the state must share the blame for it.

But to pin the suicide of Anitha on NEET is absurd. For decades, and in every one of its tussles with the Centre – including the commutation of the death sentence for the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case – Tamil Nadu has found itself “martyrs”. These “martyrs” are usually young, vulnerable people who believe they are dying for a cause. If the suicide must be attributed to more than the impulses of a moment, it is this culture of “martyrdom” and the political capital that others gain from it.

How, one wonders, could a student who scored 96 percent in her Class 12 board exams score 86 marks out of 720 in the NEET? Was it because of the language or the syllabus?

One of the reasons for several states including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat to initially oppose NEET was the language barrier – until 2017, it was only offered in the two Official Languages of the Union, English and Hindi. However, these are not the only two official languages, and not the only two linguistic media in which education is recognised. This remains a problem with several competitive exams.

After objections, the NEET was offered in 10 languages including Tamil this year. However, parents and wards claimed that some vernacular papers were tougher than the English and Hindi papers. This is easily addressed: one can ensure that everyone is on a level playing field by simply translating and not changing the questions across languages.

But, under the circumstances that NEET was offered in Tamil – which was Anitha’s medium of education – one has to look beyond language.

Surely it says something about the quality of education in the state if a student who had excelled in the state’s examinations did so poorly because she did not have access to coaching classes?

We need a generation of competent doctors, and NEET seems more likely to provide that than the state exams. For decades, students of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) have lost out on seats because the examination tends to be rather more difficult than the state board, which privileges rote learning over critical and lateral thinking. That said, even the CBSE is not a particularly challenging system. Most of the questions in the two CBSE board exams I wrote in Class 10 and 12 were straight out of sample papers we had studied. Sometimes, even the values were unchanged, so that anyone with a decent memory knew the answer was right because it would be the same.

Even so, it is indisputable that students of the state board score higher marks, and so CBSE students who did not make the impossibly high cut-offs either had to buy seats or use “influence” to get in – not the best filter for competence. This is further complicated by Tamil Nadu’s unconstitutional reservation of 69 percent, of which the majority is for various categories of backward classes and not Dalits – in other words, for the vote banks.

The tussle over NEET versus final exams has been going on since 2013, and it was evident that it would be implemented at some point.

No fair argument can be made against a uniform medical entrance exam across the country. It is the principle on which the Union Public Service Commission exams are based; it is the principle on which the Joint Entrance Examination for admission into various engineering colleges is based. So why not apply the same principle to medical colleges?

As citizens of India, we have the right to practise our professions anywhere in the country. Under those circumstances, it makes no sense to speak of the “right of the states” to set their own standards of education.

Tamil Nadu has, until now, focused on quantity over quality. The state has managed to keep a majority of its children, particularly girls, in school for far longer than others. But this cannot be done simply by lowering the bar. That is not “educational reform” – it is compromise on quality. And we cannot make concessions for a poor system of education at the cost of lives – doctors are quite literally in charge of lives.

A comparison between the student intake across various districts in 2016 (based on the final exams) and 2017 (based on NEET) provides food for thought.

There has been a drastic increase in seats for students from Madras, Vellore, Cuddalore, Coimbatore, Madurai and other cities. But the argument that the rural areas suffer is not necessarily true – the number of admissions from the Niligiris is 24 this year, up from 2 last year. The intake from Ariyalur – the district to which Anitha belonged – was 21, up from 4 last year.

On the other hand, there has been a drastic decrease in the numbers of students qualifying for medical seats from Namakkal, Krishnagiri, Erode, Perambalur, and Dharmapuri.

Most arguments against the NEET suggest that the CBSE students have an unfair advantage because of their syllabus. In other words, they are better equipped because of a more comprehensive syllabus.

Shouldn’t we be looking at a way to redesign the state syllabus so that students are prepared for competitive exams, rather than insisting on status quo even if it means a sub-standard education?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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