Saksham Gupta’s plan to enrol in a medical college was thrown out of gear on April 28, when the Supreme Court asked the Union government to hold a common entrance test for admission into medical colleges across the country for the academic year 2016-17. Called National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET), the two-phase test replaced multiple entrance examinations conducted by states and private colleges.
Several states and most private medical colleges opposed the Supreme Court order, saying NEET cannot be imposed upon them. The lack of consensus among states on challenging the court order threw into confusion lakhs of candidates who were preparing to take multiple entrance tests as usual.
The uncertainty finally ended on May 24, when President Pranab Mukherjee signed an ordinance that “partially overturned” the Supreme Court order. The ordinance empowers state governments to choose between NEET and their own state-level entrance exams this year. Seats under state quota in private medical colleges will follow the state’s procedure for admission. The rest of the seats in all private medical colleges, however, will come under the ambit of NEET. “I want to make it very clear that all private institutions and medical colleges will come under the ambit of NEET,” said Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda. “It is to bring transparency to the system through which private medical colleges admit students.”
Gupta, a 17-year-old in Noida, is happy that his plans are back on track. NEET, he says, has broadened his chances of securing a seat. Anxious about his future, his mother, Soundarya, had earlier wanted to book a seat in a private college for him, which would have cost at least $80 lakh. “My father can afford it, but my self-esteem felt the pinch,” said Gupta. “Now, I am sure that I will manage a medical seat without paying the exorbitant fee.”
The ordinance was sent to the president on May 21. Apparently, Mukherjee had a long list of queries—both on the finer points of the ordinance and whether it would pass legal scrutiny or not. His prompt clearance of the presidential proclamation imposing Article 356 on Uttarakhand had come in for criticism from the Supreme Court after the High Court in Nainital scrapped it. This time round, apparently, Mukherjee wanted to be doubly sure that the ordinance was legally sound.
To clear the doubts, Nadda cancelled his trip to the World Health Summit in Geneva and briefed the president about the need to bring the ordinance. Mukherjee signed it hours before he left for China. “We wanted to ensure that the ordinance comes into force immediately, so as to end the confusion of students,” said Nadda.
Several states had appealed to the Supreme Court against implementing NEET this year. They raised three main concerns. First and foremost was the disparity in syllabus, as NEET would follow the syllabus prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) while most states have their own syllabi. The second concern was regarding language: NEET was to be conducted in English and Hindi only. And the third was the fate of the entrance tests that the states had conducted before the Supreme Court order.
“We have addressed all three concerns of the states,” said Nadda. By next year, he said, the CBSE would implement its syllabus across the country and examinations will be conducted in various regional languages. The first phase of NEET was conducted on May 1 and the second is scheduled for July 24. Several states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab and Telangana have deferred the implementation of NEET, while Manipur, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Chandigarh have agreed to implement it from this year. The states that have decided not to implement NEET this year have already conducted their state entrance tests, in which around 6.5 lakh students appeared. Almost an equal number of students appeared for the first phase of NEET.
The medical fraternity, which has often raised its concern over the quality of education in private medical colleges, has welcomed the ordinance. “Be it Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh or Punjab, there are many private medical colleges that are not up to the mark,” said Dr G.S. Grewal, president, Punjab Medical Council. “Now many meritorious students will gain admission to these colleges. The government has to ensure quality medical education in all the colleges.”
Experts believe that the government has handled the issue well. “When news that the government was trying to promulgate an ordinance came, people speculated that it would be in favour of private medical colleges that charge high capitation fees,” said Dr George Paul, dentist and health activist based in Salem, Tamil Nadu. “But the ordinance has proved them wrong. It is in favour of students. NEET will make medical education uniform across the country.”
Both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry had abolished entrance tests to medical and dental colleges, and were admitting students on the basis of marks obtained in class 12 examination of their state education boards. Both the states will now follow NEET from this year.
According to Dr K. Prakasam, spokesperson for the Tamil Nadu Medical Association, entrance tests were abolished after the state realised that students were focusing on entrance coaching classes instead of regular classes. “I hope the culture doesn’t return,” he said.
Dr Mahesh Verma, director and principal of Delhi’s Maulana Azad Institute of Dental Sciences, said he hoped the Supreme Court would respect the ordinance. “NEET is going to reform medical and dental education in the country in the long run,” he said. “It will favour meritocracy over mediocrity. Such a step will give equal opportunity to all medical aspirants.”