How India can be a world leader in medical education

(HT File Photo)

The Lok Sabha on Tuesday passed two bills aimed at putting in place a single common examination for medical and dental courses that will bring even private colleges under its ambit.

“The bill will give statutory status to the NEET. This will make the examination system fair and transparent and students won’t face multiplicity of exams. It will also stop the exploitation of students in the name of capitation fees,” health minister JP Nadda said while replying to the debate.

The National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) was brought in for the first time by the Medical Council of India (MCI) in 2012 to hold a centralised examination for admissions to undergraduate and postgraduate courses in medicine. This would ensure merit-based admissions in a transparent manner and check the irregular admission processes prevalent in some of the private medical colleges.

However, NEET was set aside by the Supreme Court on petitions filed by private medical colleges. While the decision of the apex court was a setback, the court agreed to reconsider its split-decision. A few weeks ago, the court recalled its order of 2013, by which NEET had been set aside, and directed that NEET be conducted for the year 2016.

This was a welcome step. For an equal representation from states, the Government of India decided to promulgate an Ordinance, allowing the states to conduct their own medical entrance examination for the undergraduate course for this year. The Ordinance does not allow private colleges to conduct their own examinations.

NEET is urgently required in India as it will foster a sense of confidence in the admission process, and help in attracting the brightest talent to the medical profession. Moreover, students will be relieved of the burden of appearing in and paying for a number of entrance tests. However, there is criticism of NEET due to the divergence in its course content and standards. The syllabus for NEET was first based on the 10+2 level CBSE and other state boards’ course content. Issues from various quarters were examined by an expert group before finalising the course content and separate merit lists for each state were contemplated. Thus students from a particular state would compete with peers from their own state with no question of any urban-rural divide.

The ordinance does not affect NEET for postgraduate courses, which will be held in December this year. Of course, the timing of the exam could be revisited. Currently, the NEET for postgraduate courses is held at the end of the internship period. This results in students preparing for an entrance test during their internship, thereby compromising on the clinical training period. This adversely impacts the training of graduate doctors. In my view, the internship period should be properly utilised and the entrance process for postgraduate courses should include testing the students’ clinical skills.

Therefore, NEET is only the beginning. The next step should be to have a common exit examination, to ensure uniform standard of evaluation across the country. Presently the deemed or private universities conduct their own exit examinations. There have been murmurs regarding irregularities and the unfair means used in these exit examinations.

Other reform measures can include an increase in the number of postgraduate seats, adoption of a new undergraduate curriculum and adjunct faculty from basic science institutes and eminent clinicians from private hospitals. It is also necessary to review the minimum requirements required for setting up medical colleges. This would incentivise entrepreneurs whose prime interest is to create institutions of excellence providing quality education and training. Such reforms when met with the wealth of clinical material available can make India a world leader in medical education and healthcare.