The Supreme Court verdict on National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the controversies surrounding it are hardly a surprise to anyone. The problem has cropped up around this time every year. It causes a major inconvenience and headache to students aspiring to practice medicine.
The support for NEET as a uniform standard examination for all medical aspirants cannot be ignored. A significant part seems to believe that setting such a standard is likely to put an end to ‘unworthy’ candidates making their way into medical schools. But State boards have postponed installing the examination, arguing that they haven't had enough time to supplement their curriculum with the pattern set by the exam.
A more coherent criticism of NEET is necessary. We must understand the reservations of many students, as well as teachers and medical practitioners on the introduction of a uniform examination model. Garga Chatterjee makes a rather compelling case against the biased nature of the exam itself. The argument that the CBSE based syllabus of NEET is somehow better than other boards has been challenged by P. S. Anil Kumar and Dipankar Chatterjee of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. They found that students from the state boards in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka have outperformed the ones from CBSE in the core sciences. Neither does it make any sense to impose a syllabus based on the CBSE, which cannot even claim to be the largest of India’s education boards (less than 10 per cent of Indian high school students belong to the CBSE).

A Federal Approach Towards Education

The seventh schedule of the Indian constitution places education on the list for a pragmatic reason. It ensures that states can employ their resources judiciously. The aim is to prioritize the sectors that need the greatest attention, and at the same time allow that central oversight ensures flexibility across the board to maintain a degree of parity in the country’s education system.
But, the central intrusions into the state’s jurisdictions could turn everything haywire. For one, states like Kerala, with higher rates of literacy, are bound to have different education levels than the ones like Bihar. Forcing a uniform educational model on them without taking note of its implications does not seem to be pragmatic.
Another, many states depend on junior doctors to maintain primary healthcare, especially in their poorer and backward districts. Many of these doctors are motivated into such a service because they themselves emerge from a similar background.
A proper approach to healthcare requires understanding of diseases and drugs as well as the socio-economic conditions that the patients undergo in their daily lives, which are often at the root of several diseases. India being a country of diverse cultures and traditions presents a major challenge to such an understanding, and is likely to emerge as a great hurdle in the coming times if our governments do not take notice of the mess that the NEET will put us in.
With the introduction of NEET, medical students will be scrambled all across the country. We cannot expect the same degree of empathy for patients, whose daily lives they will have little knowledge or understanding of.

Rethinking Centralisation

The debate surrounding the medical entrance examination should serve as a reminder that the plethora of National Eligibility Tests and the logic that surrounds them need to be brought into question. This includes the JEE mains, Advanced for Engineering admissions as well as the CAT for Business Schools, and the CUCET for central universities.

Op-eds often bemoan that students enjoy highly subsidized education in our IITs before being whisked away by California or Singapore based firms.

But little is done to attend to the problems that give rise to the situation in the first place.

We disregard the fact that entrance examinations for these institutes measure merit based on marks received on a Multiple-Choice test. It's clear this incentivizes disregard for the larger socio-economic context. The process is biased towards those who are able to afford to pay a few lakhs every year for four years to coaching institutions that claim to train students for a guaranteed seat in the IITs. Little emphasis exists on the skills that are essential to support the society that a student sees around oneself, and the debate surrounding caste, gender, and economic reservations reflects this entrenched disregard. We must not be surprised when IITs contribute to less than 2 per cent of the scientists at ISRO, the Railways, or Roadways sectors. 

If we want to address the problems of higher education, we must acknowledge the problems caused by increased encroachment of centralization in the sector. Instead of deriding state boards as hellholes of corruption and failure, we need to appreciate their roles in the spread of primary education, and the roles of state universities in higher education. These institutions, built over decades, are often fine-tuned to the specific needs of the region. Wrenching them away threatens to destroy both the institutions as well as any incentive to invest in infrastructure in the future.