As NEET progresses, States must take affirmative action to protect weaker sections
In a year when merely executing the norm becomes an achievement, the conduct of two rounds of NEET, attendance at the test and the publication of results, all in the face of resistance from certain States, can presumably count as achievements. The results were declared last week, and the top score was a perfect 720, scored not by one, but two students, who will have their choice of college in the undergraduate medical programme. The decision to conduct the exam, when there was uncertainty about the ability of students to reach the centres, was probably bold, though it had not factored in the lowest common denominator. But then, the NEET is not about catering to the lowest common denominator, it is avowedly about standardising medical education, ensuring the quality of medical graduates who will hopefully go on to serve society. Working with the ideal of raising the quality is clearly a laborious, time-consuming process, and is bound to be uneven at the start, even if all States have begun to level the playing field. Different States have been allowed to offer their own education systems — different streams with varying standards and pedagogies — and NEET brings in an overarching single syllabus not all have access to. Therein begin the inequities. Students in certain circumstances, (poor, living in remote areas and disadvantaged, for instance), and in certain boards of education (State board, for instance) will remain at a disadvantage, as a result of this.
Even as scores show an overall improvement over the years, States must not rest in their endeavour to ease the access to, and enhance students’ ability to clear the test successfully, even without the need to spend much on coaching classes. Certain measures, including Tamil Nadu’s move to reserve 7.5% of MBBS seats for State government school students who clear NEET, running State-sponsored, free or heavily subsidised coaching programmes, and a reassessment of the regional State syllabus, will all enable a more equitable scenario. If coaching can help bridge the yawning gap, then the State could mandate that private coaching centres do not charge exorbitantly for conducting year-long coaching programmes and even provide reasonable subsidies for certain groups of students. Meanwhile, the overemphasis by parents on medicine as the only career option for their wards, and wanton politicisation of NEET will merely serve to exacerbate the acute deficiencies of the process. Pandemic-related challenges notwithstanding, for true positive impact, any welfare state must build systems around the core ideas of equity of access and affordability — especially in education and health care.