Vivek Vijayan returned to his home in Thrissur, Kerala on March 4. Like many others in war-torn Ukraine, his safe passage out of Kharkiv in the eastern part of the country was a harrowing experience. Vivek and his friends braved bombs and bullets in Kharkiv before managing to get on a 20-hour train ride to Lviv on the western side. Stranded with no transport, they decided to go by foot to the Poland border, walking 10 hours before finally crossing to safety. “A few of my friends got hypothermic shock during the walk, but they are okay now. We are all safe,” says Vijayan, a third year medical student at Kharkiv National Medical University.
Over 18,000 Indian students have been evacuated from Ukraine since February 24 when Russia invaded the former Soviet state. Like Vivek, a majority of these students are pursuing medicine in universities across Ukraine – a fact that has puzzled many in India. TNM spoke to a few Indian students who have returned from Ukraine to find out why they chose to pursue medicine in a country over 5,000 kilometers away.
Angel Yesudas, who is in her second year at Lviv National Medical University, says she was unable to get a government seat in India. “I scored 420 marks in the NEET exam. I managed to get into a private medical college, but it was Rs 1 crore for a seat. My family doesn’t have that kind of money to pay for a seat.” she says.
Unlike Angel, Vivek gave NEET two attempts. “I just managed to pass my first attempt at NEET. I got 200 marks. The second time, I scored 440,” he says. The second try landed him a dental seat, but he was determined to study MBBS. “I tried getting admission at a private college in Mysuru but the fee was beyond my father’s income. I had to pay a donation of Rs 20 lakh and the college fee,” says the 23-year-old.
Out of the 88,120 MBBS seats across India, 43,310 are in government medical colleges in India. The competition is intense – more than 15 lakh students appeared for the NEET exam in 2021, while only around 8 lakh qualified. It’s no different for postgraduate medical seats in India. There are 55,595 postgraduate medical seats across the country. In comparison, 1.6 lakh students appeared for the NEET-PG exam in 2021.
Sai Krishna, who had completed his MBBS in China, says he failed to clear the Foreign Medical Graduates Exam (FMGE), the qualifying exam which foreign trained students have to take to pursue their post-graduation or practice in India. “I’d have to study for several years to clear FMGE. I didn’t want to waste time here,” says the 27-year-old who is now in his first year of General Surgery at Kyiv Medical University.
Limited government seats and the unaffordable cost of medical education in private colleges forced students like Angel, Vivek and Sai Krishna to pursue their medical dream elsewhere.
Although countries like Russia, China, and the Philippines are popular destinations for medical education, one of the reasons Ukraine is attractive for Indian students is that it is affordable. “The standard of education is good and the cost is lower in Ukraine. The medical degree is about Rs 40 lakh for six years,” says Angel. Postgraduate student Sai Krishna says that as opposed to the Rs 15 lakh per annum that he would have had to pay for his MS degree in India, his Ukrainian college charges him USD 2000 per semester which works out to a little more than Rs 1.5 lakh. “The opportunities are less in India. And the private sector is only interested in selling the medical seats,” he says.
The easier admission process and the high rate of acceptance in Ukrainian medical colleges is another factor, say students. Harshavardhan Nandyala, who hails from Kadapa in Telangana, says most medical colleges in Ukraine admit Indian students only if they have cleared NEET. While documents like the Class 12 certificate and the NEET score are verified, Harshavardhan says there is no separate entrance exam to be admitted into a medical college in Ukraine. “After admission, a basic Biology and English language test is conducted before our first semester,” says Angel.
For many Indian students, Ukraine also offers an opportunity to live and work in Europe after graduation. “A medical degree in Ukraine has European credentials. That was a plus point for me,” says Sai Krishna. Vivek says several medical colleges in Ukraine also offer transfer programmes with other European universities. “We can transfer in the third or fifth year to a college in Germany and continue our education there,” he points out.
Meanwhile, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has urged the Union government to accommodate students who have returned from Ukraine in colleges in the country. “I want to go back and finish my degree,” says Vivek, who is spending his time in India preparing for his third year exam.
“I don’t think it will happen, where they will let us continue our education in Indian medical colleges. It’s not like we want to go away. It’s just that there are less opportunities here. That’s the reason people go to small countries,” says Sai Krishna, “It is tough living away from home. It’s not easy being away from parents, studying in a war-torn country or during COVID. We do that because we want to pursue our dreams.”
While the future of their education in Ukraine may be uncertain, the Consortium of Deemed-to-be-Universities of Karnataka may hold a ray of hope, offering to accommodate at least 1,000 students in their medical colleges. The consortium has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will, however, have to get the approval of the National Medical Commission and the Union government.