NEET and the illusion of ‘merit’

In many quarters “merit” is simply considered to be performance in a competitive exam. However, this view remains oblivious to many external factors.
NEET and the illusion of ‘merit’
NEET and the illusion of ‘merit’

This piece is a part of TNM's reader-funded Cooperative Federalism Project. Indian residents can support the project here, NRIs, please click here

Across the world, education, instead of becoming a mechanism for mobility, has become a fortress of privilege. Often in India we hear this debate on how affirmative action thwarts meritocracy, or why exams like NEET foster meritocracy and help the country produce better doctors. These narrow views and opinions stem from a lack of understanding of the term “merit.”

The idea of merit is abstract, or can be even termed treacherous. Naively, in many quarters “merit” is simply considered to be performance in a competitive exam. However, this view remains oblivious to many external factors such as caste-based cleavages, parental exposure, schools attended, living environment or other negative experiences like childhood abuse and neglect, among many other similar factors. A child born to a Dalit family in a rural village will have 10x limited exposure and resources compared to someone who is born in Delhi to an upper middle class family. The former is most likely to attend a school with poor infrastructure, working part time with his parents, while the latter is enrolled in one of Delhi’s best schools, and his parents have already decided on his future ambitions — giving him an early mover advantage. How could ability or talent be measured in such a scenario? Would it not be unjust if both these kids are made to face the same exam, and their application is decided solely based on the results of this exam? Linking the future of millions of children or adolescents, based on their performance in a single competitive exam such as NEET, which is trainable, is unfair and unjust. This simply perpetuates inequality, attenuating existing cleavages.

All forms of selection criteria have some form of discrepancy; “pure merit” as such is a myth and is a utopian concept. But what policymakers could do is devise a methodology that minimises these discrepancies and inherent biases. This is what the DMK Government under Kalaigner did by abolishing entrance exams for admission to medical colleges, and introducing samacheer kalvi — a common, watered down syllabus for all students of TN. Research points to the fact that a simpler curriculum levels the playing field to a certain extent.

Though only some research studies have been undertaken on NEET, there is a plethora of research that has been undertaken across the world, in particular the United States of America, on how competitive exams are an antithesis to the principle of merit. A study by Brookings based on data from College Board, which conducts the SAT exams, in 2019, shows that the chances of someone coming from a rich family (top 1%) attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if one comes from a poor family (bottom 20%). The reason for the same being discrepancies in SAT scores among other factors.

Charts courtesy:

From the above charts, it's clear that the rich, affluent and white population have a unique advantage when it comes to mastering the SAT exam or similar other competitive exams such as GRE or GMAT. For example, the charts also showcase that students whose parents are graduates tend to have a score on average 300 points more than students whose parents aren't. Similarly, race seems to have played a huge role in performance at SAT exams, with historically suppressed black Americans scoring the lowest. India in comparison to the USA, is a much more stratified society and the effect of historical caste-based discrimination plays a much more profound role than in the USA.

According to research by Elaine M. Allensworth, Kallie Clark of University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, school marks are affected to a much lesser extent by cleavages based on income and race. The research also identifies that school marks have turned out to be a better predictor of performance in the University. (This was shown to have a more profound impact on students from poorer or racially marginalised backgrounds). In fact, for two students with the same SAT score, their high school GPA turned out to be a better predictor of success. If two students with same test scores are compared, the students with higher school marks had performed better in college and in real life thereafter. These facts are consistent with the findings of the committee set up by the TN government. On the same lines, an RTI observed 90% fall in Tamil-medium students in government medical colleges after introduction of NEET. 

Another research by Oswell, author of outliers, concludes, based on long term experiments undertaken at University of Michigan, that even if marginalised students, say from poorer Black neighbourhoods, were admitted based on affirmative action, despite much poorer performance in comparison to their white colleagues, though their college grades remained lower than white colleagues, their professional achievement in the medium term matched with that of white colleagues. The reason for this is because students who manage to succeed — such as getting admitted to a top university or a medical college in spite of their disadvantaged backgrounds, are found to be more aspirational, determined and tend to persevere more to achieve success.

Let us take the case of Anitha; she was born to a very poor, Dalit family, in rural Tamil Nadu. She lost her mother when she was a child, her father was a manual labourer, and in spite of all the inherent biases, she managed to score 1,176 out of 1,200 in her school exams, putting her in the top 0.3 %. If there wasn’t any NEET, based on her school marks, she would have gone on to study at one of Tamil Nadu’s best medical colleges, becoming the first doctor from her entire community. Was it her lack of ability that stopped Anitha from clearing the NEET, or was it the paucity of time or lack of exposure and resources? Of course, it was lack of time, lack of exposure and resources. If she was given an opportunity to pursue her dream, she would perhaps have gone on to perform better than even the candidate who stood first in the NEET exam with the help of a coaching institute. Now because of NEET we not just failed Anitha, but failed the aspiration of an entire community. NEET related suicides are not due to anxiety , but rather, due to loss of aspiration and hope. This is why most of the NEET victims are from rural and marginalised backgrounds.

The primary reason for the above mentioned discrepancy lies in the fact, as stated above, that these entrance exams are trainable; none of the entrance exams or tests are designed to test the inherent intelligence of a person. The positive test results largely depend on the number of hours spent and quality of teaching received. Those from affluent backgrounds would be able to afford private tuitions for their children, which in India costs more than Rs 75,000 a year. An IIT study in 2005 identified that 95% of those who entered the IITs had attended private coaching classes, out of whom 75% were from urban areas. Shockingly, until a decade ago, 1/6th of IIT admits originated from a single coaching institute, Bansal classes, based out of Kota. Some of these institutes charge anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and 2 lakh a year — a sum unaffordable for the majority of Indians, which is why just 2.86 % of the students who get admitted into IITs are from poor/rural, uneducated families. The author, who himself was a successful candidate at AIEEE, says 70% of the students who joined NIT Trichy, from Tamil Nadu, after introduction of AIEEE, around mid 2000s, were from Chennai, specifically from a few select schools.

All leading universities, including the Ivy leagues in the USA, are starting to rely less and less on entrance exams for admission of students from marginalised backgrounds. France’s elite Sciences Po, which has produced 90% of French Presidents, diplomats of the French republic and four past heads of IMF has rescinded the entrance exam on the basis of positive discrimination and now relies only on school marks for admission. ENA and Sciences Po, together in France, are as important as the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Public Administration, which trains the Indian Administrative Service officers, and have scrapped the entrance exams for admissions based on decades long study. So the Modi government’s decision to force NEET on students is based on ill-founded research and does not do anything to improve quality. If the government was focused on improving quality, then why not an ‘exit’ NEET?

Why Scrap NEET and not JEE

The fundamental problem with NEET is that, apart from infringing on the tenets of federalism, it affects the admission of all medical school aspirants; on the other hand, IIT-JEE affects only the admission of 3% of the total engineering graduates. Further, IITs/IIMs/NITs are funded by the Union government whereas nearly all the medical colleges in Tamil Nadu are majorly funded by the state government.

If the IIT results are to go by, continuation of NEET will disproportionately produce more doctors from urban areas than traditionally produced in Tamil Nadu, leading to lack of doctors in rural areas. Moreover, NEET also destroys the aspirations of thousands of rural and marginalised students of Tamil Nadu.

NEET against Cooperative Federalism

Due to extraordinary investments made by successive Dravidian governments in Tamil Nadu, in the ranking of Indian states for healthcare outcomes, Tamil Nadu always ranks within the top 3. Tamil Nadu not only has the highest doctor-population ratio, but also has the best spatial distribution of doctors, which was achieved by interventions such as abolition of entrance exams, introduction of caste based/horizontal reservations (reservation for rural/govt school students) and opening up of medical universities all across Tamil Nadu. In fact, Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, serves as the hub for medical tourism in India. Why should a state that has made enviable progress in healthcare be forced by the Union government to deviate from its successful developmental model? Should it not be that, Tamil Nadu be made as a best case example for the rest of India, and the Union government recommends the Tamil Nadu model for other states to emulate?

India is a country as diverse as countries of the European Union; and the level of development varies between states greatly. Tamil Nadu for example has 32 times more doctors for the population than Jharkhand. When such discrepancies exist among states, how can the Union government aim to have a single admission procedure for such a diverse country?

With health being a state subject, and education being in concurrent list, it is only fair that the President of India appreciates the law passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly and gives his assent to the same. Any further continuation of NEET in Tamil Nadu is a travesty of justice and an insult to the concept of federalism. 

Salem Dharanidharan is an alumnus of University of Oxford and Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po, Paris). He is an executive coordinator at Dravidian Professionals Forum and Co-founder of Oxford Policy Advisory Group.

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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