Seventeen-year-old Keerthana has been a ball of nerves this last month. The aspiring doctor who should be celebrating the end of her 12th standard board exams, spends every evening with her head buried in books, anxiety peaking.
She has left her home in Dharmapuri to spend a month in Coimbatore, like many others who have placed their faith in coaching centres to clear the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) exam on May 7. The teenager, who studied in a State board school in Dharmapuri, is now faced with the challenging task of learning one year's syllabus in a one month crash course.
On March 10, a notification by the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry made it mandatory for all State Governments to conduct the common counselling for admission in MBBS and post graduate medical courses like MS and MD. Thus, on May 7, all class 12 students aspiring to study MBBS in any college or deemed university in the state will have to write the NEET exam. The Tamil Nadu Government opposed the move, claiming it will be detrimental to students who follow the State Board syllabus, as NEET will be based on 'CBSE syllabus'. The opposition however has left no dent on the Centre's plans.
Parents of students who follow the state syllabus, meanwhile claim, the state government is to be blamed for the students' lack of preparedness. "Tamil Nadu's standard of education is deplorable and our students are absolutely unable to cope outside of school. The first enemy here is the Samacheer Kalvi system. It has reduced the quality of education and made students incompetent for competitive exams post class 12," says Nandhakumar, a member of the Parent-Teacher Association for Matriculation Schools. "The syllabus has not been updated for a decade and the state government's failure is now affecting the students," he alleges.
But the problem is not the syllabus alone, according to students. It also arises, they claim, from the focus on marks and not understanding. "We are learning the 11th standard syllabus only now at this coaching centre," says Keerthana, who studied in Vijay Vidhyalaya school. "What happens in most state board schools is that we skip the 11th standard portions and immediately starting learning the 12th standard syllabus. We memorise what we must for the exams and fail to understand the basic concepts," she adds.
Now as a price for her school's focus on marks, Keerthana is attempting to learn the whole of the 11th standard syllabus a month ahead of the NEET exam. Her crash course began on April 3 and will end on May 5. "I wasn't this scared even for the board exam. Even my family is so anxious. It is my dream to become a cardiologist and I am scared that if I don't clear NEET, I have to give it up," says the 17-year-old.
State board students who have written the NEET exams, affirm Keerthana's fears. Akash, a first year MBBS student in Annamalai University went to a coaching class in Kerala last year to prepare for the exam claims, "We were completely out our depth. CBSE students found it very easy to answer question but we were really struggling. There is no way we can write these exams, with only what we learnt in school," he says.
Coaching Centres flourish
As students fear an end to their aspirations, it is the coaching centres that are raking in the money.
"These centres are a scam," says Nandakumar. "How can they teach students a year's syllabus in one month. This is just a new way they have devised to earn money," he claims. While Akash paid Rs. 20,000 for his one month course, Keerthana is paying Rs. 38,000. In addition to this, they have to manage their own accommodation and food.
Winner's Academy, which runs a one-month course in Chennai, had a single batch of 33 students last year. "This year, we have two batches of 45 students each. We refused more than 60 students this month," said Poonam Gaglani who runs the academy told ToI.
Centres across the state claim to have gotten more requests for admissions than they can teach. In several institutes offering crash courses, the number of students have more than doubled.
But Pioneer academy in Chennai, which offers a one year course, says just one month is not enough to prepare for NEET. "We function like a school from 9am to 4pm, five days a week and hold tests every Monday. The focus is on preparing students for the competitive exam," says Dr. Rajesh, the Director of the institute. "Yes, state board students initially find it difficult but by the end of the year they are on par if not better than CBSE students," he adds. Pioneer Academy, which offers accommodation to students, charges Rs.1.5 lakh for its one year course. The academy currently has 92 students, double the number it had last year.