Tens of thousands of state board students in Tamil Nadu are hoping to enter medical colleges this year, and achieve their dreams of becoming doctors. But has the state government done enough to ensure that the students will be able to fulfil their aspirations? Has the state government kept its promises on the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), to be conducted in the first week of May?
Short answer: Not really.
In an exclusive interview to The News Minute, Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education, K Sengottaiyan said that the government is doing its best to ensure that medical aspirants are given adequate training to crack the controversial entrance examination, but that it’s “not possible to get everything done immediately.”
The minister further revealed that the government has a questionable 11th hour solution for their unpreparedness. “We will choose 4,000 aspirants and offer them free accommodation and food. They will be given 'special coaching' to ensure they crack NEET,” Sengottaiyan said.
And how will they be chosen?
"We will be observing them in training centres. So we will know who the bright ones are," said the minister.
The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) has a controversial history in the state. The exam was opposed by the state government until Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister, but since her demise, the state government led by Edappadi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam (alternately and together) have not managed to get an exemption for the state from the Centre. The state has also been accused of failing to both prepare students for the NEET syllabus, and updating their own syllabus to ensure the state board students are on par with students from other parts of the country.
In the year since 2017’s NEET controversy, and months after the death of Dalit student Anitha – who killed herself after not clearing the medical entrance examination – the Tamil Nadu government has made little headway on the assurance that they will get an exemption for the exam.
However, unlike last year, some attempts are underway this year to prepare the students for NEET.
Minister Sengottaiyan told TNM, "Efforts for getting an exemption are underway. But we are already making progress in getting state board students prepared for the exam. 72,000 students in the state are currently undergoing training, and centres for the same have been set up from October. They exist in all districts including extremely rural interiors."
“We are planning on releasing six volumes of books with all necessary study material online in March, which is when their board exams will get over," he further said. “From March 15, laptops will be distributed to the students, so that they can have access to the material," he added.
The competitive exam is set to be held in Tamil Nadu in the first week of May. With board exams occupying students' minds and time the whole of March, it would leave them with only one month of exclusive preparation for NEET – especially with the study material being provided so late.
The minister acknowledges that the students cannot all be trained completely or satisfactorily at such short notice. "It is not possible to get everything done immediately,” he said.
"It is easy for people to say that we must change everything but implementation is difficult,” he said, adding that 2000 teachers have been appointed in these NEET centres, after being trained in the syllabus.
“The biggest challenge was that state board school were not even teaching students the 11th standard syllabus. But question in NEET were from these portions. So, that is something we have already successfully corrected," says the Minister confidently.
Activists on the ground and opposition however allege that claims made by the minister are far from true.
Where are the centres?
In January, PMK youth wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss had hit out at the state government accusing them of 'lethargy' in preparing students for the NEET exam. He had alleged that of the 412 institutes that the government had promised, only 100 have been set up.
In October, the government had signed memoranda of understanding (MoU) with two institutions. The students were to be provided free coaching in the institutes. And once the initial phase of 100 coaching centres were established, a total of 412 centres were to be set up by January.
"Only an institute called SPEED is currently running 100 institutions in the state for free. There has been no other effort on the part of the government to bring in more centres," said Dr GR Ravindranath, General Secretary of the Doctors’ Association for Social Equity. "They had set aside Rs 20 crore for training students. They need to show us how they have utilised this money," he added.
The Education Minister when asked about this discrepancy, however, was confident in his claim. "We have all 412 centres in place. May be in some rural centres, due to network problems, we are unable to hold smart class sessions. Otherwise trained teachers have been dispatched there already," he told TNM.
The lack of study material
But even the minister cannot deny that the government is yet to provide the NEET study material to schools and training centres.
"We have printed and distributed 57,000 books with Tamil questions and answers so far," said Sengottaiyan. "100 teachers are working on translations of other materials, and six volumes will be distributed soon," he added.
Dr Ravindranath however remained sceptical. "The students already have limited time for preparation. The only option at hand is a crash course. But even for that, government schools require material in Tamil to teach their students,” he said.
“Even whatever the government claims to have distributed was in fact prepared by SPEED," he added.
Sure enough, the book that the minister showed this reporter carried the words SPEED in bold font. "We have not got any material from the government. We are preparing our own," a representative of SPEED told TNM.
In addition to this, the promise of a bank of 50,000 questions that could appear in the exam also remains unfulfilled. "We have people working on this. These are all initiatives that the Health Ministry should have taken up but the education ministry is doing it," said Sengottaiyan, shifting the blame. "But students will have more preparation this time for sure," he added.
Both government and private state board schools however remain worried.
Malathi Gopinath, Principal of the Vivekananda Matriculation Higher secondary school in Coimbatore said, "The number of children taking up biology after the 10th standard has reduced. And for those in the 12th standard, students wanting to study medicine has come down. Out of the 17 students that we have, only 5 are going to write NEET. But even they are extremely scared."
The school science teachers had printed out material from the CBSE site to train students but is afraid that language will prove to be a barrier. "Even though it is an English medium school, children come from the lower strata of society. So they will be more comfortable if they understood questions in Tamil as well. The lack of material in Tamil has proven to be a great challenge," the teacher said.
Meanwhile the headmaster of a government school in Villupuram said under the condition of anonymity that the current training material provided is not satisfactory. "Students are dependent on classes conducted by SPEED online, but they don't have access to internet at home. Children who come to government schools are either poor or from lower middle class backgrounds. So, how can the government expect them to study for NEET online?" he asked.
For these students, Dr Ravindranath predicted that heartbreak is once again in store. "Private state board schools started training their students much earlier and parents who could afford it, have been sending their wards for coaching to other institutions. Students from government schools will not be able to compete. Their dreams will be crushed again," he added.
Even party members confused
Highly placed sources within the AIADMK say that trying for an exemption from NEET is now out of question. "We must now follow the law of the land. It was obvious that Centre will not relent on the matter by September," said a leader. "So what the ministry should have done is simply changed the syllabus for the 11th and 12th classes to the CBSE syllabus. That would have solved the issue of creating new study material. It just had to be translated. Then a crash course could have been conducted for the teachers," he added.
But even this will not lead to the necessary transformation of the system
Currently, even the change in syllabus is at a standstill, with the government having made no comment on the matter after it took public opinion on the changes it proposed.
The process ended in December but details on the new syllabus are yet to be announced.
The Education Minister however chooses to focus on the current situation at hand. "Of the 72,000 students that have been trained so far, we will choose 4000 and offer them free accommodation and food. They will be given 'special coaching' to ensure they crack NEET," he said.
But school administrators are not for the idea. "The government is under pressure now because the number of state board students who cracked NEET last year was abysmally low. They just want to show better numbers. But by carrying out such practices, they will only further lower the morale of the students," said the government school headmaster.