For almost 100 years now, the Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu has taken in a fresh batch of aspiring doctors every year to live and study on its 200-acre campus. Each of its 100 students has always been a carefully selected candidate for the MBBS course, through the college’s rigorous admission process. Many of these students come from remote areas such as rural parts of Jharkhand, Mizoram and Uttar Pradesh to study medicine at one of the top institutions in the country.

But for the first time since its inception, the college has decided not to take in a new batch of students for its MBBS course and super-speciality programmes. Except for one of the 100 seats filled by a student nominated by the Centre for MBBS, and another one for the 62 seats in the super-speciality programmes, 160 of its 162 seats thus lie vacant this year.

The college took this decision because it was no longer allowed to select its own students. In March, a gazette notification by the Medical Council of India said that the selection of candidates for medical seats should take place through a central or state government body, even for management seats in private colleges. In the case of self-financed minority institutions like the Vellore college, the state would allot students to fill the quota of 85% seats for Christian students.

“There is no autonomy for colleges to select candidates, even based on NEET,” said Dr Anna Pulimood, principal of the medical college. “It takes away our right to select our own candidates. How can we be guaranteed that the government will choose candidates who are willing to serve in rural areas, as our course demands?”

“We don’t want to jeopardise our mission by allowing somebody else the power of selection,” she added.

Separate counselling

The college is run by an association comprising of 53 christian churches and organisations belonging to the Protestant and Orthodox traditions. The college, like St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, used to select a number of its students from its wide networks of churches. The selection was earlier based on written examination and a series of interviews that gauged the leadership skills, communication, teamwork, hand skills and drive to serve the underprivileged, said Pulimood. Students admitted to the college are required to sign a bond agreeing to work in a rural areas for two years after the course.

“Many students stay back in these places and continue to work there for decades,” said Pulimood.

When the government announced in 2012 that the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET would be compulsory for admissions to all medical colleges in India, the college filed a petition asking to be exempted from conducting the common entrance examination. In 2013, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court ruled in its favour, striking down NEET as unconstitutional. However, in 2016, this judgement was referred to a five-judge bench, which then said that the 2013 judgement needed reconsideration and directed that matters be heard afresh.

Last year, the college discontinued its own entrance exam and instead based the college admissions on the NEET exam. The shortlisted students from the examination and the affiliated churches were called for a series of interviews. The college was allowed to conduct its own counselling sessions and choose its own candidates from NEET. However, this year, common counselling by the state was made the rule. “Here, no interviews will be conducted and they will send us only high-ranking students,” said Pulimood. “We’re not against NEET. We’re not against common counselling in other colleges. But in our college this won’t work. Why should we subsidise education and spend so much time and energy training students who won’t fulfill our mission?”

Credit: CMC Vellore via Facebook

Admissions for super-speciality courses also have to be done through a common counselling, as per the new rules, through the Director General of Health Services, based on NEET scores. “You may want to study about the heart, but if your NEET score is not that good, you may be forced to study about cancer,” said Pulimood. “Students should be able to select the speciality they wish to study.”

At present, the college remains the only institution opposing the common counselling system by deciding to cancel admissions. The St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, which also had a week-long rigorous selection process for many years, decided to fall in line with the rules issued by the Medical Council of India and admit students based on their NEET scores. “It is a setback for us,” said Dr Dennis Xavier of St John’s Medical College. “We do not know if people who get the highest marks will go and perform well as doctors in different parts of the country and uphold the ethos and values of the institution.”

Necessary decision?

However, the decision to halt admissions has not gone down well with parents and students who were planning to apply for MBBS and super-speciality seats in the college. The Doctor’s Association for Social Equality also voiced its disapproval of the college’s decision to cancel admissions.

“India is a developing country, we need more number of doctors,” said GR Ravindranath, secretary of the association. “CMC Vellore should not have done this. If they had any problem with NEET, they should’ve found another solution.”

The college has also been accused of a non-transparent admission process in the past, and manipulation of seats under quotas. One of the arguments made by the advocate representing the Medical Council of India during the 2013 hearing by the constitutional bench was that “the admission process followed by CMC Vellore, failed to meet any of the tests relating to transparency and fairness and lack of arbitrariness”. The candidates had to be sponsored by the Diocese, and so competition was limited to particular candidates, which was in violation of Right to Equality and also principles of merit, the advocate had argued.

However, the college maintained that its admission process was transparent and as a minority institution it was entitled to a certain amount of autonomy in choosing its candidates. The college is now waiting for the writ petition filed in April against common counselling to be heard in the Supreme Court in October. “We need to take a stand on this, otherwise our voices will not be heard,” said Pulimood.