This year, only five students from government schools qualified for admission to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. This is the first year that admission was based on the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test and not on class 12 board exam marks. Only two of the students got admission to the more reputable and low-fee government-run colleges. The Madras High Court has blamed striking government teachers for their students’ poor showing in NEET. This adds another and altogether novel element to the raging debate on NEET in Tamil Nadu, but one that fails to illuminate the dark hole at the centre of the state’s education system.

There are many good arguments against NEET: that states should have a greater say in education at all levels; NEET’s one-size-fits-all norm undermines more rigorous and long tested admission processes; that common entrance tests favour students who can afford to pay for ‘coaching’; NEET favours central board students who are fewer than 2% of Tamil Nadu’s school-going population. This year 1,220 of the 3,534 students admitted to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu are from central board schools. Last year only 26 students from boards other than the Tamil Nadu state board got in.

But the argument that admissions based on class 12 marks are more equitable and fair is on shakier ground. The Tamil Nadu government and anti-NEET activists maintain that the state’s admission system is “merit-based”, “fair and just” and provides “a sort of level playing field”. The numbers tell a less glorious story.

In Tamil Nadu, it is increasingly the norm that only children with no access to private education – fee-paying or on scholarships – stay in government schools beyond class 5 or class 8. Yet, at the higher secondary level, around 45% of all students still attend government schools. Nearly 27% are in private aided schools, which are funded largely by the government but managed privately and have a cap on fees. Only 26% are in private schools. The rest are in central government-run schools or schools run by other state boards.

While the largest cohort of plus 2 students is in government schools, only a minuscule number of them gets into medical colleges each year. While this year’s number – five – is shockingly low even compared to previous years, the numbers have always been low. As reported earlier this year, government data obtained under the Right to Information Act showed that for 10 years to 2016 – when admissions were based on board exam marks – government schools accounted for 0.7% of admissions to government-run medical colleges and 1.1% to private medical colleges in the state.

Of the 29,925 students admitted to 21 state-run medical colleges in these 10 years, 213 were from government schools. Of the 6,132 admitted to 16 private medical colleges, 65 were from government schools. Chennai’s three highly regarded government medical colleges – Madras, Kilpauk and Stanley – on average admitted only one or two students from government schools every year, never exceeding 1% of total student admissions.

Namakkal model

S Anitha, the 17-year-old from Ariyalur whose suicide the anti-NEET campaign has rallied around, did not attend government school. Raja Vignesh Higher Secondary School, where she was a boarder in classes 11 and 12, is a private school that has consistently turned out students with exceptionally high board exam scores, including state rank holders. Under Tamil Nadu’s old admission system, Anitha, with 100% marks in both mathematics and physics, could have expected to go to medical college, along with several other students from her school.

On the face of it, this year’s admissions give substance to the feeling that exams like NEET favour big city students and children who can afford coaching, and handicap rural and poor students like Anitha.

Anitha, whose suicide the anti-NEET campaign has rallied around, did not attend government school. Photo courtesy: CPI(M)/Facebook
Anitha, whose suicide the anti-NEET campaign has rallied around, did not attend government school. Photo courtesy: CPI(M)/Facebook

Reports say 43% of state board students and nearly a quarter of central board students who qualified this year are “from previous batches” – that is, students who have taken a year or more after class 12 to prepare for NEET. The assumption being that they have attended coaching classes. The increase in the number of students getting into medical college from poorer districts this year is also put down to specialised coaching. Ariyalur, for example, has 21 students in medical colleges this year as against only four last year.

The four-fold jump in the number of students qualifying for medical college from Chennai is also cited as proof of an urban bias of exams like NEET. Last year, 113 students from the city made it into medical colleges. This year the number is 471.

But when compared to last year’s board exam-based admissions, these changes paint a rather more complicated story.

Half of all students (1,750 of about 3,200) admitted to medical colleges last year were from just four districts – Namakkal, Dharmapuri, Erode and Krishnagiri. These districts are famous for their “coaching factories” or “rank farms” – expensive crammers where students from out of town board and which guarantee stellar board exam results. Close to a thousand students who went to medical college last year were from Namakkal, and 220 of them were from just one school there. Namakkal is to Tamil Nadu state board exams what Kota, Rajasthan, is to the JEE, the entrance exam for admission to engineering colleges, both in terms of the price and results. Most of these successful crammers skip the class 11 syllabus and spend two years training their students to ace the class 12 board exam, which all agree is designed for cramming.

These numbers imply that “coaching” in one form or another has ruled medical college admissions in Tamil Nadu long before NEET.

Indeed private (“matriculation”) schools have been lobbying government to regulate the Namakkal system because even their students are at a disadvantage compared to students from the coaching factories.

Interestingly, this year, with admissions based on NEET, the number of students qualifying from these four districts dropped steeply. Only 109 students from Nammakal qualified, compared to 957 last year.

Some explain this turn of events as a mismatch between NEET and the “Namakkal method”. NEET in English is linked to the central board syllabus; the board exam in Tamil is linked to the state board syllabus. Both papers though have questions from the respective class 11 syllabus.

We can fairly assume that Namakkal type crammers would quickly correct this lacuna to stay in business. But from this academic year they are also impelled to do so because the state government has introduced a board exam for class 11. A school-leaver’s board exam marks will now be a weighted average of her class 11 and class 12 scores. The government says the pattern of exam papers has also been changed to test “higher order thinking”. A mathematics teacher in Chennai said from the new model question paper he had seen, “it seems like it will be harder to get centum”.

Central problem

Government schools are currently doing quarterly tests based on the new model paper for class 11. Will the board exams in class 11 and a change in the focus of question papers change anything for students in these schools? Will they, for example, be able to breach the 1-2% that has been their share in medical college admissions thus far?

The simple answer is: not anytime soon.

The narrative of Tamil Nadu’s inclusive, just and fair education system sidesteps the question of the 45% who still study in government high schools. They focus instead on students from underprivileged families who go to government-aided schools or who benefit from the philanthropy of private schools, which hoover up the best performers in the class 10 board exam in their catchment areas. They also speak of the handful of Adi Dravidar students in each district who win scholarships to classes 11 and 12 in high performing private schools. Whatever the composition of this group, it is defined by access to private schools.

This narrative of a just education system stands any commitment to public education on its head.

In government high schools they don’t get to select their students based on “merit”. A large number of their students arrives in secondary school with poor language ability, especially writing and comprehension, and lacking basic conceptual knowledge. Successive governments, despite their best intentions, have done a bad job of reforming government elementary education.

Under the existing system, even if secondary school teachers want to they cannot work with students to close the gaps in their learning. They work to a timetable that is set for them. The year is divided into quarterly, half-yearly and annual exams. Until now (and there is no sign this is changing) the pressure on government schools was not to deal with learning, but to improve the “pass rate” and “try and produce centums”. This was perversely justified as a way to stem the flow from government to private schools; by showing that government schools could do what private schools did. In effect, Namakkal was the standard. Government high schools were set up to fail.

Tamil Nadu is currently reviewing and revising its school curriculum. It expects to introduce the new curriculum gradually over a five-year period, starting next year. The curriculum change, if properly done, might introduce greater rigour into the school system. Whether it will make a difference will depend on whether the curriculum reflects the very different circumstances in which children in government schools and in private matriculation schools learn. If the outcome of the review is just a new version of the current one-size-fits-all from class 1 to the board exam level, nothing will change for government school students – NEET or no NEET.

It is justly regarded as unfair that students from central board schools, who are just 2% of all students in the state, hog a disproportionate number of places through NEET. But, bizarrely, its not seen as unfair or unjust that the schools where 45% of the states children study only get 1%-2% of medical college admissions based on any system.

Tamil Nadu’s claim that it has a fair, just and inclusive education system will continue to ring hollow so long as things stay this way.