And so, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical and dental undergraduate courses has come to stay. It will be applicable across the country and will therefore be a standard yardstick for admission. At least something can now be measured uniformly in an education system that has increasingly become fractured along State boundary lines. The judgement to this effect by the Supreme Court of India has, of course, riled Tamil Nadu no end, for the State has for years been setting its own standards in education.

Our sympathies are with the students who now need to prepare themselves for a completely different kind of test. But to enthuse them we need to only tell them to look back and realise that the same kind of stresses were faced when the education system changed from the Pre-University scheme to Plus Two and also when engineering courses switched from five-year duration to four. The fundamental difference here is that those were changes within a curriculum, while this poses challenges for aspirants and is therefore a bigger obstacle to surmount.

The stance of private colleges and the State, both of which till last year conducted their own examinations for colleges under their control, is that the new ruling has taken students unawares and that tests that are held under NEET are of a very high standard and that, therefore, most students may not clear them. Well, what exactly is wrong with a high standard? We are, after all, dealing with a life science here, one in which graduates will have to contend with human health and well being. Can any standard be too high for such things? We would expect that merit of the highest order would be the sole criterion for letting in students into such courses and those that do not qualify will need to look at alternatives.

Unfortunately, the private colleges and, let us face it, the State-run institutions do not exactly stand for that. While the former believe in casting a wide net and dragging in anybody and everybody who aspires to become a doctor provided they have the financial wherewithal, the latter is invariably governed by principles of populism. The former may be motivated by greed, but the latter definitely has perpetuated low standards in every aspect of their administration and results. When we tell you that one of the arguments put forward against the bringing in of NEET in Tamil Nadu was that students here do not know how to answer questions in a multiple choice format, you need no better illustration of the levels to which we have sunk. Today most international examinations are in that format and if we do not train our younger generation to handle that, too bad. We are not going to be competitive, that’s all. The world has plenty of other choices, thank you.

There are two ways of looking at education. The first is to consistently raise standards and ensure that aspirants are trained to handle these requirements via adequate coaching at all levels. The other is to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator. That latter is what Tamil Nadu specialises in, in the name of inclusion. Can the excuse that the State’s secondary level/matriculation board is of a lower standard than the Central Board and so the students in the former would be disadvantaged hold any water? If that be the case it is high time we upgraded ourselves and helped the students to come up to par. If we are hoping that the Central Board will lower itself to help us, then we are living in a world of illusion. NEET becoming mandatory has no doubt come as a rude shock. If we are to prevent others of this kind, it is time we shook ourselves out of the cosy cocoon we have made for ourselves.

PS: we were saved the bother of upgrading ourselves. Since this article was written the Central Government issued an ordnance in favour of retaining the status quo.