Published: 14th September 2020
No syllabus is superior, just different: Why criticism of TN’s school syllabus doesn’t explain NEET suicides
Activists, educators and doctors talk about why they think the three student suicides that happened on the eve of NEET cannot simply be blamed on TN’s syllabus or family pressures
Three suicides in 24 hours. And one more just two days prior. There has been a lot of bloodshed in the name of the National Eligibility Entrance Test in the last few days. But the student suicides in Tamil Nadu began in 2017 and the exam claimed Anitha in 2017, three students in 2018 and 2019 and four in 2020, three of which were in one day. Most compellingly, the day before the NTA conducted NEET across the country.
Most of these students come from low income families or live in rural areas. The debates on NEET have gone back and forth - some say that Tamil Nadu’s syllabus isn’t good enough, so the fault lies there. They also question the persistent protests against the exam when they can just sit back and accept that the exam will create better doctors. The other section asks, why impose an exam when the system in place was already functioning perfectly. When students were getting admissions, getting jobs and making Tamil Nadu one of the top healthcare centres in the country.
Despite the suicides, NEET was conducted as scheduled amid a pandemic. Yet, a few people did take to the roads to protest it, Tamil Nadu’s opposition party DMK has also promised to ban it if they ever come to power.
We asked a few activists and doctors if they really did think that the Tamil Nadu syllabus is unequipped to prep aspiring doctors. Dr GR Ravindranath, the General Secretary for the Doctors Association for Social Equality thinks that NEET may not be the only cause for these suicides, “Many in Tamil Nadu aspire to be doctors, it is a dream that almost every family has. So there is pressure, so they don’t consider studying other subjects. But NEET isn’t the only cause, the increasing privatisation also plays a huge role and so people from lower middle class and poor families are unable to afford the fees to private institutions and there is no fee regulation either,” he said, The doctor also said that the standard in government schools is not great which is why they are unable to compete with the privileged, “The only way to sort this out is for the government to set up more colleges, to regulate fees and to ensure students from poor families get fee concessions. Also, private colleges should not be allowed to collect capitation fees, admissions done at the last minute, all this should be disallowed. Only the state and the central government have to conduct admissions. WIth increasing unemployment too, more students feel like they need to study medicine then this leads to excess competition. So there should be a social system that makes students trust that they can opt for other professions and be secure,” he explained.
Dr GR Ravindranath
It is prudent to mention at this juncture that owing to the paltry number of students from government schools clearing NEET and getting into medical colleges, the TN government enforced legislation to reserve 7.5 per cent of the seats for them from this session on.
Prince Gajendra Babu, the General Secretary of the State Platform for Common School System, Tamil Nadu refuses to accept that the problem is only unique to Tamil Nadu or that NEET can be limited to a geographical issue. “This is about the education system and the students. If you pass Class 10, you go to Class 11 and then if you pass that, you go to the next grade. The school gives you textbooks, follows a system and you reach Class 12. Now after they give their best efforts to pass the exam, instead of sending them to college, you are bringing another examination, where there is no relevance to the kind of syllabus or evaluation technique that they are used to. So for a child who goes for training and who appears in the exam there is no educational development, or there is no gaining of knowledge between the board exam and NEET, the acquiring of knowledge has happened in school. The difference is in the way that the questions are being asked, so the student has to get trained in learning how to answer the question in the way that is acceptable to this particular question. Whoever is able to get a better training appears in the second attempt,” he explained. But with every attempt, students get older and begin to feel like they are burdening their families.
In her suicide note, Jyothi Durga, one of the students who ended her life wrote, “I’m tired.” She was scared she would not be able to make it this time too despite her ‘family’s efforts.’
For V Vignesh, another student who died by suicide last week, Sunday’s exam would have been his third attempt. Despite coming from a lower income background, his family had put their savings into coaching classes for their son. “The students feel they are not able to live to the expectations of their family. What NEET is doing is making higher secondary immaterial and meaningless. If there is something wrong with the higher secondary evaluation, we have to correct that wrong. Not all the doctors working on COVID vaccines have studied the same syllabus, they all didn’t pass a uniform entrance exam. Strengthening the higher secondary course and helping students get into college is the only option. Just because there are more seats in Tamil Nadu in comparison to others, you want to make it as tough as possible. Since there are no efforts to set up government colleges in other states, there is an attempt to exploit the government colleges in Tamil Nadu,” Babu argues.
Prince Gajendra Babu
The economic burden of it all is also a major factor. For working class families, their entire savings is put into coaching classes. Every member of the family will in some way contribute towards helping the candidate, “So that weighs on the student. But this is not to do with the family or the pressure, this is to do with the system. We have to look at the pressure that the system exerts on the students.” But this has not got anything to do with this happening in Tamil Nadu, Babu says, pointing out that over 60 student suicides took place in Andhra Pradesh last year as well, though they may not have all been related to entrance exams.
The activist also points out the pressures that the lockdown imposed on students as well, “How many students had proper internet facility? The education system has not given them the confidence to withstand and come out of the conflict. The student should be given all the comfort they deserve to believe that they will excel. The government here doubts its own evaluation, syllabus. The students are already going through great physical changes at that point, so the system should do everything to make the student comfortable,” he adds.
The weight of aspirations matter. “Aspiring to become a doctor is not like aspiring to become an architect. Students see their people dying in the village and dream of a day that they can help them. It's not the same as a student from an affluent family wanting to become a doctor and we need more doctors than architects, isn’t it? You cannot equate the both,” the activist asserts. But what does he think about the criticism that the Tamil Nadu syllabus isn’t good enough, “Who goes to Kota? Are there no NEET coaching centres in Delhi? Can you say a child who attends CBSE doesn’t attend any tuitions? Any child whether it is ICSE, CBSE all go to NEET tuitions? Almost all CBSE school websites will mention coaching classes that they are tied up with. This argument is baseless, the teachers and the environment you’re providing is what is important.”
Dr Amalorpavanathan J
Former Convenor of Tamil Nadu's Organ Transplant Network and a stalwart of the government medical education framework during his years teaching and practicing, Dr Amalorpavanathan J agrees, he doesn’t think that in any way Tamil Nadu’s syllabus is inferior to CBSE syllabus, “One is not superior to the other. They are different, that’s all and they train you in different ways. If you study in the same syllabus from a young age, you perform better that’s it.”
Another interesting insight that the doctor points out is the students who commit suicide because of NEET are all high achieving students. “They are bright students by any yardstick, which is why you can’t compare these suicides to other student suicides. Here, the students perform well and still don’t get a seat simply because they are trained in one syllabus all their lives and then in a couple of months are expected to grasp another kind of syllabus that they are not conversant in,” he adds. He also agrees that Tamil Nadu has a high number of medical seats and because of the state’s high literacy rates, the parents prefer that their child get a medical seat. Low income families cannot afford private medical schools and coaching classes are also unaffordable, “But without NEET coaching it becomes impossible to get a seat, whether you study CBSE or anything else. There are coaching centres in Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi and Rajasthan, it's all the same,” he tells us.
These kids are perfectly normal, not suicidal or depressed, the doctor feels. “These are children who are high achievers and would have gotten a seat if not for NEET. See, before NEET the kids who got good marks aspired for medical seats and those who got low marks didn’t because they knew they won’t be able to get in. Now they are not getting a seat despite getting great marks in their exam. Some who have attempted the exam twice or thrice already feel like they become a burden to their families.”
The doctor makes a pretty strong last remark, “People who are trained in this so-called ‘inferior syllabus' have gone on to become great successful doctors all over the world. So I refuse to believe that the Tamil Nadu syllabus is in any way inferior.”