The educational climate in India is uneven. In some parts of the country, like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, one in four women in the age group of 15-24 are illiterate. There are other states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu where almost all women in that age group are in school and literate.
Not only are the young people in Tamil Nadu more likely to go to school, they are also more likely to stay in school. The state has one of the lowest dropout rates from its schools. Further, Tamil Nadu enrolls 44.3% of those who finish high school into higher educational institutes. That’s the highest gross enrolment ratio into higher education (GER) among all states in India, at twice the national average and about ten percentage points more than the global average. In other words, at least half the population will have had a college education in Tamil Nadu, if this trend continues for a few more years.
It’s in this context that one needs to situate Anitha, a 17-year-old Dalit medical aspirant and a National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) petitioner who recently committed suicide. In most other states in India, she would not have completed school, if at all she got to go to a school in the first place. She was poor and from an obscure hamlet that very few of us can point to on a map. That she had ambitions for medical school and would have made it into one, had the old system continued, is an achievement of Tamil Nadu’s education system. Tamil Nadu’s decision to broad-base its education instead of filtering through entrance exams at the gates of colleges is a conscious policy choice. The political platform of the state aims to keep children in school and get them to college over and above testing them for “quality”. The introduction of NEET entrance exam disturbs a settled political question in the state.
A global research suggests that standardised tests do not predict life outcomes but grades do. There’s also an ongoing discussion in countries such as the US on whether standardised tests like the SAT should be used at all in deciding college admissions. Research indicates that school grades are a much better predictor of the personality, which in turn determines a student’s actual success. After all, what a standardised test ends up measuring is how socially advantaged a student is – given that access to coaching classes, preparation guides and the like have a massive influence on test scores.
In India, the idea of standardised tests being a measure of merit, however, is assumed to be axiomatic. More than measuring merit, entrance exams such as the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) have become symbols of pride. Recently, a British college student was subjected to abuse because he thought it’d be interesting to solve the JEE question paper. He ended up solving it with 100% correct answers, which somehow hurt the pride of many Indians. It’s this perversion of the education system that Tamil Nadu seeks to avoid by using only class 12 grades as its criterion of admission. It is no one’s case that this form of admission is perfect; it sure has its own set of problems. But a society elects state governments to make these kind of choices on policies related to health and education. Tamil Nadu has made such a choice by providing a broad-based education.
The proof of how well the system works is in the outcome it generates. If the purpose of medical education is producing doctors who provide healthcare for the society, then by all accounts, Tamil Nadu has a good system. After all, the state has India’s best healthcare system that’s been held up as a model for other developing countries by the Lancet report on Good Health at low cost: Lessons for the future of health systems strengthening.
In such a scenario, the idea of NEET being implemented against the wishes of the state in the name of standardising entrance criterion across the country is not just an assault on the rights of the states, but is also bad policy. After all, isn’t the purpose of federalism one of having states as laboratories of policy? Why would any country kill that? Especially, why would any country shut down what seems to be a reasonably successful policy experiment?
BJP politicians in the state who are accusing the protests against NEET as being politically motivated to tarnish the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem to not understand what politics exists for. It’s not for playing Modi against Rahul Gandhi. No one in Tamil Nadu cares for either of them. Politics exists to organise the society on the principles agreed in an implicit social contract. Anitha was a textbook case of such a system being unfair to an upstanding citizen. The reason why Rosa Parks was chosen as the case on which African Americans launched the Montgomery bus boycott, though there were many who refused to give up their seat before her, was that she would move the white moderate. Anitha, like Rosa Parks, moves the apolitical Tamil city dweller to tears. The reason why other states which are comparable to Tamil Nadu in many aspects, such as Maharashtra, aren’t protesting as much is because NEET does not disturb the basis of their social contract. In Tamil Nadu, it does. And Anitha symbolises that.
The instinct of the central government in implementing NEET, which is merely one of its many tools in implementing a ‘one nation, one policy’ standard, is understandable. No large system likes outliers. No central government likes to yield control to a state; politicians exist to concentrate power. But the problem for Tamil Nadu is that this comes at the cost of its hard won success and a struggle for educational opportunity that goes back to 1920s. India wants Tamil Nadu to regress to the mean; whether that is the 14th Finance Commission or Goods and Services Tax or NEET or the National Food Security Act. Tamil Nadu, naturally, resists every one of these to retain the progress it’s made already. An ugly conflict between India and Tamil Nadu appears nearer with every passing news cycle.
Nilakantan R.S. works as a data scientist for a tech start-up and looks at politics from that vantage point.