There are long-term consequences for equity and public health if vast numbers of students continue to be tripped by high price barriers and are forced to seek education outside India.
The plight of the students in Ukraine has also turned the spotlight on the inadequacies of medical education in India, which leads thousands of MBBS aspirants to go abroad every year.
After anxious days and nights and many perilous journeys, thousands of Indian students are making their way back home from war-torn Ukraine. Around 4,000 Indians, mostly students in medical colleges, remain in cities under Russian attack and shelling. Their evacuation, under extremely difficult circumstances, must remain the foremost priority of the government of India. But the task does not end there. Looming over the 20,000-odd medical students, whose education now stands summarily disrupted, is the question of their future. The Russian assault on Ukraine has not only upended several certainties of the global order. Even the most optimistic strategic expert does not count on this conflict to be a short one. The likelihood of Indian MBBS students being able to resume their classes in Ukraine in the near future appears distant. But they cannot be left in the lurch. The governments, both at the states and the Centre, must consult with other stakeholders, from medical college administrations to teachers and hospitals, to find a way for these students to complete their studies.
The plight of the students in Ukraine has also turned the spotlight on the inadequacies of medical education in India, which leads thousands of MBBS aspirants to go abroad every year. The mismatch lies in the shortage of affordable medical seats. The parents of Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, who was killed in Kharkiv, are on record saying they did not have the finances to secure an MBBS degree in India. While government medical colleges are relatively more affordable, they account for only half of the 90,000-odd seats on offer — and demand extremely high NEET scores. To put this figure in context, seven to eight lakh students clear NEET, the eligibility test for medical education, every year.
India needs more doctors and medical professionals — as per WHO standards, the country must have 1.38 million doctors whereas, according to the National Health Profile 2021, it has just 1.2 million registered medical practitioners. Foreign universities have been beneficiaries of the shortfall in medical seats in India, a result of inadequate public investment in medical education — in the past five years, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of candidates taking the Foreign Medical Graduates Examination, the mandatory test that graduates from foreign universities need to clear to practise medicine in India. There are long-term consequences for equity and public health if vast numbers of students continue to be tripped by high price barriers and are forced to seek education outside India. In the long run, the government has to invest more in medical education. That is a significant takeaway from the ordeal of the students in Ukraine.
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This column first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2022 under the title ‘After the arrival’.