Tuesday, October 31, 2017

NEET Exposes Tamil Nadu’s Shoddy Education. A State Mired in Mediocrity.

Tamil Nadu seems to be on a short fuse these days and causes, ranging from a clamor to conduct a sport to being the only state to protest, as always, vociferously against a nationwide entrance test, become reason for mass hysteria where reasoned discourse takes leave and sheer insanity rules the roost. 

When Thomas Friedman, in his book ‘The world is flat’, spoke glowingly about India’s software engineers and the sheer numbers in which they are produced many Indians brimmed with pride and I sold the book pronto because I’ve lived, studied and grown up in India. Sure there’ll be many who know India much better than me but Thomas Friedman is not one of them. Friedman thought playing golf with Nandan Nilakani in Bangalore and seeing India while staying at 5 star hotels and being driven around in a chauffeured car he can understand India. It is 10 years since the book was released and the statistics of the state of education in India is grim, unsettling and a sheer tragedy. A report in India Today, dated October 14th 2017, says only 7% of engineering graduates in India are employable.

A reading of various reports, sourced by a google search, produced a litany of headlines that portray a nation in crisis and Tamil Nadu is hurtling towards a perilously pathetic condition on education. Here are the excerpts:

  1. “An OECD-PISA international survey ranked the quality of education in India 72 among 73 countries. The two states which represented India in the survey-Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh-were ranked almost at the bottom just above Kyrgyzstan in case of reading and mathematics.” (https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/minorityview/why-does-the-quality-of-education-suffer/
  2. “For Class 5 children, the ability to do division has increased slightly from 24.8% in 2012 to 26.1% in 2014,” said the report” (http://www.livemint.com/Politics/ZNRkJBrnB4NG9bJzLx5IaO/India-disappoints-in-educational-outcome-test.html )
  3. State of school education in Tamil Nadu shocking: survey — The Hindu dated Feb 19 2012 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/state-of-school-education-in-tamil-nadu-shocking-survey/article2907999.ece )
  4. “Only about 32 per cent of the students in class V could read a simple story in Tamil. Among the class IV students covered in the study, only 40. 6 per cent could perform subtraction of two-digit numbers 
"State of School Education in Tamil Nadu shocking: Survey" (From The Hindu)

 “NCERT report card for Tamil Nadu said: Average performance of students in the state was significantly lower than the national average in all five subjects – English, Mathematics, Science, Social Science and (Modern Indian Language) – Tamil.” (http://amp.scroll.in/article/821820/tamil-nadus-schools-are-in-crisis-but-nobody-is-talking-about-it )

NCERT Report Card for Tamil Nadu Ranking. (Courtesy Scroll.in)

The Karunanidhi led DMK government with much fanfare and little forethought, as usual, completely remade the education landscape of Tamil Nadu, a state the size of many European nations. The much vaunted educational attainments of Tamil Nadu that the supporters of Dravidian movement, a shop worn lumpen ideology, crow about was built on, sadly, the hundreds of private schools that flourished in the state as the state ceded ground on providing free education. 
Karunanidhi, a school drop out, gleefully took the hammer to strike at the keystone of Tamil Nadu’s school education. Tamil Nadu was home to a large number of privately run ‘Matriculation schools’ that prescribed to a syllabi more intellectually rigorous than the pathetically pedestrian State Board syllabi and yet not as forbidding as the CBSE syllabi. In essence the ‘Matriculation’ syllabi struck the right balance. The idea of having a uniform curriculum without inequalities is a laudable objective alas that was not done by raising the standards of the woefully inadequate State Board but by eliminating the ‘Matriculation’ and thus compelling students into a syllabus that was nothing more than a lowest common denominator.

As one who went from ‘Matriculation’, as the name implies, to State Board in 11th grade I can vouch for how pedestrian the State Board syllabi for 10th grade was. In 1990, though it has changed marginally now, a Matriculation student wrote 10 papers in all. Two each for Math, Science, English and Tamil whereas a State Board student wrote just 5. We used to have practicals for Physics, Chemistry and Biology. As part of Chemistry practicals we had to perform salt analysis of a simple salt in 10th grade whereas a State Board student got to it only in 12th grade. 

I once sampled the uniform syllabus textbooks. Certainly they were better, graphically, than the drab ones in our days. However, the content left much to be desired. A high school history textbook reduced Gandhi’s epochal Dandi march to barely a few sentences, dates and distance traveled. A chapter on World War II had a section titled “Hitler’s achievements”. Even in the 90s State Board students struggled with comprehension passages in the already childish passages in English. Comprehension passages had little to do with comprehension but just required to identify sentences that contained an answer to a very blunt and simplistic question that all but hinted exactly where in the passage the answer was.

Acing All-India exams like IIT-JEE or AIIMS or JIPMER was a tall order for any State Board student, even those with Matriculation background. CBSE students dominated those exams. One painful realization for me when I attempted to enroll in coaching for IIT-JEE in 9th grade was that in provincial Tanjore there were no qualified teachers to coach for the materials I got from ‘Brilliant Tutorials’. I gave it in writing to my dad that this will not work. I used to refer to NCERT books in my 12th grade and realized how heavy their math content was for Physics and Chemistry. Their math syllabi was heavy on Calculus than our State Board. Also, CBSE students, accustomed to not expecting verbatim questions from a prescribed textbook, were more at home in College while I had a sense of inhibition. Now, imagine a student less at comfort with English and reading as is the typical student from State Board and you’ll not be surprised at the following:

  1. 50 percent of first year engineering students in Chennai flunk physics exam — Indian Express 20th July 2017 (http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/chennai/2017/jul/20/50-percent-of-first-year-engineering-students-in-chennai-flunk-physics-exam-1631001.html )
    1. At Anna University, Results fail to add up - The Hindu Feb 4th 2013 ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/college-and-university/At-Anna-University-results-fail-to-add-up/article12061825.ece )
    2. “Nearly 60 per cent of second-year Anna University students have failed in the mathematics paper in their third semester” 
    3. “Students say teachers avoid solving tough questions in classrooms, while teachers blame it on lack of time.There are at least 20 students in the class who have scored a centum in their class XII maths exam, but only about three of them secured above 70 per cent in the mathematics exam here. Many have failed too”
  2. “Most first-year students lag behind in subjects crucial to software development and code writing - The Hindu March 12th 2012 (http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/issues/engineering-students-fail-in-maths-computing/article2985482.ece)
    1. “We were told we will be given marks for steps and syntax, even if the logic is wrong. Looks like we weren't,” she says.
    2. “You can ask them to write a program that counts all numbers from 1 to 100 but the moment you ask them to count all even numbers from 1 to 100, it becomes a difficult question because it is not from the ‘question bank.' Students and teachers should be encouraged to think logically and not just mug up programs,” says A.K. George, professor, Anna University, who teaches computer science.
  3. “50% of Anna university engineering students fail in first year exams - Times of India Dec 20th 2016 (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/50-of-Anna-university-engineering-students-fail-in-first-year-exams/articleshow/56091449.cms)”
    1. “Professors and educationists who monitor the university trends said nearly 90% of these students are from the state board.
    2. “Educationists have studied top-rung self-financing colleges and found that CBSE students have better prospects than TN board students. "I observed 10 students who were top scorers in state board exams and 10 with lower scores from CBSE. Eight of the CBSE students had better job prospects and overall score at the end of the course,".
  4. “Madras HC asks govt to improve school syllabus system - Indian Express December 3rd 2016 (http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2016/dec/03/madras-hc-asks-govt-to-improve-school-syllabus-system-1545128.html)” 
    1. “According to the news report, the uniform syllabus system had paved the way for declining ability of children studying between classes I and VIII. For instance,  among children between seven years and 14 years of age, only 21 per cent of them, on an average, could read textbooks of Class I,  while 30 per cent could read Class II books. The performance of the same children in mathematics too was bad.
  5. “TN graduates at bottom of IT employability list: Study — The hindu March 2nd 2012 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/tn-graduates-at-bottom-of-it-employability-list-study/article2951560.ece )”
    1. “Only 10 per cent of the engineering graduates from the State roped in by IT companies are employable — a figure that places the State at the bottom of the list of 16 surveyed.
        1. “Only 7% Engineering graduates employable - India Today Oct 14th 2017 (http://m.indiatoday.in/lite/story/engineering-employment-problems/1/713827.html )"
The story is no different in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. Students unable to transition from school where rote learning, predictable questions, grade inflation etc help even the mediocre score high to college where wider reading and lesser, just a little lesser, rote learning is expected. 

Also, in 2011, a student had to pass all the theory, oral and practical exams. Earlier, a student only needed a combined score of 50% from the two anatomy papers, but this year he/ she had to get 50% in each.
  1. “At MMC, where seats get filled hours after counselling for admissions begins, nearly 17% of students failed in anatomy this year.”
  2. “Among the 2008 batch of students who appeared for the break batch exam in February 2010, only 45% of the students passed in physiology. "We really don't know if they even like to study medicine or if they are pushed into it by parents,”.
The medical college students protested, raised a hue and cry over expecting them to pass all theory and practical exams separately (that’s how engineering students do) and got it rescinded. But that move by MGR Medical University (never was a university named after a more undeserving person. But then this is Tamil Nadu) was prompted by a scandal over awarding 30-45 grace marks in the years 2007-09. Practically quacks had graduated as doctors those years.

  1. “The university, in its reply to queries under the Right to Information Act, had admitted that it had granted up to 45 marks as grace for students from February 2007 to August 2009. —- Times of India Oct 4 2010 (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/TN-to-set-up-panel-to-inquire-into-granting-of-grace-marks/articleshow/6674402.cms).”
  2. “Each year, the varsity created a passing board committee that decided on the grace marks. The then vice-chancellor, Dr Meer Mustafa Hussian, who was the chairman of the committee, has now retired and has been replaced by Dr Mayil Vahanan Natarajan.” 
  3. “Though the Medical Council of India does not allow more than five marks as grace to a student who has failed to clear just one subject, students were given upto 45 extra marks so that they could clear the semester”
  4. A student actually went to court to compel the university to give her 5 grace marks, as usual, to enable her to pass in practicals. [B.Anantha Lakshmi case https://indiankanoon.org/doc/146458632/ ]
Too much is made of the fact that Tamil Nadu ranks high on markers like infant mortality, longevity etc. The causes, we are told, are the 69% reservation, the highest in the country, the system of awarding free marks to MBBS graduates who serve in Primary Health Centers when they apply for the much vaunted PG courses and the fact that TN has the largest number of medical colleges amongst all states. Very arguable and far from certain causes if one considers the simple fact that Kerala does better than Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra is a close third and both states, very different in sizes and demographics, have nothing in common by way of policies with Tamil Nadu. Kerala and Maharashtra perform as well as Tamil Nadu by charting their own way so the causes for Tamil Nadu’s ranking lie elsewhere. On the other hand does Tamil Nadu pay a price for the system that exists? 

A 2012 report in Times of India says Tamil Nadu suffers from an acute shortage of doctors graduating in ‘super speciality courses’. “Nearly half the number of superspecialty seats in cardiac surgery, vascular surgery, pediatric surgery and plastic surgery are vacant in government medical colleges. Twelve of the 77 non-surgical seats (DM) and 54 of the 112 surgical seats (MCH) are vacant. This includes more than 80% of seats in cardiac surgery and 50% in neurosurgery and vascular surgery.” (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/Few-takers-for-superspecialty-medical-courses-in-Tamil-Nadu/articleshow/15322417.cms?from=mdr

69% of MBBS seats are reserved for the so called backward classes and 31% is called ‘open competition’. Amongst the PG seats a quantum of seats are reserved for those who ‘serve in Primary health centers’. Of course to be selected to serve as government doctor there’s the 69% reserved quota. Essentially, a so called forward community candidate, if at he gets into MBBS he has to wear down prayer mats to get into a PHC posting else he’ll be facing candidates who will start off a 100 meter dash with a 50 meter lead thanks to quota+quota+preference. 

Sure, incentivizing doctors to serve in primary health centers ensures that access to healthcare that is arguably better than quackery serves many essential needs of the poor. But do we really need MBBS doctors to do this? That basic healthcare delivery can be delivered by trained personnel, including quacks, was the finding by a study that BBC reported as recently as 2016 ( https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-asia-india-37571259). The study also unearthed an open secret, absenteeism in primary health centers and the propensity of doctors to prescribe antibiotics. Essentially we had reduced our Medical colleges to churning out drug prescription clerks with a certificate and we are flaunting that as an achievement.

While so many prattled endlessly about how great Tamil Nadu was in providing healthcare and how many colleges Tamil Nadu has no one spoke of a dubious distinction Tamil Nadu has. Tamil Nadu ranks first the amount of student loans disbursed, nearly Rs 16,380 crores. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra and Telangana together form the lions share of education loans in India. No wonder because this is where the most number of private engineering and medical colleges are located.(http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/more-than-half-of-all-education-loans-in-south-india-tn-and-kerala-take-38/ ). Tamil Nadu is not a pioneer in education. It is rather a pioneer in commercializing education. More people owe their education to private engineering colleges than to 69% reservation. 

From Indian Express

Of the 23 government run medical colleges in Tamil Nadu 2 were created by the British, 7 by Congress ministries between 1947-67; ZERO by DMK between 1967-77; 4 by ADMK 1982-88; 1 by DMK 1997; 2 by ADMK 2004-05; 3 DMK 2007-11; 4 by ADMK 2012-17. Essentially DMK which calls itself champion of social justice happily played vote bank politics with quotas instead of investing in colleges. 
Both government and private colleges gleefully indulged in hide and seek games with the Medical Council of India to get accredition for courses by hiring doctors only for the days the council was on premises. In 2004 MCI threatened derecognizing 3 government medical colleges ( http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/at-tirunelveli-govt-medical-colleges-get-derecognise-students-deprived-of-degree/1/195628.html) . The MCI itself was besmirched by a scandal where officials were charged with approving colleges after taking bribes in crores. 

Articles in Washington Post and Reuters, which conducted a months long investigation, give a glimpse into the shameful condition of India’s medical education and Tamil Nadu is no exception. Tamil Nadu is very much a part of a the larger national rot. Research, Washington Post said, reveals “ that more than half of those 579 (medical colleges) didn’t produce a single peer-reviewed research paper in over a decade (2005-2014), and that almost half of all papers were attributed to just 25 of those institutions.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/21/how-bad-are-most-of-indias-medical-schools-very-according-to-new-reports/ ).

Sujatha Rao, India’s health Secretary from 2009-2010, told Reuters “The market has been flooded with doctors so poorly trained they are little better than quacks” . Reuters investigation quotes a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study that “compared doctors holding medical degrees with untrained practitioners. It found “no differences in the likelihood of providers’ giving a diagnosis or providing the correct treatment.”” (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-cholera/msf-says-closing-most-cholera-centers-in-yemen-as-epidemic-wanes-idUSKBN1D015J ). This is how India, including Tamil Nadu, is producing doctors.

The lack of doctors in specialties is a tragedy and a healthcare crisis that the braying brigade of social justice and the lumpen anti-NEET crowd did not even have knowledge of. 

Inaugurating a meeting on oncology in 2014 Dr Anita Ramesh told Economic Times that by 2016 Tamil Nadu would have 8% of India’s cancer patients and yet “We do not have a set protocol for cancer care, unlike the US and the Europe. Cancer is not like any other chronic disease. It needs a different approach.” Where is India’s Memorial Sloan Kettering or MD Andersen? Nowhere. Institutes like AIIMS, JIPMER, Adyar Cancer Institute provide very pedestrian cancer care compared to Memorial Sloan Kettering. India has barely 1500 oncologists. A study conducted amongst Tamil Nadu graduates to probe possible candidates or lack of candidates for pediatric oncology found that “61.3% felt that they did not have sufficient knowledge to suspect and refer a child with cancer.” THIS IS THE STATE OF MEDICAL CARE IN INDIA and TAMIL NADU. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25006288 ).

There are just 15 cytopathologists and general surgeons performing thyroid cancer treatments in Delhi says a report from Indian Express. Thyroid cancer is one with a high survival rate due to its nature and yet misdiagnosis, the report said, is common. ( http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/misdiagnosis-of-thyroid-cancer-in-delhi-their-cases-wrongly-diagnosed-patients-lose-years-suffer-more-3060667/). Check out the PG courses offered by Tamil Nadu and you’ll figure out how few oncologists and endocrinologists are produced in the state. 

One of the big factors affecting students enrolling in PG courses in Tamil Nadu is the bond imposed by government on PG graduates. Upon graduating the government wants them to serve in government service or else pay nearly Rs 10-15 lakhs. This, the government argues, is because they provide education at subsidized rate. This is sheer villainy and usury.
The government is acting like Shylock and equating education to a commodity and comparing with sellers in private market. A group of Tamils in America organized a conference call, properly called an echo chamber, and invited a person whose only qualification was that he had an MBBS to talk on medical education and NEET. The invitee, much to the approbation of the crowd, harped on how its ok to impose such a condition and even cited the example of Armed Forces College. This is nonsense. Armed Forces Colleges are a separate species in any country and they provide high quality education as part of recruiting for the army. That cannot be used as an analogy.

If government were to impose such conditions on doctors then it should equally say engineers graduating from government college should serve in PWD and arts college graduates should serve as teachers. This is enslavement. What is galling is that these people on the conference call all send their children to free public school education in US and if the US ever imposed a condition like that they all would promptly leave US. 

Above all Tamil Nadu is a state where governments have doled out atrocious freebies like color TVs just to win elections at the cost of thousands of crores of rupees and providing quality education at subsidized cost irks these so called champions of social justice. Social justice, my foot. Bloody knaves and hypocrites. 

One can make the case for a reasonable fee as an economic necessity to attract teaching talent and infrastructure but to impose bonds at usury rates and to justify it is nothing other than thievery.

This will also not work practically. Even if a candidate subjects himself to that one can expect rampant unethical practices of where the now newly specialist serving in a government hospital would be scooting off during service hours to his own private practice to make up what he loses by serving the government. Moreover, too much ballyhoo is made of brain drain of doctors. It is not easy for doctors to emigrate. Wall Street Journal in an article titled “The Surprising Secret of India’s Success Could Be its Brain Drain” quotes an extensive study saying “Our findings, however, suggest that there can be benefits to allowing, and even encouraging, citizens from emerging economies to study and work in developed markets.” This has been borne out in real terms since the H1B craze started in the 90s. Brain drain is a topic by itself and is often colored by too many myths. ( https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/01/30/the-surprising-secret-of-indias-success-could-be-its-brain-drain/ — Behind paywall).

Whether it is medical or engineering colleges besides the fact that students coming out of school are unprepared for college another important factor is the lamentable abysmal quality of faculty. At the school level this is of a frightening magnitude. When Tamil Nadu instituted a Eligibility Entrance Test for teacher a shocking 95% failed to clear it. Most had failed in Mathematics and Science ( http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil-nadu/2017/jul/05/whopping-95-candidates-fail-to-clear-teacher-test-1624461.html).

Only the bottom scorers in +2 opt for arts and science courses in Tamil Nadu. Given the hundreds of engineering colleges that are existing quite literally the bottom scorers or those who score badly and don't have money to buy a seat go to an arts college in Tamil Nadu and they become, what else, teachers in schools.

Consider this. Tamil Nadu was once known to produce luminaries in the field of law. How many famous lawyers, lawyers who make a mark at Supreme Court, have been produced from Tamil Nadu law colleges in the past 30 years? No wonder Karunanidhi relies on Parasaran, a Brahmin and a graduate of the glory days, to argue on behalf of Tamil Nadu in favor of Mandal reservation case. To get his daughter out of jail Karunanidhi relies on Jethmalani, an out of state Brahmin. 

The guy invited by Tamils in US nonchalantly argued with me on Facebook that schools are designed to cater to mediocrity and to produce mediocre students. He insisted that excellence is overrated. He also added that most jobs do not need college graduates or college ready students and therefore schools should be only of the standard where less than college ready students are churned out thus keeping drop out rates low. If American schools functioned on that premise these people who clapped for this guy will promptly move their homes to neighborhoods where schools are rated. Indian Americans, as a group, buy homes in pricey neighborhoods where schools are rated high and, to be blunt, many choose schools were Asian students are a majority. On top of that these parents impose coaching upon coaching for their kids that actually dismays local Americans. In school districts White American parents and Asian parents have gotten into bitter fights with the latter group clamoring for more testing and rigorous testing. It is this bunch that sheds crocodile tears for students in Tamil Nadu with a patronizing attitude telling them “oh you’re weak, you don't deserve better, you can only perform when the bar is lowered”. Bollocks.

Sure one can have a debate about desirability of entrance tests, whether they are good predictors, whether standardized testing is fair etc. Such debates happen in US too. But those debates are not carried out in streets or on Facebook but by academicians in serious academic settings. Yes, even in my day, the entrance exams needed coaching and they measured nothing different from what the +2 exam measured. I’m absolutely ok with that exam being scrapped. Having that debate is different from shutting out all debate and casting all entrance exams as a Brahminical conspiracy and dishing out neo-nazi statements against Brahmins. What is even more pathetic is the arguments floated about the quality of education in Tamil Nadu. For all the debate about testing in US tests like SAT are not going anywhere. To become a doctor in US one has to have a 4 year undergraduate degree, then appear for a 7 hour grueling MCAT exams, then graduate as doctor and then periodically take a test to show that you are abreast with knowledge. 

India has a crisis in education. Recognizing the crisis is paramount. Society is ill served by an ostrich mentality and these days it appears Tamil Nadu is suffering from a pandemic of ostrich mentality.


sumal said...

Kudos for your incisive writing. This column should be made an essential reading to all those interested in Tamil Nadu

Unknown said...

Could not have said it better.But TN believes in the concept of "padikkaatha methai" And I do not see the mind set changing in the near future.Yet in spite of the abysmal medical facilities here in Karnataka I notice bright spots in Bangalore. There is the Sankara Cancer Hospital run by the Sringeri Sankara Mutt which is quite modern and moderate in their charges. And they treat a lot of subsidized poor too. There is an excellent eye hospital run by a different trust with the support of the Kanchi mutt with subsidies for the poor. A Madhwa Mutt runs two hospitals where the poor throng, perhaps not the same standards as the others mentioned but with a set of dedicated staff. My wife had surgery for advanced cancer in the Sankara Hospital. Charges were moderate and hospital and treatment were comparable to what I had seen in the US, when I used to live there.Perhaps these need to be encouraged. Interestingly both here and in the Amma Hospital in Kochi there were clearly a large number of non Hindu patients!

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