What is a scandal in the US seems to be business as usual in India with terms like ‘management quota’ and ‘NRI seats’ being added to medical students’ lexicon in recent years.
While some top universities in the US were under a cloud recently after evidence surfaced that parents had used money or influence to gain admission for their children in these schools, the same practice and much worse happening in Indian medical institutions has now become the source of much angst and frustration.
Seats reserved for Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and, more broadly, Indians living overseas are being misused in the name of generating income for government-owned and private medical colleges.
The general perception is that the larger NRI fees will generate more revenue for the colleges which are critically short of operational funds and running at a loss. However, in reality, the practice has led to a host of problems.
Many of these seats are left vacant and not offered to students on the waiting list who narrowly missed out on the general admission cutoff.
Some moneyed parents, however, still found seats for their children who performed poorly academically by paying a large fee premium to the college under a “management quota”.
And some parents were playing it clever with allegations surfacing of bribing college officials to include NRI children in the general admission category so that they paid much lower fees than that required of overseas Indians.
An Indian applicant is expected to pay around USD 3,000-10,000 (INR 2-7 lakh) per annum to enroll in private medical colleges while NRIs pay over 10 times more, ranging from around USD 30,000-75,000 (INR 20-50 lakh). Government medical colleges have fees set as low as USD 500 (INR 35,000) for Indian applicants, with no reduction in NRI seats’ tuition.
An NRI can also sponsor a relative to take up the seat which in turn has also led to some students manipulating the system by faking eligibility.
These NRI seats are being eyed because a majority of them are left vacant each year. In Punjab, only 32 of the total 316 NRI quota MBBS and BDS seats were filled in 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is being exhorted to take serious action to prevent injustice against worthy candidates for the college seats. The issue has become critical as India is looking to overhaul its healthcare system and the government is projecting a need for more qualified doctors to support a fast-growing population.
A recent Parliament bill suspended the Medical Council of India (MCI), the body which oversees admissions to medical colleges across the nation, for two years on corruption charges.
“The Medical Council has miserably failed to deliver and there is a universal perception in the country that it has become a den of corruption,” said Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan, adding that a panel of reputed doctors have been entrusted with the responsibility to function as interim overseers for medical college admissions.
Confusion over seat allocations
Though this government move could help resolve some of the problems with corruption, the issue of setting aside seats for NRIs remains unresolved.
The centralised National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges was also extended recently to cover Indians abroad, whether NRIs, PIOs or Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) to ensure only the deserving candidates were able to get medical seats.
Of the total 795,031 candidates in India who cleared NEET in 2019, only 315 were foreign nationals, 1,209 NRIs, 441 Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cardholders and 46 Person of Indian Origin cardholders.
And these overseas students who took the tests scored much lower than local students and still bagged seats in colleges. While the average NEET score of general quota students in past years was 472.5, that of NRI candidates in private colleges was 220.8 and of those in government colleges was 339.6.
In short, NRI seats were filled on the basis of who was willing to pay more as opposed to who got a better NEET score, with authorities allegedly selling vacant seats under the management quota or through the backdoor rather than adding them to the general pool.
Five states - Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh - have offered NRIs admission in government medical colleges in the current academic year, and as various problems have cropped up some - like Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh - are scrapping or planning to scrap the NRI seat quota for government medical colleges this year.
“Government colleges are meant for public welfare, for poor to get free treatment and for meritorious students. Free education is the government’s job in a democratic welfare state. That’s why the government decided to put an end to NRI quota in MP,” said former joint director of medical education in Madhya Pradesh, NM Shrivastava.