80,000 seats, 7 lakh takers — inside story of why thousands of aspiring Indian doctors fly abroad
Even students who score in 90th percentile of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) cannot always get a medical seat in India because of a huge demand-supply mismatch.
New Delhi: Thousands of Indian students who were studying in Ukraine’s medical colleges are stuck — even if they’ve made it back to India. There simply aren’t enough facilities for them to continue with their medical education back home, which is also the reason why they left in the first place.
On an average, from 2018 to 2021, 7.8 lakh students in India cleared the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission into a medical college. However, for these 7+ lakh students, there are just 80,000-odd medical college seats, government and private institutions combined, across the country.
Where do these aspirants go? If they have the drive and can afford it, they leave India to chase their medical degree.
Nearly 23,000 Indian students are enrolled to study medicine in China, 18,000 in Ukraine, over 16,000 in Russia, and 15,000 in the Philippines, according to Ministry of Education data.
Behind this exodus is a huge demand-and-supply mismatch for medical seats, which is ironic considering the shortage of doctors in India — just 1 for every 1,511 people.
Unlike candidates for engineering degrees — the other great Indian aspiration — would-be medical students have an extremely limited pool of options. The reasons for this include low health spends as a percentage of GDP, the slow increase in the number of medical colleges, wild variations in fee structures, and the uneven distribution of institutions across the country.
5% acceptance rate, intense competition for govt college seats
India is home to only 562 medical colleges that together can offer 86,649 seats at most currently, according to the National Medical Council (NMC, the erstwhile Medical Council of India).
Ever since NEET came to existence in 2014, medical colleges have on average offered about 50,000-80,000 seats for the MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) course.
Now compare this to the total number of applicants in the country. NEET press releases show that from 2018 till 2021, 14 lakh students on average take the exam every year. That boils down to an acceptance rate of just 5 per cent for the 80,000 available seats. For comparison, the acceptance rate at the top 100 medical schools in the US (going by US News rankings) is higher at 6.3 per cent, according to Accepted, a California-based consulting agency for college applications.
The competition in India looks even fiercer when price is factored in. For thousands of bright, middle-class aspirants, the real fight is for seats in government colleges, which in 2020 amounted to 42,000 only.
This is because the annual fees in government colleges are relatively affordable— for instance, the prestigious All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) charges only about Rs 5,000 a year, while one of the most expensive, the Goa Medical College in Panaji, has annual fees of just over Rs 1 lakh.
Private institutions, meanwhile, usually demand much higher fees, with some charging as much as Rs 25 lakh per year.
The cut-off for good government colleges in India, however, goes as high as 700 out of 720 marks, and those who score less than 500 marks don’t even stand a chance.
“Almost 50 per cent of the seats available in government colleges go to students in the reserved category. The rest of the students are left with just two options — either appear for the exam next year and get a higher score or go to countries like Russia, Ukraine, and China,” Dr Ravi Sood, dean at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER)-Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital, said.
“It’s not just those who score 200-300 in NEET who choose to go to foreign countries. Those who score [in the] 90th percentile in NEET are also opting for a foreign degree because they are not able to get admission in the college of their choice,” Dr Sood added.
The Indian government spends 1.35 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health. This, according to Dr Sood, is where the multi-fold problems in India’s medical education begin.
“When India spends 1 per cent of its GDP on health, how will more colleges open? The problem has to be addressed there first — we need to start spending more on health,” Sood said.
While the number of medical colleges in India has grown significantly over the past decade, this was preceded by a long period of slow growth. Adding to the problem is that institutions are not spread proportionately across the country.