The tragic death of an Indian medical student, Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, in war-torn Ukraine, due to Russian shelling, has roiled India while spotlighting the desperation of thousands of Indians to rush to study in this east European nation every year.
Naveen, who hailed from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, was one among nearly 20,000 students currently enrolled at some 30-odd Ukrainian universities offering courses in medicine. A fourth-year student at Kharkiv National Medical University, the 21-year-old was standing in queue for food when the area was blown up. Prior to going out into the city, the youth spoke to his father, Shekarappa Gyanagouda, informing him that “there was no food or water left” in the bunker he had been hiding in to escape Russian bombardments.
Naveen’s tragic death, as well as the sufferings of thousands of stranded students like him, has created panic in Ukraine’s Indian migrant community while giving their relatives sleepless nights back home. Following frantic appeals for evacuation from the ravaged country, India’s right-wing Narendra Modi government is scrambling to rescue and bring home the students.
The students say they have been left stranded and without any help since the attacks by Russia began on February 24. Hundreds of them are now taking shelter in metro stations and underground bunkers.
In one video that has gone viral, a student is seen urging Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to make swift arrangements to evacuate Indians. “We feel helpless. Three-four bombs have struck the city since morning. We are running low on supplies. Air routes are closed. I request Narendra Modi ji and Yogi Adityanath ji to make arrangements for evacuation of Indians as soon as possible,” the unnamed student said in the video shot in his apartment.
Another video that has garnered over a million views on YouTube shows an Indian mother from the southern Indian city of Bengaluru comforting her daughter in Kyiv. The footage shows the student, Shreya Sunil Kumar, saying she can hear “bombings” and “gunfire” from the bunker she is taking shelter in as her teary-eyed mother advises her to be “strong.”
Indians make up 24 percent of international students in Ukraine, the largest group of foreign citizens studying there. Now, many of these students have found themselves stranded in a war zone.
Ukraine has been a popular destination for Indians to study medicine, dentistry, and nursing for over three decades due to the availability of cheap courses and reasonably good education. The prices are a big lure. For a six-year MBBS course, for instance, Indians pay around $35,000 in Ukraine while in India, the same course would cost them at least four times that amount.
In addition to the relatively low fees, what also attracts Indian students to Ukraine is the absence of grueling medical entrance exams, unlike in India. When students return to India with foreign MBBS degrees, they take the National Board of Examinations’ Foreign Medical Graduate Exam (FMGE) to receive a license to practice medicine in India.
Nearly 4,000 students with medical degrees from Ukraine take the FMGE each year, but only about 700 pass. Be that as it may, the lower pass rate is hardly a deterrent for these aspiring doctors and their parents.
However, terrifying events in Ukraine are now leading experts to introspect why Indian students need to go to study in the country in the first place, despite the language barrier. Education consultants say the main reason behind this is that Ukrainian medical colleges fill in a critical gap for Indian students unable to afford the exorbitant fees charged by private institutions.
“It is also a popular choice for those who do not have the grades to enter publicly-funded medical colleges,” says Vinod Dixit, an education consultant who runs an academic coaching academy in New Delhi. “The latter have an acceptance rate tougher than Ivy league colleges, with 16 aspirants chasing one medical seat.”
In addition, according to the website Study In Ukraine, the medical degrees earned in Ukraine are recognized across the world, including by the World Health Organisation, European Council, and other global bodies. Further, there are chances of permanent residence and settlement in Europe after completion of the study program in Ukraine. These are some of the reasons why Ukraine ranks fourth in Europe for the number of graduate and post-graduate specializations in the field of medicine.
Given the rush among Indians to study abroad, Modi noted recently that the private sector should set up more colleges. Indian students going abroad for study also results in hundreds of billions of rupees exiting the country as well.
“Our children today are going to small countries for study, especially in medical education. Language is a problem there. They are still going… Can our private sector not enter this field in a big way? Can our state governments not frame good policies for land allotment regarding this?” he asked.
However, some educationists have in turn questioned why Modi’s own government isn’t doing enough to address the shortfall of medical colleges within the country. This would also help the country produce more doctors to address the doctor-population imbalance. India currently has one doctor per 1,456 people as against the WHO recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 people.
Part of the reason for the doctors’ crunch, experts point out, is India’s abysmal GDP spending on education, which stands at 3.5 percent, a primary deterrent for setting up new medical colleges. This compares poorly with tiny Kuwait, for instance, which invests 6.5 percent of its GDP on education while Uzbekistan spends 5.1 percent. China spends 4.2 percent of its GDP on education as per Global Economy.com, a global data company that calculates economic data for 200 countries.
Added to the deficit of investment in the education sector is the skew in spending, with state-funded elite engineering colleges like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and management colleges like the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) cornering a lion’s share of state money.
According to data presented by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in the Parliament, the single biggest chunk of government funds – representing 26.96 percent of the total education outlay – has gone to the IITs, which have just 1.18 percent of the students. Another 17.99 percent has gone to National Institutes of Technology (NITs) where only 1.37 percent the students study; 3.35 percent has gone to the IIMs, which have 0.12 percent of the students; and 2.28 percent has gone to the Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), where 0.05 percent of students study. The remaining 48.9 percent of the higher education funds is distributed over 865 institutions, which have 97.4 percent of the country’s students.
This inequity is further exacerbated by the lower number of medical colleges in the country as compared to engineering or management institutes. For instance, there are nearly 900 government engineering colleges and universities in India and 45,000 colleges affiliated to these universities, but only 302 government medical colleges offering MBBS courses in India, according to the official website of the National Medical Commission.
Educationists and policymakers blame this lopsided approach for many of the current woes afflicting medical aspirants. Naveen’s grieving father hit the nail on the head when he claimed in an interview with PTI that parents have no choice but to spend tens of millions of rupees as “kickbacks” to secure a seat in a medical program for their child.
“I am dejected with our political system, education system and casteism,” he said.
Blaming political leaders for the bad education ecosystem, he pleaded with Modi to ensure that high quality college is offered at affordable rates within the country to prevent tragedies such as his son’s death. Indeed, if this bereaved parent’s plea doesn’t act as a wake-up call for policymakers and educationists to revamp the Indian medical education ecosystem, one wonders what will.