The Supreme Court had directed the National Medical Commission to frame a scheme for medical students who came back from Ukraine by June 29. Indian students from Ukraine form a small part of 60,000 medical students whose careers have taken a hit also due to COVID restrictions. As the wait for clear guidelines from the body that regulates Indian medical education and medical professionals gets longer, there are stories of hopelessness, anger, desperation, and frustration.
Almost 18,000 Indian medical students who fled war-torn Ukraine four months ago are still in a state of agitation. Though many are attending online classes, physical practicals have taken a hit. And without practicals, one cannot turn into a complete medical professional.
Many of these students and their parents say the future looks dim with no clear guidelines from the National Medical Commission (NMC), the body that regulates Indian medical education and medical professionals.
A group of these students is sitting on a five-day hunger strike in Delhi appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that they are accommodated in Indian institutions and universities as a one-time measure.
What have the students been demanding?
Kavita Nayar, a fourth-year medical student of Ukraine’s Kharkiv National Medical University, told CNBCTV18.com that her next session would start in September, for which she has to pay an annual fee of Rs 4 lakh.
“Online classes are being conducted, but what is the point of studying medicine without practical exposure? We need the NMC to make decisions fast and accommodate us in medical colleges in India,” Nayar said.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA), a voluntary body of physicians in India, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March requesting the government to adjust the students in Indian medical schools as a one-time measure. "Waiting for things to take an appropriate shape and, thereby, keeping the fate of all these medical students in limbo cannot be taken as a worthwhile exercise," the letter stated.
The Supreme Court had directed the NMC on April 29 to frame a scheme in two months so students can complete clinical training in Indian colleges. The court had also said the NMC was not bound to grant provisional registration to students who have not completed the entire duration of a course, including the clinical training, adding that without practical training, “there cannot be any doctor”.
Indo-Ukrainian Student Front protesting for a speedy decision from the NMC.
But students argue that the NMC hasn’t taken any decision so far.
Pulkit Pareek, a fourth-year student of Bogomolets National Medical University in Ukraine’s Kyiv and founder of Indo-Ukrainian Student Front, told CNBCTV18.com there had been unofficial meetings with officials and ministers, but nothing has helped.
“We visited the NMC office on June 29, the date by which they should have had an answer. The officials told us they would announce a decision by July 8. We went there again, and they told us the decision would be out by July 15. They have been delaying, and it’s getting frustrating,” he said.
Pareek said that many people have been saying that Indian students from Ukraine have not cleared the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET)—mandatory to study medicine in India—and, hence, cannot get admission to colleges in India.
“This is a misconception. Most of the students have cleared NEET, but the ranks are not good enough to clear the cut-off for (the limited) government colleges, and studying in a private college in India is very expensive,” he said.
As per data, private colleges' medical studies fees in India can go from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 25 lakh per annum.
What is the current situation?
Some states like West Bengal and Karnataka have allowed medical students who returned from Ukraine to attend state colleges as “observers”. The observer process is online, but students get to attend practical classes in medical colleges.
Janki Ghosh, a fifth-year Bogomolets National Medical University student, has been among the fortunate few to have joined the observership through a link, but she still seeks a permanent solution.
Countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, and Moldova have offered students to get transfer admissions to colleges there to complete their education process. But that comes with its own set of problems.
Harsh Goel, a third-year student of Ukraine’s Ivano Frankivsk National Medical University, said most of the countries offering transfers are not safe. "Transnistria was separated from Moldova by Russians in a similar way (like Ukraine). We can never feel secure there,” Goel said.
The cost factor
Another reason—a major one—is expenses. A quick search on Google suggests that in Russia, medicine courses range from $4,000-11,000, while in Ukraine, it is $4,000-5,000.
Yash Kalbere, a sixth-year student at Ukraine’s Odessa National Medical University, confirmed to CNBC-TV18.com that the fee in Ukraine to pursue medicine is nearly Rs 4 lakh, which is very affordable as compared to other nations in Europe.
Nayar said Ukraine’s living expenses are also cheaper; hence, people prefer the country to other European countries such as Germany. “While fee in Ukraine would be similar to that in Germany, expenses in the war-torn country were Rs 25,000-30,000 as against an estimate of Rs 50,000-75,000 in the European nation,” she said.
The students have filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking direction for the government to frame guidelines for the migration of medical students evacuated from Ukraine.
Not just about students from Ukraine
But accommodating these 18,000 students would be difficult as the problem is more widespread. No less than 60,000 medical aspirants have returned to India post-COVID, and war-like situations from countries such as Ukraine, China, Russia, the Philippines, and Georgia and all these students share the same dilemma.
Samarth Rajput, a final year student from China’s Xiamen University, told CNBCTV18.com that after the COVID restrictions, he and his classmates shifted to online classes by March 2020.
“But shortly after that, all the apps on which we took our classes were banned. WeChat and DingTalk were where all our recorded lectures were forwarded as WhatsApp is banned in China. India banning the (Chinese) apps led to chaos,” Rajput said, ruing he would have graduated last month. “But here I am, delayed by at least a year.”
Ashutosh Kumar, a medical student from China’s Jiujiang Medical University, told CNBCTV18.com that he has been in India since January 2020, and there has been no clarity on when he can return to study. “Currently, I'm in my fourth year, last semester. We are also holding protests and demanding that either send students back to the university or arrange practical classes in India,” he said.
What is the way ahead?
An end to the Russia-Ukraine war is not in sight, and returning will take a long time till the country is rebuilt. Also, with rising COVID cases in China, there is a fear that many cities might go into lockdown again, keeping the fate of students who returned from there in limbo.
Some students have considered transferring to colleges in other countries to finish their studies.
"It is impossible to accommodate so many students in India. A transfer (to another country) is the only option I can see right now,” Khushi Sharma, a first-year student of Ukraine’s Uzhhorod National University, told CNBCTV18.com.
Students caught by the war and COVID fallout have also been demanding a relaxation in the Foreign Medical Graduates Exam (FMGE)—compulsory to be cleared by foreign medical graduates if they want to practice in India. According to data by the National Board of Examination, on average, only 20 percent of the appearing students are able to clear FMGE. There is a lot of confusion also concerning the exam.
NMC secretary Sandhya Bhullar had, in a circular dated February 8, mentioned that students pursuing medical courses done only in online classes would not applicable to sit for the FMGE. Apart from that, many universities are not recognised under the FMGE regulations.
Even after repeated attempts, officials from NMC refused to comment to CNBCTV18.com’s queries.
However, a PTI report in June hinted that the NMC had drafted a proposal to allow final-year students to complete their studies online before appearing for the FMGE. The report said that official sources have commented that students who clear the FMGE may be allowed to do an internship following Compulsory Rotating Medical Internship (CRMI) regulations for two years instead of one.
The report further said that, as per the proposal, first- and second-year medical students would have to begin their undergraduate studies from scratch. There were no proposals specific to third and fourth-year students. NMC's Undergraduate Medical Board (UGMEB) draft proposals were sent to Health Ministry as per the sources, but there haven't been any official announcements so far.
The NMC will likely announce its decision soon amid the confusion and uncertainty.
(With inputs from Sangam Singh, Akriti Anand, and Priyanka Rathi)