As 16-year-old Farheen (name changed) waited outside her psychiatrist’s clinic, her parents were fighting back tears. Farheen was the topper of her school in the Class X board exams and was enrolled in one of the most prestigious residential entrance coaching centres in Kerala. The girl could not cope up with the stress and high competition there and succumbed to depression. In less than six months, she was sent home after a failed suicide attempt, severe weight loss and sleeping problems. Farheen is now gradually recovering with regular counselling sessions and medications. Her parents have decided to let her pursue literature after graduation.
However, not many are as fortunate as Farheen. Sylvia, a third-year student of Government Medical College, Calicut remembers many classmates who went through terrible bouts of depression and anxiety while studying for their entrances. “I was lucky to get through and my parents were quite supportive. This is not the case in every other student’s life.”
It has been estimated that there are more than two hundred entrance coaching institutes in Kerala. With the rise in the number of aspirants every year, the industry is fast growing. About 6.3 lakh students sat for the All India Pre Medical Test in 2015 and around 12.07 lakh registered for the JEE (Mains) in 2016. The medical entrances have a selection rate of about less than a percent and the competition is extremely high.
Students are selected in colleges after appearing for joint entrance exams which test their ability and aptitude through multiple choice questions (MCQ). Entrance coaching institutes provide special training in the tips and tricks needed to solve these MCQs. Students follow a rigid timetable and there are often restrictions on meeting and talking to parents and other students. The workload is even higher when entrance coaching is juggled with studies at school. Many prefer to drop a year after their higher secondary studies to train themselves for the exams.
“Medical and engineering entrances are elimination exams. Apart from hard work, determination, intelligence, success depends on the study pattern as well,” says Mr Zakir, who runs an entrance coaching institute in Perinthalmanna. Apart from getting admission, a student is often judged by the rank he/she scores in the entrance exams in various spheres of college life as well. Toppers of the entrance exams have their faces printed on billboards with the rank and marks displayed alongside. Many institutes have seating arrangements that allow only the top rankers to occupy the front seats in classes. Even the hostel room and classrooms allotted is based on the marks scored by the student.
“There is tremendous pressure on the students going through such training for the entrances. Depression and anxiety disorders are fairly common,” says Mr Aju, a psychologist who has helped a number of teenagers cope with failure and stress. “The cases often go undetected and these students suffer from mental health problems later in life.” With very few institutes providing options to seek psychological help and recreational facilities, most of the teenagers have no option, but to suffer in silence. Stories of suicide attempts and students trying to elope are not rare in most of the institutions.
Suresh Kumar, who runs an entrance coaching centre in Thrissur and is a teacher himself, believes that students perform best when allowed to be themselves. “We don’t impose draconian regulations on the kids. We also advise parents to let children follow their own dreams.” He is of the opinion that it would be wrong to put the blame on coaching centres. “Parents have to teach their children to cope up with failure. We try our best to be supportive.” However, he is worried about the rising number of money minded people entering into the field. “When education turns into a business, the students are affected the worst,” he says.
A survey conducted by the 2015 magazine committee of Calicut Medical College showed that a good proportion of the students joined the MBBS course against their will. In India, where a professional degree is seen as a direct ticket to better social and economic status, it is not uncommon to encounter students who take up medical or engineering courses only to please their parents. “It is the system that has to change,” says Sabitha, a mother, and teacher. “Let children select their paths themselves.” She also expresses her disagreement with the present system of selecting students based on MCQs.
I asked a few students at an entrance coaching centre about their thoughts on Kriti Tripathi’s suicide and her five-page letter. They nodded their heads silently. For most of them, the name sounded strange as they have been keeping themselves away from social media and newspapers. “The condition in many of the institutes here is very similar to that in Kota. I wish the exam system would change“, says one of the students. “I would very much like to take up commerce or arts, but my parents feel that being a doctor or an engineer is better,” says another one with a smile. A poem I had scribbled long time back echoed in my ears.
“He returned home after six long years,
With a proud prefix to his name,
The stethoscope dangled around his neck,
A doctor was born and an artist died.”