Indian students from Sumy University leave in a special train from Lviv Railway Station to Poland. Photo: Twitter/@IndiainUkraine
- According to data from the Ministry of External Affairs, some 18,000 Indian students were studying in Ukraine at the time Russia invaded; most of them were medical students.
- Though the Indian government brought them all back, there is considerable uncertainty over their careers.
- The government has to come up with a policy, on an ad hoc basis, to ensure these students are able to continue their education on a predictable, reliable path.
It has been four months since the Ukraine-Russia conflict began. Uncertainty has taken centrestage – not only in war-stricken Ukraine but also in the lives of numerous Indian students who went to the Eastern European nation in pursuit of a medical education.
According to data from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, some 18,000 Indian students were studying in Ukraine at the time Russia invaded; most of them were medical students. Though the Indian government brought them all back, there is considerable uncertainty over their careers. The government thus has to come up with a policy, on an ad hoc basis, to ensure these students are able to continue their education on a predictable, reliable path.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that had the medical policies of the previous governments been right, Indian students wouldn’t have had to migrate to small countries to study medicine. This is true: we do need a new policy that can educate and accommodate more medical professionals, but at the same time not overlook the government’s responsibility to help its distressed citizens in such extraordinary situations.
Specifically, the foreign medical graduate (FMG) returnees need a concrete policy response from the states and the Union government – either to be absorbed by medical colleges in India or to facilitate their return abroad to continue their studies.
In the absence of such a policy, their future remains understandably bleak – more so after they have made significant investments.
A major reason Indian students go abroad to pursue medicine is the high competition for the limited number of seats available in India. The country struggles to recognise its demographic dividend in terms of its younger population wanting to study more and further.
With India’s fertility rate nearing the total replacement rate, more parents wish to invest their life’s savings in their children’s higher education. This is one reason why Indian students leave abroad for higher studies – not just for medical education. Among the world’s countries, India is only second to China in terms of international students.
To study medicine in 2021, 15.44 lakh students from across India appeared for the NEET undergraduate exam, to compete for 88,120 seats. Only students who have scored more than the (high) cut-off marks get seats in the highly desired government medical colleges. The remainder are forced to join either private medical colleges in India, where the cost of study is very high, or to move to countries like China, Ukraine and Russia, where the costs are low and the admission processes are less exacting.
Most of the students subsequently return home to practise medicine, often due to language and institutional barriers at their countries of study. In India, they then have to clear the FMG Examination and complete a year’s internship to be fully qualified doctors eligible to practice medicine in India.
On average, about 20% of students pass the FMG exam – i.e. a majority of the FMGs once again struggle to fulfil their aspirations of becoming a doctor or, again, migrate to other countries where their qualifications are recognised.
In these circumstances, a war only added to the woes of India’s FMGs in Ukraine. When the international press covered the reality of these students, it wasn’t easy for the Indian government to track them down – because it didn’t have a centrally maintained database. This is odd considering the number of foreign students from India.
According to external affairs ministry data, Indian medical student returnees from Ukraine hailed from almost all of the country’s states and Union territories – but especially more than a thousand from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
As the war continues, the chances of them returning to Ukraine to continue their studies looks very unlikely. This prompted the chief ministers of several states to write to Prime Minister Modi to take steps to help these medical students continue their education at the appropriate levels within the country itself.
The social and economic costs incurred by these students and their families have also led them to form groups and associations to fight for the allotment of medical seats.
This said, Union and state governments, as well as certain doctors’ associations, have expressed apprehensions about accommodating FMGs from Ukraine setting a difficult precedent. While this may be, wars are both unexpected and have devastating mental health and material effects, so governments need to make an exception at least in this regard.
As a first step, the Union government must reframe medical education policies and the regulations of the National Medical Commission.
Finally, it has proposed to solve the problem of limited resources, including finances, in medical education through a public-private partnership model. In needs to reconsider this idea in light of recent events, especially since private medical education in India is currently very costly. The government needs to stipulate regulations that make education affordable and accessible to everyone.
S. Irudaya Rajan is chairman, International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala. H. Arokkiaraj is assistant professor, Department of Social Work, Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, Tamil Nadu.