Recently, to the respite of many NEET aspirants, the National Medical Commission (NMC) removed the upper age limit for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (Undergraduate) (NEET-UG) for admission to MBBS courses. Before this major step, the upper age cap was 25 years for unreserved candidates and 30 years for reserved candidates. This decision has split the medical community in half as some have welcomed the move, while others have vehemently opposed it.
Dr Manish, President, Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association (FORDA), stated: “It is a welcome step and I thank the NMC. There is already a shortage of doctors in country. With this step, more and more people will get an opportunity to pursue MBBS. Our country can then have more doctors.”
Dr Rohan Krishnan, National President of Federation of All India Medical Association (FAIMA), was of the view that it was a futile attempt to show that the authorities are doing something to increase the number of doctors in the country, but the situation would not change until the number of medical seats are increased.
Dr DK Satpathy, former director of Gandhi Medical College’s medico-legal directorate, said: “Age limit is must in any competitive examination. It will be wastage of the government’s money if someone cracks the NEET at the age of 50. The government spends Rs 3 crore on making students MBBS doctors. If it wants more doctors, it should open more medical colleges instead of lifting the age limit.”
Each year, 12-15 lakh medical aspirants take the NEET-UG examination, of which 6-8 lakh clear the exam. This move has come from a letter in which the NMC has asked the National Testing Agency to remove the prescribed maximum age-limit from the information bulletin of NEET-UG. It read: “It has been decided in the 4th NMC meeting held on October 21, 2021, that there should not be any fixed upper age limit for appearing in the NEET-UG examination. Therefore, the information bulletin may be modified accordingly. Further, the process for official notification to suitably amend the Regulations on Graduate Medical Education 1997 to this effect has been initiated.”
The office of Health Minister Mansukh Mandviya tweeted: “Good News for the aspirants of NEET-UG! …This decision will immensely benefit aspiring doctors and further help in strengthening medical education in the country.”
In 2010, the then governing body Medical Council of India with the prior approval of the government amended the regulations on Graduate Medical Education, 1997, and postgraduate Medical Education Regulations, 2000. It introduced a single “National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test” for admission to MBBS and post-graduate courses in each academic year throughout the country.
After that, the CBSE introduced the upper age limit in its NEET prospectus in 2017. It read: “The upper age limit for NEET-UG is 25 years as on the date of examination with relaxation of 5 years for the candidates belonging to SC/ST/OBC category.” This decision was challenged in the Supreme Court in RaiSabyasachi and Anr. vs Union of India and Ors and the Court passed an interim order granting provisional permission to candidates above 25 years to appear in NEET-UG in 2018.
The reasoning provided for the upper age restriction by the erstwhile MCI in an affidavit filed at the Supreme Court was: “It is unfair to make a young student giving the NEET examination for the first time to compete with a much older student who had more time to prepare and had already given several attempts.”
“Age is a major factor in determining the capability of the student to learn…the study of medicine requires rigorous study and training imparted during the MBBS/ BDS course and, therefore, sharp young minds are required to absorb the same. This is the reason that most countries in the world prefer only young students in professional courses e.g. medicine, engineering etc.”
“A young student pursuing studies in MBBS/BDS course will be able to grasp the teaching and training imparted in the medical colleges with more ease and efficiency. Hence, it is imperative that these young students are given the maximum opportunity to make the most out of the teaching and training imparted in the medical college and to enable them to develop skills which would help them in becoming great doctors.”
Even though NEET’s predecessor, the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT), also had similar restrictions regarding upper-age limit, it only governed 15% of medical seats and most state pre-medical tests did not have such restrictions. However, NEET now governs all medical seats in the country.
Premier medical education institutions in India, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, do not prescribe any maximum age limit for taking their respective entrance exams for medical courses.
On May 2018, the Delhi High Court dismissed pleas challenging the CBSE notification laying down the upper age limit of 25 and 30 years for general and reserved categories respectively to apply for NEET-UG. A division bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Chander Shekhar said that the proviso to the clause of the CBSE’s January 22 notification prescribing the upper age limit of 25 years in case of general category candidates and 30 years for reserved category candidates is “legal and valid”. However, the Court struck down a clause which barred students from open boards or those who have studied privately for NEET.
Suppose a nurse clears the NEET examination, she has already acquired considerable experience of primary care in the community or patient care in a hospital. That experience would be very useful both during medical studies and after qualifying as a doctor. On similar lines, Kerala provides for quota in admission to MBBS and allied courses for candidates who have qualified as Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS), Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery (BHMS) and for nurses. Now if a person desires to take NEET-UG after completion of his course, it becomes difficult for him to do so. The removal of the upper age limit for NEET will also help in tackling the menace of seats being wasted. Approximately 8,000 seats remained vacant after two rounds of all India and state quota counselling.
The upper age restriction had become an impediment to the aspirations of many who dreamt of becoming a doctor in India. The crisis in Ukraine has shed light on the state of medical education in India. A wide variety of reasons such as high expenses for seats along with their lack of availability forces aspirants to take their dreams to another country, often by availing high interest loan. Hence, this removal of age limit is going to come as a huge relief to several aspirants who will now be able to enrol themselves for MBBS course without restriction of age. On the flip side, one can expect the entrance to become tougher as this move will make a large number of aspirants eligible to attempt NEET.
—By Shashank Rai and India Legal Bureau