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Student Suicides: How Competitive Exams, Cut-Throat Competition Are Waging A Silent Pandemic On Students

Students often face the dual pressure of preparing for engineering and medical entrance exams while also studying for school board exams, doubling the pressure and expectations.

Students often face the dual pressure of school board exam and competitive exams (Representative Photo)
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The recent student suicides at ‘eminent’ institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) at Bombay and Madras have and should act as a wake-up call about the grave crisis that Indian youth faces. 

As the exam season approaches, the anxiety-ridden students enter a state of perpetual fear, a state that soon becomes their normal routine. Their demands for postponements, worries about competition, and concerns about the level of difficulty of question papers are often ignored, leading to a downward spiral of mental health.

The alarming frequency of student suicides presents a bleak reality. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2021 showed that student suicides were at a five-year high with more than 13,000 students dying by suicide in that year, an uptick from 12,500 in the previous year.

In 2020, a student died by suicide every 42 minutes, according to the NCRB report. A point to note is that NCRB data is an undercount, according to a Lancet study. On an average, suicide rates reported by NCRB were 37 per cent lower than the rates reported by Global Burden of Disease published by Lancet — meaning that for every 100 suicides in the country, only 63 are reflected in NCRB data.

Competition and expectations 

In the current cut-throat world of education, merit often takes a back seat to privilege. Many publicly-funded institutions such as the University of Delhi set unrealistic cut-off expectations for students at the very outset, which would increase competition and restrict access to education to mainly those who can afford to spend the money and resources in training for the exam.

The problems resonate with the process of entry to such educational institutions which include passing the competitive examinations in India. The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for entry into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission into medical institutions in the country are prime examples.

“While my parents are supportive and allow me to do my best, they have certain expectations from me that I should be able to get a seat in a government medical college,” says Priyanshi, who is preparing for the NEET medical entrance exam. She aspires to seek admission in a government medical college and has been preparing for two years now.

She adds, “What will we do if you do not get a seat in a government college? We can’t afford private ones. This is what I hear at home.”

There are more than 500 medical colleges in India that together offer 86,649 seats at most currently, according to data provided by the National Medical Council — erstwhile Medical Council of India. But around 14 lakh students on an average sat for medical entrance exam every year during 2018-2021, according to NEET press releases over the years.

Tamil Nadu has been in a relentless fight get NEET banned. The state legislature passed a bill in September 2022 to abolish the exam. In fact, during 2006-17, the state government decided to admit students into its medical colleges on the basis of their Class 12 marks and not their NEET performance. 

A student died by suicide on the very day the Tamil Nadu legislature passed the bill, according to media reports. The bill is yet to receive presidential assent. 

As Outlook reported earlier in 2021, the available seats could take in only 10 per cent of the successful candidates. Aspirants ask where will the students who do not get a seat go. 

“There is intense competition outside and pressure from families too. But I will give it my 100 percent,” says Priyanshi. 

Many students like Priyanshi also have to face the dual pressure of preparing for their annual board exams as they are still in school and preparing for the competitive exam as well. 

“One does feel like giving up at times,” says Priyanshi.

However, over the past few years, medical seats have increased from 60,000 to 80,000 with. Of these seats, around 42,000 are in government colleges and the rest are in private colleges. 

How things stand after Covid pandemic?

While such a highly competitive academic system is always stressful for students, the Covid-19 pandemic may have made things worse. In a span of three days in 2021, three students allegedly died by suicide in Tamil Nadu. According to the notes they left behind, they were concerned about doing badly in the NEET, media reports said.

In fact, difficulties endured during the pandemic have forced many students to plead for an extra attempt in competitive exams, including the JEE for engineering courses.

“My family and I were hit with Covid-19 in the first wave like most people in the country. This put my preparation on a halt for some time. I fell off the track for most of my 11th class. One has to prepare simultaneously for theory-based school board exams and objective papers for NEET,” says Deeya, a NEET aspirant. 

Further, students lack support at the institutional level for their mental health struggles, says Anubha Shrivastava, a child rights activist who has been leading legal efforts related to competitive exams like the JEE and NEET. 

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She says, “They are mostly isolated and lack company and support when they require it the most. Institutions need to have counsellors who are trained and are approachable.”

The infamous line of Sharmaji ka beta defines the current education system wherein one always has to be better than the other. 

“There is always a societal and family pressure to be better. This is where the change needs to happen. ‘If you do not become a doctor, then society mai kya bolenge (what will they say in the society)’ is what students are usually told at home,” says Anubha, recalling experiences shared by some students.

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Such cut-throat competition is also visible in coaching institutions in the country that aim to ‘help’ students preparing for competitive exams. This has, however, come under sharp criticism over the years — even more so after three students died by suicide in Rajasthan’s Kota, centre of India’s test-prep business.

Anubha says, “Students are usually divided into batches of those who are academically brilliant and those who are not. They are made to sit in separate classes and their grooming is also different. This tends to have an effect on children as they only realise it once they take admission.”

Referring to the conundrum, Anubha highlights that change needs to be made in educational institutions, at home, and within the society as well.

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