The recent news about the suspected leak of the Medical and Dental Colleges’ Admission Test (MDCAT) 2017, conducted by the University of Health Sciences (UHS), Punjab in August, has triggered a strong debate among different quarters. There are some who stress if the news is true it is the worst form of injustice that can be done to the deserving students. On the other hand, there are arguments in favour of and against the logic of holding this entry test and re-testing the students who have proved their calibre in F.Sc and A levels exams.
The MDCAT test is conducted by different bodies in the country. In Punjab it is the mandate of the UHS to test the applicants aspiring to get admission to the government-owned and private medical colleges in the province through this method. As per the existing merit formula, 10 per cent weightage is given to matriculation or O levels score, 40 per cent to intermediate and A levels and 50 per cent to the entry test score.
The UHS authorities have rejected the allegation saying some-handwritten questions and a diagram drawn on a paper were shared on the Facebook a good four hours after the test had concluded. It was nothing more than an attempt by some students, who could not perform well in the test, and teachers of some MDCAT preparation academy who wanted to discredit it, they doubt.
A probe committee has been formed to look into the paper leak allegations and the UHS has withheld results till the inquiry is completed. So, the transparency issue will emerge only if the allegations are proven correct with the help of sufficient supporting evidence. But the debate that has gained strength recently is about the need or not of an entry test in medical colleges and whether it’s helping the deserving students or putting them at a disadvantage.
Ashraf Nizami, President, Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), is outrightly against the test and terms it illogical to examine applicants who have already been tested. The UHS and the boards of intermediate and secondary education both work under the Punjab government and holding the test is like conceding that the boards’ testing mechanism is worthless and faulty, he adds. He says they have been constantly opposing the test since its introduction in 1998 but what has happened is that its weightage has been increased from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. “Is it justified to make performance in a two and a half hours’ test equal to 12 years of education. What if one day they increase this weightage to 70 to 80 per cent?”
Nizami says, “No doubt entry and aptitude tests are there in other countries, but their fear is that preparatory academy mafias and concerned staff of testing authorities are not quite credible here. Only the students who can afford to pay high fees of these academies can perform well because the technique to attempt this test is totally different from that of attempting board papers,” he comments.
This year more than 65,000 candidates appeared in MDCAT to compete against 3,405 seats in public sector medical colleges and 216 seats in three public dental colleges of Punjab. The available seats in private medical colleges and private dental colleges are 2950 and 555 respectively.
The duration of MDCAT is 150 minutes or two and a half hours in which the candidates have to answer 220 questions. Each question is worth five marks so the total works out to be 1100. Each correct answer is worth five marks and one mark is deducted per wrong answer from the total score. The structure is that there are 88 questions of Biology, 58 of Chemistry, 44 of Physics and 30 from English. The paper consists of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) and the candidates have to choose the correct answer for which they hardly have 40.9 seconds to decide. The test fee charged from each student is Rs 500.
Ali, a student from Kasur who wants to be identified with his second name, believes it is a must to go to an academy to get good score in MDCAT because there is no correlation between its syllabus and that of F.Sc though A level students are familiar with the pattern. “The teachers at colleges have no idea of how to attempt MDCAT and therefore cannot create the required sense and knowledge among their students. The entry test is about application of knowledge and quite often all the four answers seem correct but you have to go for the best one of these. So the perception that MDCAT is based on rote-learning is wrong,” he asserts.
Ali says, “The fees for MDCAT preparation are quite high and not many from backward districts can afford these. Even then a large number of students come to big cities to prepare for the test and stay in hostels etc because the academies have only recently started spreading to smaller cities.” It is even tougher for the female students to move to big cities for this purpose. Course fee for a two or three months’ session offered by a good preparatory academy is around Rs 5,000.
He suggests that the glaring contrast between the teaching methodologies of board education and what is expected in MDCAT shall be removed and both must be synched to facilitate students. “Besides,” he says, “the government can set up its own facilities in comparatively backward districts or facilitate academies to offer subsidised MDCAT preparatory classes to the students based there.”
The demand to tame the“academy mafia”has also become louder recently and two examples of this are that PTI lawmakers in the Punjab Assembly and members of UHS board have called probe into their affairs. Their presumption is that the MDCAT test is there to mainly facilitate them.
Dr Mujahid Musa, who runs Testing Institute and Preparatory Services (TIPS) in Lahore, contests this assumption and says mismanagement or lack of capacity among traditional F.Sc students to attempt entry test does not mean it shall be discarded. The entry tests are there all over the world and even those applying for admission to Ivy League universities have to take these. “Have you heard them challenging SAT, GRE, GMAT, IELTS, etc?”
Musa says, “These tests are a means to calibrate students coming from different education boards that reportedly have different marking standards. This may be wrong but students of one region of the same province think that paper checkers of the other do lenient marking just to help their students grab seats in medical colleges,” he adds. That is why this lot is a strong advocate of MDCAT.
He says it is true that academies are getting students because “the traditional teachers cannot train students on how to attempt MDCAT. For this very reason fresh students who have earned good marks in the test are engaged by academies to teach and there is no harm in it.” He also challenges the assertion that 12-year education is ignored and says having 50 per cent weightage it matters a lot especially when even a single mark can be decisive. What he suggests is that the government must make paper leaks impossible and “update F.Sc syllabus according to the requirements of MDCAT. Only then the students’ overwhelming dependence on academies will decrease,” he adds.
UHS spokesman Muhammad Atif explains the university is just a conducting agency and the test is a binding and permanent feature under the regulations of Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC). He says, “It is an international practice and debate is just for the reason that its pattern is totally different from that of the F.Sc exams. One thing that must be kept in mind is that one is qualification that will remain forever and the other is test that is short-lived but relevant at that particular time.”
Atif says weightage of this test in final score can be discussed but it shall not be rejected altogether. He says the UHS that started conducting this test in 2010 has revised the syllabus, selected contents of both F.Sc and A levels curriculum and removed anything that is not relevant to medical studies to make it short and specific.
On the paper-setting process, he says “leading professors with good repute are called all over the year to set questions and in the end a huge pool of questions is ready. The paper is set from these questions using a scientific process that ensures the whole syllabus is covered judiciously.”