Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press
Shahzada Manzoor watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from thousands of miles away, at her home in the northern Indian city of Srinagar. She anxiously waited by her phone for news from her daughter Idfar, a medical student at Ukraine’s Sumy State University, who had spent days hiding in a bunker with hundreds of other international students caught up in the war.
“We were so tense … My daughter always wanted to be a heart surgeon. We couldn’t afford the private medical college fee in India, so we sent her to Ukraine. We put all our savings into her education,” Ms. Mazoor said.
After a gruelling journey over Ukraine’s border with Poland, Idfar finally made it back to India last week. But her worries have only deepened since she returned. Her classes have been suspended because of the war, and now the fate of her education is uncertain. She wonders if she will be able to complete her six-year medical degree.
“I have just three semesters left,” the 23-year-old said. “I am very concerned about what is going to happen. The National Medical Council in India has asked us to wait for an advisory before we take the next step.”
India has evacuated a majority of the roughly 22,500 Indian nationals who were living in Ukraine before the war. About 20,000 of them are students, most of them aspiring doctors. Indians made up nearly a quarter of the international students in the country.
Along with Russia, the Philippines and China, Ukraine fills a crucial gap for Indian students who do not qualify for subsidized seats in the Indian government’s medical colleges and cannot afford private medical education in India.
About 1.6 million students applied to take India’s nationwide pre-medical entrance examination in 2021. But India has only 90,825 seats in 605 public and private medical colleges. A medical degree from a private college can cost about US$130,000. In Ukraine, the cost is about a quarter of that.
Lakshmana Rao, from the city of Kakinada, in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, was also lured by Ukraine’s low-cost medical education. Until the war broke out, he attended Zaporizhzhia State Medical University. An 80-hour journey through Hungary brought him home to India last week.
He, too, is unsure whether he will be able to complete his education. He fears he may never return to Ukraine. “My parents are afraid to send me back, even if the situation becomes better. After what we have gone through, they want me to shift to a safer country,” he said.
Though they feel lucky to have escaped the war, Indian students who spoke with The Globe are in despair over the ambiguity that now surrounds their Ukrainian degrees. Many have sought counselling. Some Ukrainian universities have resumed classes online, but the students said their courses will not be considered complete without in-person clinical study.
Groups of students are holding protests in an attempt to convince India’s central and state governments to allow them to continue their studies at Indian medical colleges.
“We need an approach like humanitarian aid. This is an exceptional scenario. We need to take exceptional steps. It’s a question of our future,” said Megavardhini Dhanasekaran, 22, a fourth-year medical student who studies in Kyiv and is now staying with her parents in Thanjavur, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
“We have taken heavy education loans. We hear other East European countries are offering to let us transfer there. But can we afford it?”
The evacuation of students from Ukraine has stirred up public debate in India about why so many Indian medical aspirants go overseas to pursue degrees that are not recognized at home. (Medical graduates from some foreign countries, including Ukraine, have to pass India’s Foreign Medical Graduates Examination in order to obtain nationally recognized medical licences.)
“It shows how poor our health infrastructure is in terms of imparting medical education, as we are not able to cater to those who want to study medicine,” said Shankul Dwivedi, national joint secretary of the Indian Medical Association-Junior Doctors’ Network, which is supporting students who fled Ukraine. “But accommodating them in Indian government colleges, as they are requesting, may not be feasible because existing colleges are already overburdened, and it wouldn’t be fair to those who got in on merit.”
Responding to the medical school shortfall in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced earlier this month that 50 per cent of seats in private medical colleges will be subsidized by the government. Other politicians in the country have also begun to promise measures aimed at making the medical education ecosystem more robust.
But for students like Anshul Bhardwaj, 23, who studies in Kyiv and is now back home in Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar, it might be too little, too late. Like all his classmates, he is despondent, and desperate for measures that will help him resume classes.
“We are asking for some space for us – offer extra batches for the evacuated students. We are victims of war,” he said. “Okay, we are alive, but we lost our dreams.”
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Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press