By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, June 26: India’s centralised testing system for admission to higher educational courses has collapsed. Vitiated by corruption charges, it is also condemned for being blind to social and economic inequalities among student applicants.

Millions of youth across India have risen against high corruption and other forms of malfeasance in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which is a common exam for admission to medical colleges across India.

NEET is conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA), an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Education.

The NTA was established by the Union government to conduct exams for admission to higher professional courses across India. It conducts the entrance exam for India’s prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. The Common Management Admission Test and tests for the University Grants Commission are also conducted by the NTA

The NTA is in charge of preparing the questions and marking the answers in a “scientific manner” in consultation with subject matter experts and psychometricians.

NEET Controversy

In the controversial NEET exam held recently, 2.4 million candidates vied for 100,000 seats in medical colleges across India. However, when the results came out on June 4, it was noticed the number of toppers was staggeringly high, raising a thick cloud of suspicion about the validity of the test.

A wave of arrests took place across India of persons who had allegedly leaked the question paper and earned millions of rupees in the bargain.  

Al Jazeera reported that one of the arrested men confessed that he secured access to the paper the night before the NEET examination for the equivalent of US$ 36,000. In Gujarat, applicants had allegedly paid the equivalent of U$ 12,000 to US$ 50,000 to get the question papers. Involved in the scam were private coaching centres, teachers and exam centre supervisors. 

Congress party spokesman, Jairam Ramesh, pointed out that the BJP  government had passed the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024 and had even got the assent of the President of India in February. But the Act was brought into effect only on June 21 after the question paper had been leaked and money amassed!  

On June 19, even as aggrieved candidates filed cases in the High Courts and the Supreme Court against the NEET scores, the BJP government cancelled the National Eligibility Test (NET) that selects persons for university research fellowships. The question paper had been leaked “in the darknet” and was circulated on Telegram.

On June 22, the Ministry of Personnel announced that Subodh Kumar Singh, who was the Director General of the NTA, was replaced by retired IAS officer Pradeep Singh Kharola.

Fundamental Flaw

While the universal wrath that the results elicited was justified, it is doubtful if the corrective steps taken thus far will bring the necessary benefits to the people at large. 

The real solution to the problems in NTA and NEET lies is in basing the selection system on notions of social justice through the removal of inequities and making it serve a larger social purpose.  

Centralized selection systems like NEET are elitist and exploitative.  

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Tamil Nadu government and the Congress party have demanded the abolition of NEET, objecting to the social iniquities it reflects and fosters.  

No doubt, there is a need to uphold high standards and choose candidates for higher education on merit, but it would not be  appropriate to apply these norms in toto in a country like India where there is a gross inequality of opportunity.

Social-economic conditions vary from region to region and from caste to caste. There is a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural areas.  

NTA is designed to suit the urban elite which has access to all the resources needed for educational advancement. It is not designed for the hoi polloi who are the majority.

Language Discrimination

The NTA was accused of discrimination on the basis of language also.  Urdu was not included among the ten regional languages for the exam. In Warangal in Telangana, candidates received question papers in English and Hindi instead of Telugu.

In Madurai (Tamil Nadu), nearly 100 students were given question papers in Hindi. In 2018, the Calcutta High Court awarded 20 marks to a candidate because five questions were wrongly translated into Bengali.

Ill-effects of Centralisation

Human rights activist Yamini Aiyar, writing in Deccan Herald, slammed the Modi government’s bid to establish a “One country, One examination, One merit system”, that strips medical colleges of their autonomy.

States lost their ability to device locally relevant ways of responding to the quality and corruption challenge, she added.

Undermining autonomy in admissions leads to the curbing of innovation and experimentation which are critical for ensuring quality higher education, Aiyar argued.

Social Realties

India may claim to be the fifth-largest economy, but inequalities here are glaring. Excellent facilities for a good education exist in the cities but these are only for the privileged few. Primary and secondary schools that are open to the poor in the urban and rural areas are of extremely poor quality.  

The primacy given to “merit” and the “tests” prescribed to ascertain it by the NTA only perpetuate and exacerbate existing inequalities.

The leaders and the social elite of India, have rendered the country a signal disservice by prioritizing the creation of high quality educational facilities for themselves, while totally neglecting the needs of the less fortunate majority.

Putting the Car before the Horse  

The present regime at New Delhi claims that it caters to India’s “aspirational classes” but these aspirations cannot be realised when conditions appropriate for their realization in most places and classes in India.

Producing aspirations before creating the conditions for their fruition is like putting the cart before the horse.

The economy and employment opportunities have not improved to sustain those aspirations. Conditions have in fact deteriorated in the last decade.

This is a perfect recipe for the growth of discontent, alienation and revolt, which are seen across India. Some disappointed NEET aspirants in Kota, Rajasthan, have committed suicide.

Tamil Nadu’s Pioneering Role

After coming to power in Tamil Nadu in 2021, the DMK constituted a High-Level Committee headed by Justice A K Rajan to study the impact of the NEET-based admission process.

The Rajan Committee found that after NEET was introduced in 2017-2018, fewer students from rural areas, from the Tamil medium, from families with lower incomes, have secured admission in medical colleges in the State.

Language Divide

In the four years from 2017-18 (when NEET was introduced), the share of Tamil-medium students in medical colleges ranged from 1.6% to 3.27%. But the share of English-medium students shot up from 85.12% in 2016-17 to 98.41% in 2017-18, and was 98.01% in 2020-21.

Rural-Urban Divide

In the pre-NEET period from 2010-11 to 2016-17, students from rural Tamil Nadu had secured 61.5% seats on average in government medical colleges. In 2020-21, this figure had fallen to 49.91%.

By contrast, the share of students from urban areas in government medical colleges rose from an average 38.55% in the pre-NEET years to 50.09% in 2020-21.

Income Divide

Students whose parents had an annual income of less than Rs 250,000 secured an average 41% of admissions in the pre-NEET period; this fell to an average 36% in the post-NEET years.

The Rajan committee asked the Tamil Nadu government to take “immediate steps to eliminate NEET from the admission process.”

In the interest of social justice, the Tamil Nadu State Assembly passed the Under Graduate Medical Degree Courses Bill in 2021. But the Governor R.N.Ravi sent it back. It was passed again and sent back the Governor, but to no avail.   

The DMK government now hopes to fight in parliament for exemption from NEET. The INDIA alliance and like-minded parties are expected to support it.