NEET was far from fair even before this year's grace marks, paper-leak controversies

This year’s NEET exam debacle should have prompted a reconsideration of such mammoth, centralised exams in general. NEET UG retest tomorrow.


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A NEET UG exam centre in Gurugram (Representational Image: Careers360)A NEET UG exam centre in Gurugram (Representational Image: Careers360)

Shreya Roy Chowdhury | June 22, 2024 | 04:49 PM IST

These are among the items banned at exam centres for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET UG) for undergraduate medicine – “shoes”, “heavy clothes” and “long sleeves”. At various points, large buttons, sequins, belts, and jewellery were barred. So detailed and stringent are the instructions on attire that every year, the day before the exam, candidates frantically run online searches on whether jeans are allowed; slippers will be okay, half sleeves can be worn.

Here’s a government body, the National Testing Agency, setting sartorial rules for examinees. The NTA, currently facing public opprobrium for making a dog’s breakfast of the NEET 2024, does it all for exam security. Large buttons can hide cameras, microphones; bluetooth devices can be secreted in “heavy clothes”; long sleeves and closed shoes can hide chits.

The “NEET dress code” was born out of decades of experience with exam cheating. It should give us pause that practically every major reform in these massive centralised exams was born out of another generation’s creative use of loopholes and technology to game a system meant to gauge ‘merit’ and select candidates for the very few quality institutions of higher education India has.

A national-level, single exam was first notified by the erstwhile Medical Council of India in 2010, partly as a response to the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh. It was finally imposed India-wide by the Supreme Court in 2016 which followed mass cheating in the All-India Pre-Medical Entrance Test (AIPMT) in 2015. The structure of JEE Main and JEE Advanced for undergraduate engineering emerged from a set of lawsuits related to a controversial round of admissions through the IIT JEE. Eventually, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) which conducted the AIPMT and AIEEE, later NEET and JEE Main, was replaced by the NTA.

Breaches in a system led to new exams and new exam bodies. For another story, educationist and former Delhi State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) director, Janaki Rajan, had described these exams – including the CBSE board exams – as massive logistical exercises that otherwise have little academic value.

The faith and trust a body like NTA aims to inspire have little to do with the exams’ actual usefulness as instruments for identifying merit and more to do with being forced to wear small buttons, carry transparent water bottles and being patted down at the exam centre.

No matter who conducts NEET and the level of security, it will be unfair. Hand-wringing over scores and cheating will yield, at most, another set of exam rules or bodies. Even if they insist on holding the exams in, say, Raj Bhavans, conduct DNA tests for all candidates and hand out paper gowns to wear like beauty parlours do for certain procedures, NEET will be unfair. And this has nothing to do with security breaches. Just one state seems to have figured this out and has fought NEET for years – Tamil Nadu.

States and NEET exam

Once the NEET UG 2024 debacle started unfolding, two distinct strands of criticism emerged. One set of critics assumes it is possible to have a fair exam on this scale and with our dizzying levels of diversity, and that the failure to conduct one is the NTA’s main problem. For the second set, the entire policy is a problem, including the very existence of NEET and exams like it, as well as the bodies that conduct them.

Every few years, especially in the wake of messes like this year’s NEET, eminent educationists like former NCERT chairman Krishna Kumar attempt to remind the public that these exams are intended to serve a purpose for which they may actually be ill-suited.

In 2017, after the suicide of a medical college aspirant in Tamil Nadu, he had written that it is impossible to devise exams that factor in the diverse needs of youths in this country. This year, he asked if NEET is really how we want youths to be selected for training as doctors. “Doctors constitute far too important an aspect of civil society to be selected on the basis of coachable capacities — cracking question after question, based on a textbook, no matter how good it is. Other capacities must be recognised and assessed,” he wrote in The Indian Express. He once led the body that designs textbooks on which centralised exams are based.

Tamil Nadu recognised some of this in the early 2000s and in 2007, enacted a state law to end entrance tests for undergraduate technical and medical education. Private coaching for entrance tests defeats their very purpose, skewing the system in favour of candidates from privileged backgrounds who can afford that extra help. At best, these exams cause huge stress. Once NEET was introduced, Tamil Nadu set up a committee with Madras High Court’s Justice AK Rajan as chair, to study its impact on medical admission in the state. No other state has bothered.

Let’s keep in mind that by 2022-23, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of government MBBS seats in the country and also, by a very wide margin, the highest gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education, over 47% where the all-India average lurks below 30%. This is a state that has invested in and taken higher education seriously.

The Justice AK Rajan committee found that after NEET, the number of government MBBS seats in Tamil Nadu going to four groups of students declined – first-generation graduates, rural candidates, candidates whose parents earned less than Rs 2.5 lakh in a year and students from Tamil-medium schools.

The 2021 report noted that while participation of these groups in medical education was already low, it declined further after NEET, with the average percentage drop ranging from 9.74% for first-generation learners to 12.58% for Tamil-medium students. It further found that students from areas with high scores on the human development index (that is, more developed) had their share of seats increase while those from areas with low HDI scores saw their share of medical seats shrink.

Tamil Nadu has maintained that the exam, based on the NCERT textbooks, is inherently unfair to students who study in schools affiliated to state boards.

NEET Syllabus: ‘CBSE bias’ and NCERT textbooks

Apart from the grace marks given to 1,563 NEET UG 2024 candidates to make up for delays, another group had their marks bumped up. This lot got a physics answer wrong as they were going by an older edition of the NCERT physics textbook. According to the NTA, over 13,000 candidates had challenged the answer key on that question. So, NTA decided to award marks for both the correct and incorrect answers. What of students whose school boards don’t prescribe NCERT textbooks? They’ll need coaching to close the gap.

The NCERT textbooks are taught in all CBSE-affiliated schools and in some state boards. The CBSE is a public board, an autonomous body under the ministry of education, but the vast majority of its affiliated schools – over 70% – are private. The Justice AK Rajan Committee stated in its report that the NEET is “CBSE biased”. What that actually means is it favours private education and children from families that can afford it. This is even before the costs of coaching are factored into the equation.

Till 2018, the reports of the Joint Implementation Committee for JEE Advanced, the second of the two-tier admission test for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), furnished data on the school boards from which qualified candidates came. CBSE students, roughly 11% of the total number as per education ministry data, had disproportionately high representation, over 50%, among candidates who qualified JEE Advanced. The Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad (UP Board) alone has more children enrolled than CBSE.

Is there a disproportionate representation of CBSE students among those qualifying JEE Main? NTA knows but it won’t tell you. Is there a disproportionate representation of CBSE students in NEET? NTA won’t tell you. In fact, NTA won’t tell you anything that might lead to questions that undermine its image of a dispassionate arbiter of merit.

But Tamil Nadu, having studied data from the state-level counselling, has found CBSE students’ chances improving dramatically after NEET.

The Justice AK Rajan Committee report says: “It is evident from the results that it is CBSE biased, as the results have consistently proved that the students from the CBSE stream have secured MBBS seats as high as 26.83% in 2020-21 from 0% in 2015-16 in government medical colleges and 12.01% in 2020-21 from a negligible 0.07% in 2015-16 in self-financed colleges in this high-stake exam.”

NEET UG: High stakes and suicides

Of all the college entrance tests, NEET is the most high-stakes simply because there is no alternative. Do badly in the JEE Main, you still have a dozen state entrance exams regulating admission to high-quality engineering programmes; same with the Common University Entrance Test (CUET).

But NEET’s stranglehold on medical admissions – and through that, the NTA’s and central government’s – is total. Do badly in NEET and you write off an entire year. It is not an accident that most suicides in Kota, a ‘coaching hub’, are of youths preparing for NEET. While the shocking rise in suicide cases in 2023 sped up efforts to regulate coaching centres – an uneasy embrace of shadow education – the NTA and central control over college admissions have managed to dodge blame. This is despite coverage proving that post-NEET, even candidates with very low scores have secured admission, essentially buying medical college seats through NRI quotas.

Even now, after the NTA has botched multiple exams – NEET, UGC-NET, CSIR UGC-NET – and faced problems with the CUET, there is no serious discussion on decentralising the process, lowering the stakes, making the selection process less sensitive to shadow education and more to student needs.

What we have got, instead, is yet another committee that will study the functioning of the NTA, not what these exams are doing to the final years of schooling or to students swotting at coaching hubs or whether these exams are gauging merit at all. The BJP-led union government's impulse is to centralise. It insists on CUET despite central universities complaining about their academic schedules being disrupted, losing local students and being saddled with empty seats.

“It is unfortunate that in India, especially, in medical education, the NEET seems to lead medical education rather than be led by the medical education itself,” says the Tamil Nadu report. Unless more states make the effort to study the impact of these exams on their own students or the union government does, this will be true of a very large section of higher education.

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