NEET fiasco and centralised exams: Was the NTA designed to fail?

‘Fixing’ the National Testing Agency should start with the question of whether centralisation of entrance exams is necessary, and whether entrance exams are even desirable.

WrittenBy:Ajay UK
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The one-size-fits-all approach taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government in setting up the National Testing Agency (NTA) in 2017 has turned into a nightmare for thousands of students. The agency’s inefficacy was exposed in a blizzard of question paper leak allegations in the run-up to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to undergraduate medical courses on May 5. NTA’s callousness led to the escalation of the situation on June 4, when the results of 24 lakh candidates were declared. What followed was a series of events that sent the agency down a rabbit hole of cancelling and postponing other major exams, revealing its inability to ensure access to education for lakhs of students. However, the warning bells have been ringing since its inception. 

The BJP government reasoned that a single agency to conduct exams would help tackle corruption, prevent backdoor entry, and make lives easier for students looking to get enrolled in universities. Question paper leakspolice complaints, and emphasis on NEET, a single national test for medical admissions, helped the government’s narrative. The then Union Minister for Human Resources Development (now called Ministry of Education), Prakash Javadekar, had said that NTA was constituted to help the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) focus on board exams alone. 

Autonomous bodies like the NTA are constituted in two ways in India — either by an Act of Parliament or state Assembly or by a Cabinet decision followed by registration under the Societies Registration Act. 

The NTA was registered in 2018 under the Act by approval of the Cabinet, bypassing the Parliament. By constituting the NTA in this manner, the Union government has been accused of attacking the autonomy of states, as education has been a bone of contention between states and the Union government since Independence. 

Six years after NTA conducted its first exam, protests have erupted across the country demanding the resignation of the current Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and the scrapping of NTA.

Testing times for NTA

A day before the NEET-UG exam was to be held on May 5, a video surfaced on the internet stating that the question paper for the exam had been leaked. Parents and students alleged that the question paper was being circulated even before the exam concluded. 

The NTA denied all allegations, stating, “The instances of paper leak being claimed are completely false and it is being done just to sensationalise the news.” 

However, investigations found that at least 20 candidates had access to the question paper a day before the exam.

Several students and their parents raised suspicions of an elaborate scam when 67 candidates scored the perfect score of 720/720, compared to just two in 2023 and zero in 2022. Of the 67, eight had attended the same entrance coaching centre in Haryana. 

On top of it, NTA decided to award grace marks to 1,563 students over a Physics question with multiple correct answers, and for loss of time. As outrage mounted, they were given a re-test option, but 750 of the 1,563 students skipped it. 

On June 22, NTA Director General Subodh Kumar Singh was sacked, and a CBI investigation into irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 began. Union Minister Pradhan claimed the NEET-UG paper leak was limited to Bihar — despite the Bihar Economic Offences Wing (EOW) arresting around six people from Jharkhand in connection with the scam.

Similar allegations of the paper leak had surfaced in 2004, when the common entrance test for medical aspirants, called the All India Pre Medical Test (AIPMT), was conducted by CBSE. Board chairman Ashok Ganguly had decided to cancel the examination after the leak was reported and managed to conduct it within one week. Speaking to the Times of India, an official from the NTA admitted that the agency would be unable to replicate it now as they fear those behind the leaks have completely hacked into the agency’s security protocols.

The government is also being questioned for implementing different decisions on occasions where similar problems were faced. For instance, Union Minister Pradhan said that NEET-UG will not be cancelled as it would affect lakhs of students. But the government had no qualms in cancelling the University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC NET) for candidates aspiring to be assistant professors and junior research fellows, just a day after more than nine lakh students appeared for the exam. The NTA said that UGC NET was postponed due to “unavoidable circumstances and logistical issues” and that the “integrity of the exam was compromised.”   

Evidently in damage control mode, the government also decided to postpone NEET for postgraduate students, merely a day before the exam was slated to be held on June 23, causing concerns among aspirants. 

“Taking into consideration the recent incidents of allegations regarding the integrity of certain competitive examinations, the Ministry of Health has decided to undertake a thorough assessment of the robustness of processes of NEET–PG conducted by the National Board of Examination (NBE), for medical students,” a statement read. 

The NBE is an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. However, since NTA’s Memorandum of Association (MoA) is not available in the public domain, there is no clarity on how the two bodies coordinate the conduct of exams.  

NTA’s litany of troubles

The NTA started courting controversy through a UGC NET held in 2018, which was also the very first exam it conducted. A 24-year-old Muslim woman was not allowed to enter the exam hall as she was wearing a hijab. 

In the following years, women candidates across the country have been subjected to sexual harassment, and have even been asked to remove their bras to enter the exam hall, citing security reasons. 

Even before conducting a NEET-UG for the first time in 2019, the agency drew the attention of the Supreme Court as it was asked to extend the application deadline by one week. NTA also had to re-release admit cards after erroneously printing exam centres and the date of the exam in the first set. 

In 2019, NTA also took over the Joint Entrance Exams (JEE) for admissions to IITs and engineering colleges, which was initially postponed due to the Lok Sabha elections. 

It found itself in controversy a year later when a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by 11 students from 11 states to postpone JEE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Conducting the examination across India at such a perilous time is nothing but putting the lives of lakhs of young students at utmost risk and danger of disease and death," the petition read. However, the exam was conducted as planned. 

The same year, the topper of the JEE (Mains) in Assam was arrested for using a proxy candidate to write the test. The invigilator, associated with the NTA, and a few others from the testing agency were arrested for allegedly helping him cheat. That year, medical aspirants who appeared for NEET from Tamil Nadu alleged that their Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets were doctored.

In 2021, NEET-UG aspirants moved the Supreme Court seeking a retest after irregularities, including paper leaks, were reported and arrests were made in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. The petitioners wrote to the NTA stating that the dates clashed with other competitive exams and that the NEET pattern was changed just two months before the exam, leaving students without enough time to prepare for it.

In 2022, JEE (Mains) was marred by technical glitches and a petition was filed in the Supreme Court regarding the matter. Students staged protests in front of the NTA office demanding accountability. The CBI busted a racket impersonating real candidates and writing the NEET-UG on their behalf for a sum of money. The Graduate Pharmacy Aptitude Test (GPAT), another centralised exam conducted by the NTA, faced allegations of mismanagement

In 2023, the qualifying percentile for NEET-PG for both medical and dental courses was brought down to zero across all categories by the Union government. A petition filed in the Delhi High Court stated that the quotient of eligibility was diluted through the move and the purpose of a national test was defeated. 

More centralisation, less transparency

Educationists say that making entrance examinations the criteria for admission takes away the power of universities to decide the qualifications of students they admit. “Every university has an academic body to decide what should be the qualification. Bodies like the UGC, which come under the Union list, can only give a broader framework to maintain standards and do not have the power to regulate an examination as it comes under the State list. But now, the NTA will conduct the test, issue the scorecard, and decide the minimum qualifying marks,” observed educationist Prince Gajendra Babu, who is also the General Secretary of the State Platform for Common School System Tamil Nadu (SPCSS TN).

Despite the caution sounded by educationists like Prince, the centralisation of admissions through entrance exams has only increased through the years. 

It was in 2010 that the Medical Council of India suggested that NEET should be the sole entrance examination for medical colleges. The first exam was held in 2013, replacing the All India Pre Medical Test (AIPMT). However, it was discontinued following a Supreme Court order, only to be reintroduced in 2017. 

In 2020, Union Health Minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey told the Parliament that there was no plan to abolish NEET, claiming that the exam has reduced students’ burden of appearing in multiple entrance exams.

Later, in line with the sweeping reforms made by the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, the Medical Council of India was replaced by the National Medical Commission (NMC) for regulating medical education. This was met with protest by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), which stated that the move would interfere with the medical education infrastructure.  

Based on the NEP, the UGC made it mandatory for 45 central universities to admit students to all colleges except for medicine based on a Common University Entrance Test (CUET) in 2022. Even though reforms are much-needed, aiming for a complete overhaul to make admissions more centralised will be counter-productive.  

In an opinion piece for The Wire published in June, Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Ayesha Kidwai argued that the constitution of the testing agency demands an examination of the contractual relationship between NTA and the various bodies that it conducts exams for. “Do they do their due diligence regarding its assets (which remain mysteriously out of the public domain), is a contract renewed/signed every year, and prior to that, is this decision passed by the statutory authority of the institution?” she asked. 

Speaking to TNM, she said, “The NTA's funds are not declared in the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report. The NTA started with a tender of Rs 25 crore, but the last tender says they have received Rs 525 crore. Where is that money coming from? Of course, we know where it is coming from, the students. But who is accountable for it?”

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Rajya Sabha MP P Wilson also raised questions about the NTA’s funds. He told TNM, “The existence of NTA, which is entrusted with conducting more than 14 examinations, itself is questionable. The agency has only a governing body and no general body. Crores of money have been given to them and we have to take all 10 members of the governing body to task.” 

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Ayesha also criticised the NTA’s lack of transparency, saying, “How can you run a secret examination of any kind? We don't even know the computer agency that is contracted to conduct the exam. Anybody who tells us that there is transparency in the NTA, the alternative is the CBSE, which conducts exams every year for high school students. Why does their paper not leak?”   

Tamil Nadu’s fight against entrance exams

The protests against NEET invite attention to the larger question about the practicality of entrance exams. In a country as unequal and diverse as India, which has even witnessed students taking their own lives due to such exams, educationists say that entrance examinations favour those in CBSE schools over those from state boards. 

Tamil Nadu, which is at the forefront of the fight against NEET, was one of the first states to recognise the pitfalls of entrance exams for higher education. 

In 1984, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government led by then chief minister MG Ramachandran introduced the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Examination (TNPCEE) for medical and engineering admissions. Admissions to professional courses were decided on the basis of both TNPCEE scores and higher secondary examination marks. 

The move saw vehement opposition from DMK, led by M Karunanidhi. 

Further, an improvement examination was also introduced in 1989, for students to better their higher secondary exam scores. In 2004, of the five lakh higher secondary students in the state, 4,793 took the improvement exam in various subjects. More than half the seats in the state’s medical colleges were filled up by students who took the improvement exam. 

To study the impact of these tests, an expert committee was formed in 2006 by the state’s DMK government led by Chief Minister Karunanidhi. The committee concluded that entrance exams work against the rural poor and that Class 12 marks were sufficient to determine the merit for medical admissions. 

Moreover, research has found that improvement examinations put at a disadvantage those students who couldn’t afford a second test, especially those facing socio-economic backwardness due to caste. 

Both the TNPCEE and the improvement exam were scrapped in 2007 and admissions to professional colleges were made solely based on board exam marks. That lasted only till 2017 when NEET was reintroduced in the state for medical admissions. 

Engineering courses have admitted students based on higher secondary marks since 2007.  

Who benefits, who suffers?

The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution in 2021, based on a report by retired Madras High Court judge AK Rajan, to “dispense” with the requirement that candidates should qualify NEET for admission into medical colleges and revert to the system of admissions based on Class 12 marks. Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar recently said that they are mulling a bill similar to that of Tamil Nadu. Kerala has also passed a resolution against irregularities in the conduct of NEET and UGC-NET by the NTA.

The AK Rajan committee report details the reasons why the Union government has failed to allay the concerns of the states. The report, released in 2021, found that fewer students from Tamil Nadu state boards were granted admission to private and government medical colleges, and most of the selected candidates (99%) had received prior coaching from private institutes. 

“Over 400 NEET coaching centres have come up in Tamil Nadu since the reintroduction of NEET in 2016 and the total business of these coaching firms in the state is approximately Rs 5,750 crore,” the report said. This means that since the marks scored in Class 12 board exams are not considered, an increasing number of parents admit their children to coaching institutes. Those with the means to pay the coaching centre fees have an advantage over students who can’t. 

Despite this, several marginalised families paid for coaching centres even when they did not have the means to do so in the hopes of a better future for their children. However, enrolling students in coaching institutes does not necessarily get translated into MBBS seats. 

According to the report, before NEET, the percentage of rural students getting admission in government medical colleges was increasing exponentially each year. However, it dipped drastically once the state’s entrance exam came into force. While it was 65.17% in 2016, it dipped by 10% to 55.45% in 2017. 

Another important parameter is the increase in the number of repeaters, i.e., students who had taken the exam for the second, third, or fourth time, securing admissions to top universities. From 12.47% in 2016, the numbers surged to 71.42% in 2020. “This clearly indicates that medical education has rapidly moved into the hands of affluent segments of the society who can afford to pay a sizable fee for coaching,” the report states. 

Most students from poor and marginalised families cannot afford to drop a year or more to prepare exclusively for NEET, as they are expected to finish their education quickly and find employment at the earliest to support the family financially.  

It was with the declared aim of helping rural students that the Union government launched the free coaching platform SATHEE in 2023. A simple look at the National Sample Survey (NSS) shows that through this scheme, tax money is actually used to benefit students from privileged backgrounds. This is because only one-fifth of the Indian population can operate a computer or use the internet, while just 9% of students enrolled in any course had access to computers connected to the internet. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Lok Sabha in 2021 that there are 25,067 villages in India without internet access. The scheme makes no attempt to address or overcome these roadblocks. 

Students from rural areas have no option but to opt for private coaching centres, where exorbitant fees are charged. The government benefits from this, as there is an 18% GST on coaching centres. 

Various studies have suggested that in the United States, which has inspired the formation of the NTA, a rich student's chances of getting admission into the top universities are greater than those from a poor family. The reason – irregularities in the entrance test conducted. On the other hand, France, which has among the best healthcare systems in the world, like most Scandinavian countries, does not have entrance tests and has a decentralised governance model.

Solution lies in decentralisation

The solution for the stress and anxiety experienced by students, dependence on coaching centres, financial burden, complicated admission process, and exam irregularities caused by entrance exams is rather simple — revert to the system of board exam-based admission previously followed by Tamil Nadu. 

Even though the state’s gross enrollment ratio of 47% in higher education was almost double the national average of 28.4% in 2021, the number of government school students applying for higher education fell to 64.27% in 2020-21 from the pre-NEET average of 95%.

It is the principle of cooperative federalism that should guide the Union government when deciding the nature of higher education admissions as well. MP Wilson, who moved a private Bill in the Rajya Sabha to remove education from the Concurrent list, argued that the subject should be added to both the Union and State lists to give states the freedom to do what works for the state. 

Speaking to TNM, he said that entrance exams do not determine merit and should be done away with. “Tampering with admissions arises when you bring common entrance examinations and concentrate them under one body. The time-tested mechanism is to give admission based on marks obtained in the board exam. The students get their board exam marks after studying throughout the year. At the end of the year, you have tests like the NEET where a lot of scams occur. To avoid this, states should be given control of the admission process,” Wilson noted.

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM subscriber here.

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article imageIn Haryana hall of shame, NTA’s different yardsticks for test and retest


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