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JEE scam and NEET ban are failures of the existing system. But tougher questions lie

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Engineering aspirant Vineet Shukla in his room in Ghaziabad on the day of his JEE (Mains) exam, 5 September | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Engineering aspirant Vineet Shukla in his room in Ghaziabad on the day of his JEE (Mains) exam, 5 September | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

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Two of the most high-stakes and highly competitive entrance exams in India — National Eligibility-cum-entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) — meant for admission to medical and engineering colleges have been a point of controversy this week.

A criminal investigation into alleged manipulation in JEE and Tamil Nadu introducing a bill to do away with NEET for admission to its medical colleges have raised questions about the relevance and credibility of these exams.

Lakhs of students each year appear for these examinations, after spending months preparing for them. In 2021, 9.4 lakh students appeared for JEE Mains and over 95 per cent of the 16.14 lakh registered candidates appeared for NEET. Given the large number of students associated with these exams, and the high stakes involved, NEET and JEE exams this year is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.


Also Read: My cousin Vikram hanged himself because of JEE pressure. September dates made it worse


What is the issue with NEET

Tamil Nadu on Monday introduced a bill to seek exemption from NEET for its medical colleges. The state wants to do away with NEET as a criterion for admission to medical colleges and instead, wants admissions on the basis of marks obtained in Class XII board examinations. Even though the state’s opposition is not new, the concern originates from the social and economic inequality angle.

A state-appointed committee found that NEET undermined the diverse social representation in MBBS and other higher medical studies, favouring mainly affluent segments of society. It says that students of Tamil-medium government schools with a rural background, whose parental income is less than Rs 2.5 lakh per annum, and the socially oppressed and disadvantaged groups — OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes — are affected the most because of NEET.

The government’s argument is that only those who have the means to prepare for a competitive exam like NEET eventually get admission in medical colleges, and students from economically and socially backward backgrounds are left behind.

Tamil Nadu, along with other states, had opposed NEET in 2012 as well, when it was first introduced. At that time, it was held for one year in 2013, after which, it was banned by the Supreme Court. However, the court revised its old direction, and following a 2016 order, NEET became the only single-window exam for any medical college in the country. It came to effect from the academic year 2017/18. Since then, Tamil Nadu has been trying to exempt itself from the exam.

NEET is currently conducted in 13 languages including English, Hindi, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali, Oriya, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Urdu. It was earlier conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and was taken over in 2018 by the National Testing Agency (NTA), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education.

Questions asked in the exam are from the Physics, Chemistry and Biology topics covered in Class X and XII.


Also Read: Reactions to OBC medical quota are exposing Indians’ flawed merit argument all over again


The problem with JEE

JEE (Mains) is an entrance exam that students take for admission to engineering colleges in India. The top 2.5 lakh candidates who clear the exam also become eligible to appear for JEE Advanced, which is the gateway to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). This makes it a prominent exam each year, which is why the Modi government decided that the exam will be held in four phases this year.

The fourth phase of the exam, which is a Computer-Based Test (CBT), was found to be compromised. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has so far arrested 11 people for running a cheating racket while the NTA is also conducting its parallel probe. The perpetrators were charged somewhere between Rs 10-15 lakh and appointed a “solver”, someone who would solve the question paper on behalf of the aspirants. These solvers, sitting at a distant location, hacked into the system of a student sitting in the exam centre and solved the question paper for them.

This incident has raised several questions on the credibility of the exams and the NTA, and whether the exams should be conducted again. Even as the Ministry of Education has maintained a silence on the matter so far, the NTA has, in a way, clarified that the exam will not be conducted again, as it declared a combined merit list of all four phases on 15 September. It also banned 20 students from taking the exam for three years and withheld their results for using “unfair means”.

Agency officials admitted to ThePrint that they had noticed a sudden increase in the percentile of some students from one phase to another, and suspected them of malpractice. Such aspirants were put under scanner by the agency and 20 have been banned in the course of the investigation. However, this has led other JEE aspirants to believe that there could be more candidates who used ‘unfair means’, but have not been caught by the agency so far. Various social media forums on YouTube and Twitter are brimming with discussions on the alleged manipulation.


Also Read: With NEET-JEE, the Opposition has a shot at snatching Modi’s favourite voter — the youth


Way forward for NEET and JEE

NEET in Tamil Nadu is a sensitive issue, given that many students have died by suicide over the years due to the extreme stress and anxiety that it puts on students. This week alone, three NEET-related suicides have been reported in the state.

While banning the exam altogether and giving admission to students on the basis of Class XII board examination marks may not be the best idea, state and Central governments definitely need to take a holistic view of the situation and act accordingly. Interventions in the form of remedial coaching classes or reserving seats in state government-run colleges for students from economically and socially backward classes can be explored as a solution. By depending on Class XII marks, these exams go down the same rabid hole of cut-offs. Marking schemes of different boards affects it — something that even Delhi University, known for its high cut-offs, is now trying to avoid. The university is working out plans to have an entrance test for admission to its undergraduate courses from next year.

As far as JEE (Mains) is concerned, the NTA and the Ministry of Education needs to take a good look at their systems. The organisers need to ask important questions about where the gaps are and what can be fixed. The examination agency takes help from Tata Consultancy Services’ strategic unit TCS iON, which provides it with the technological support and personnel to manage the exams. Reassessment of the software…

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