OPN Students stage a protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG examination results and demand re-examination, in Kolkata on Monday
Students stage a protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG examination results and demand re-examination, in Kolkata on Monday Image Credit: ANI

The national medical entrance exams in India, better known as the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET, are in the spotlight.

One can only imagine how angry and frustrated the youth in India feel if the medical entrance test, whose 2024 edition attracted over 2.3 million prospectors, turns out to be unfair or rotten, thus compromising the future of a whole generation of would-be doctors in a country where youth unemployment is already a problem.

And opportunities are so limited that millions of aspiring youth go abroad each year to study, forking out exorbitant fees, because they cannot get admissions to the highly competitive and reservation-saddled institutes and universities.

Actually, the NEET system was a step forward to regulate admissions to highly rewarding and competitive medical degree programmes. Earlier, a distressingly high percentage of seats were practically “sold” by private institutions under the guise of “capitation fees.” These ran into millions of rupees.

These ran into millions of rupees. NEET was meant to end such malpractices by using the highly successful Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) model. Each year, over 1.5 million students appear for IIT-JEE, and the results have never caused the sort of stink that has now spread nationwide with NEET.

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That being said, exam leaks and scandals in India have been endemic. Why? Because the crooked — whether these are the IT and tuition mafia, unscrupulous or impecunious teachers, or parents and children of the educationally unworthy variety — have all tried to beat the system by buying exam papers, cheating in answering them, or even trying to manipulate the results after the fact.

Allegedly, all these malpractices were present in the current NEET test. No wonder there are multiple cases all the way to India’s Supreme Court challenging the results.

Even as the controversy over the compromised NEET medical test in India continues, the National Testing Agency (NTA) has scrapped the University Grants Commission (UGC)-National Entrance Test (NET), admitting that its integrity was impugned. The UGC-NET is another make-or-break nationwide exam for millions who wish to pursue postgraduate studies.

It determines the eligibility of candidates for college and university-level lectureship and for the award of the Junior Research Fellowship. With the National Testing Agency (NTA) admitting that the integrity of the 2024 test was forfeited and thus scrapping the results, the proverbial fecal matter has certainly hit the fans in middle-class living rooms all over India.

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Lost-in-translation issues

At the heart of these controversies is the NTA, the government-run nodal agency responsible for conducting the tests. It is run by senior and respectable academics, whose own track record or integrity can scarcely be doubted. But the rot runs so deep in the system that it is hard to understand exactly where it is compromised. In addition, the tests are conducted in several languages, which also results in uneven levels of difficulty and lost-in-translation issues.

The scandal-hit NEET and the scrapped UGC-NET point to the broader crisis in the Indian education system, particularly concerning high-stakes entrance examinations. The nationwide protests over the former intensified with the award of “grace marks” to 1,563 NEET candidates and allegations of paper leaks and irregularities during the exam in some states.

Despite the government’s denials and attempts at damage control, there is growing scepticism and disappointment among students and the general public regarding the fairness and transparency of the national examination process.

These developments have sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of many regarding the overall transparency and integrity of the examination process. On June 4, the very day that the outcome of the epochal 2024 general elections became known, NEET results were also announced. An unprecedented sixty-seven candidates achieved a perfect score of 720/720, and others scored 718 or 719 — marks some claim are impossible given the grading scheme.

The NTA explained these scores by citing the instance of awarding “grace marks” in an earlier relatively easier exam to students who lost time due to errors and delays by NTA staff and invigilators. But the court Judgment justifying grace marks clearly said that such a procedure could not be used in medical entrance exams.

The youth in India constitutes a formidable force that, in the past, has unseated governments. Even more powerful, some might say, than farmers, who blockaded the national capital for over a year during the farm protests of 2020-2021. The youth, whose futures are at stake, are incensed and disappointed. Rightly so.

Unless the Modi government acts soon and decisively, the consequences could reflect in the coming assembly elections.