Trying times for students appearing for JEE-NEET this year
By Sambit Dash
Conducting two entrance exams, JEE (Mains) and NEET, have turned into a massive controversy this year. Saving “one academic year,” feedback from parents, willingness of a “silent majority” of students and adequate arrangements by National Testing Agency have been cited as reasons in favour of holding the entrance exams. A raging pandemic with over 75,000 cases being reported daily, risk of congregation of a large number of people for exams, inadequacy of already stressed government machinery in States, flood situation in eastern States and primacy of health over academic year are some of the reasons put forth by those appealing for postponement of these exams.
The issue has also assumed political colour with the Opposition parties holding protests and as many as six States filing a review petition in the Supreme Court which has rejected postponement of the exams by citing that “life has to go on”. The global pandemic has kept a whopping 26 lakh students (and their families) on the tenterhooks. With the exams going to be held anyhow, there are some deeper issues, which need our attention.
High stakes involved
One reason that makes these exams a bone of contention vis-à-vis several issues is the high stakes involved in it. Let’s consider NEET. There are nearly 16 lakh students appearing for the exam for about 80,000 MBBS seats, a ratio of 20:1. For the JEE (Mains), about 11 lakh candidates will be vying for about 38,000 seats making it a ratio of 29:1. These exams are a gateway to professions that have an exalted place in the Indian dream – doctors and engineers (the IIT and the likes category, at least).
There are very few MBBS seats, with a large number of seats getting added only in recent times. The Government MBBS seats (about 40,000), the fees for which are heavily subsidised, are the most sought after. The private ones (another 40,000) cost a bomb. A similar story follows for the top engineering colleges too.
One expects only deserving candidates to get in and a robust entrance exam can ensure that. Much has happened in the history of entrance exams for these professional courses and recently, a single all-India entrance has been formulated. Whether a multiple choice question-based exam, held just once a year, does justice is questionable. The famed (or notorious) ‘Kota model’, worth thousands of crores, is hinged ultimately on these examinations. Changing the model would take great imagination but it would suffice to state that the current model could be bettered.
Entrance exams are designed to filter a large number of applicants. MCQ-based tests and other such standardised tests are not well suited to test for multiple dimensions of merit and are skewed against the poor and underprivileged as some studies have shown. Then there also is the issue of it being held just once a year. As an example, what if the students from flood-affected areas haven’t been able to study these last few weeks; what if some students fall ill on September 13 (the date for NEET), and many such ifs that determine the fate of the student since it all boils down to that one day and those few hours.
The challenges of a single exam across a vast country like India, and one in multiple languages, are plenty. For example in the 2018 NEET exam, a huge 196 marks had to be awarded to more than one lakh candidates from Tamil Nadu as 49 questions were misinterpreted in translation. These single all-India exams also reek of over-centralisation and take away autonomy of candidate selection from higher education institutions.
Removing high stakes from an exam like JEE or NEET requires massive capacity building. While the supply of more number of available seats will take the pressure off, entrance examination frequency and variation needs to be slowly incorporated. For example, to study medicine in the US, one can appear for MCAT (which happens 3 times in a testing year), can appear for Multiple Mini Interviews (which can offset certain disadvantages of an MCQ based test) that a handful of colleges use, or can appear for United States Medical Licensure Examination or USMLE. All this will require better infrastructure, more faculty members, autonomy to institutions, planning by regulatory bodies and checking of corrupt practices.
The current fiasco about JEE and NEET exam reflects more on the way higher education is shaped in India, how the competitive sport of entrance examinations is such a high stake game and how we see testing and its purpose. Multiple routes, multiple attempts, diversity in testing methods are warranted to give more chances and to have a better evaluation. Our young deserve that much at least.
__ The author is Senior Grade Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash