In what is being touted as a landmark move with regard to the conduct of entrance examinations in India, the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given its approval for the creation of a National Testing Agency (NTA), bringing to life an idea first mooted in the 2017-18 Union Budget. As per a Government of India press release dated November 10, 2017, the NTA will be registered as a society and run ‘as an autonomous and self-sustained premier testing organization to conduct entrance examinations for higher educational institutions’. However, with around only two months remaining for the NEET 2018 applications to begin, the NTA’s involvement in the conducting of NEET is only expected to take place in 2019 at the earliest.
The introduction of the NTA may also lead to NEET and other exams being held twice a year. Further details about the NTA and its proposed structure can be read here.
How is the establishment of the NTA related to NEET?
As mentioned in the press release, the aim of the NTA is to relieve existing Government bodies, starting with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), from the responsibility of conducting national level entrance examinations. Apart from the major examinations at school level for Class 10 and Class 12 students, the CBSE is currently responsible for conducting some of India’s most high-profile college entrance examinations, including the Joint Entrance Examination – Main (JEE Main) for admissions to IITs and other engineering colleges, the National Eligibility Test (NET) for selection of college and University professors, and most controversially, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).
NEET, which is the single window All India examination offering admissions to all medical and dental seats in colleges across India, was made compulsory for the first time for all states in 2017. The CBSE, whose responsibility with regard to NEET started with the release of the application form and concluded with the declaration of results, faced a trial by fire throughout the entire process. It is strongly speculated that the manner in which the CBSE made a hash of conducting NEET 2017 forced the Government’s hand and hastened the introduction of the NTA.
Possible reasons for the CBSE being replaced
The list of controversies the CBSE got itself involved in was long and extended to all possible areas of the NEET process, starting with a court case around the languages NEET would not be held in, to the implementation of an overtly strict dress code in certain centres, and concluding ironically enough with a judicial storm around the languages that it was actually held in. A timeline of the various controversies the CBSE found itself involved in with regard to NEET 2017 can be seen below:
CBSE releases the initial notification for NEET 2017 stating, “The upper age limit of the candidates appearing for NEET 2017 has been fixed at 25 years on the date of conduct of examination in which five year relaxation has been given to the reserved category candidates”. CBSE also introduces a cap on the number of attempts available to a candidate limiting them to three with previous attempts in AIPMT also counted. Both rules create an uproar among NEET aspirants. By February, the cap on number of attempts is revoked by the CBSE within a week of being introduced while the upper age limit is removed in March after a Supreme Court order on the same. The CBSE is forced to re-open the application form window twice for candidates deemed ineligible by these rules. The court case verdicts also lead to a delay in the release of the NEET admit card in May.
Tamil Nadu re-initiates its tussle with NEET in February 2017, a drama which would continue for over six months and affect the lives of numerous medical aspirants from the state. Two bills are sent by the state assembly to the President seeking for the state’s exemption from both NEET UG and PG based on the reasoning that students from economically weaker families would struggle to balance preparations for their Boards, and also that such a rigorous national level entrance exam based on the NCERT syllabus is unfair on State Board students.
As per the initial CBSE notification on NEET 2017, Oriya and Kannada were also introduced as language options from 2017, in addition to Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Assamese and Bengali, thereby bringing the total number of languages in which NEETwould be be held to 10. Even a seemingly progressive move is affected by controversy with the Students Islamic Organization of India (SIO) demanding for the inclusion of Urdu to the list. The case is finally resolved when the Supreme Court allows for the inclusion of Urdu from 2018-19 onwards.
NEET 2017 is held on May 7 with over 10.78 lakh candidates appearing out of the 11.38 lakh candidates who registered. The first controversies which emerge post the exam revolve around the unreasonably strict dress codes implemented at certain centres.
Demands for a re-test arise within days of the exam being held, with candidates raising allegations of paper leaks and language bias in regional question papers. Bihar and Rajasthan police arrest various gang members attempting to leak the paper. Candidates from Maharashtra and West Bengal are the first to file complaints regarding variance in the Marathi and Bengali papers in terms of question paper difficulty and exam pattern. Following this controversies, a memorandum is released by students in Delhi terming the conduct of NEET 2017 as one of ‘history’s most felonious affairs’.
After reports from Telangana suggest that 228 students at a particular exam centre were forcibly given the English and Hindi language papers despite having opted for Telugu in their NEET Application Forms, the CBSE organizes a re-test for them on May 17.
The MHRD is forced to step in to address the increasing din around the question paper controversy, with Gujarat and Tamil Nadu being the latest states to allege an increased difficulty level of the NEET 2017 Question Paper in their respective languages when compared to Hindi and English papers.
On May 24, the Madras High Court passes an interim order to stay the results of NEET 2017 stating that setting different question papers in different languages is unfair and would lead to skewed results. A day later, the Supreme Court clarifies it has no intention of hearing an advance plea demanding for the cancellation of NEET 2017.
With the order of stay on results, the CBSE fails to release the NEET Answer Key and OMR Answer Sheets of candidates as expected by the end of May. No notification or information is released to candidates regarding this delay as the Board opts to maintain a studied silence throughout. On June 6, the CBSE appears before the Madras and Gujarat High Courts and admits for the first time that different question papers were set for the English and Hindi candidates as compared to the vernacular language candidates. The reason cited behind not translating the same paper into all ten languages as was the expected practise was done to avoid any possible leakage of the question paper. The CBSE maintains however that all papers were of equal difficulty.
Following the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s request to the Madras High Court to revoke its stay order and allow for the release the NEET 2017 results, the Supreme Court comes to the CBSE’s rescue on June 12 by overturning the Madras High Court’s stay order and allowing the CBSE time to release the NEET Answer Key, OMR sheet and Result by June 26.
The CBSE releases the OMR Answer Sheet on June 13 and NEET Answer Key on June 15. The NEET Result is declared on June 23, after a delay of two weeks on the previously scheduled date of June 8. Following the declaration of results, the official role of CBSE in the entire NEET process ends with the Medical Counselling Committee and various state authorities taking over the counselling process which begins from July 3.
Though the CBSE’s participation in the NEET process concludes with the declaration of results, the after-effects of its decisions linger. Even as Minister Javadekar clarifies in July that the Government intends to set uniform question papers for NEET from 2018 onwards, Rajya Sabha MPs from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu raise issue with the way NEET 2017 was conducted, with the latter continuing to demand that Tamil Nadu be exempted.
A long-simmering controversy over the involvement of CBSE in the NEET process erupts with students in Tamil Nadu taking to the streets to protest about how the fact the exam syllabus being derived from NCERT was more favourable to CBSE students as compared to state students. The Centre finds itself in the eye of a storm by first allowing an exemption for Tamil Nadu and then revoking its stance. This also follows attempts by the TN Government to reserve 85% seats in state quota for state board students and leave only 15% for CBSE students, a rule later struck down by the Supreme Court for being ‘unfair on CBSE students’. Matters reach a head with the suicide of S. Anitha, a Tamil Nadu aspirant who took the battle against NEET to the Supreme Court. Debates around the efficacy of NEET intensify but the counselling process for 2017 finally concludes in all states.
Why the NTA could be a better alternative
Given the litany of complaints and controversies that constantly surrounded NEET 2017 all throughout the year, it seems a prudent decision on part of the Government to replace the CBSE with a specialized testing agency. With around 2 months to go for the NEET 2018 applications to open, it seems likely that the CBSE may remain as the conducting agency for the coming year with the NTA only expected to take over from 2019.
As stated by the press release, the NTA is intended to bring in ‘high reliability (and) standardized difficulty level for assessing the aptitude, intelligence and problem solving abilities of the students’. This along with the assertion that the NTA will first take over the CBSE’s responsibilities can probably be attributed to the way NEET 2017 was held and the CBSE’s role in the same. Aspirants will be hoping now that the establishment of the NTA heralds the introduction of a smoother exam-conducting process with the interests of all stake-holders taken into consideration, but more importantly that the CBSE is able to learn from its mistakes and conduct NEET 2018 in a non-controversial manner until the NTA takes over.