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UGC NET Cancelled, Alleged Leaks in NEET UG: Where is NTA Going Wrong?

We speak to experts on what ails the NTA and if reforms could help in the smooth and transparent conduct of exams.  

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Education
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“Yuva desh ka bhavishya hai magar yuva ke bhavishya ka kya? (The youth determines the future of the country, but what about the future of the youth),” said 30-year-old Prasenjeet, who took the UGC-NET exam on Tuesday, 18 June for pursuing a PhD degree. 

The UGC-NET exam was cancelled on 19 June, a day after it was conducted, after intelligence inputs indicated that “its integrity may have been compromised. 

Two days later, on 21 June, the Joint CSIR-UGC-NET exam was postponed due to “unavoidable circumstances.”  

A day later, on 22 June, the NEET-PG exam was cancelled nearly 12 hours before it was scheduled to be conducted “as a precautionary measure.” 

A lot has unravelled since 4 June, when the results of the NEET-UG medical entrance exams were declared by the National Testing Agency (NTA).

What started as allegations of discrepancies in score cards and arbitrary award of grace marks, has now snowballed into large-scale malpractices – including question paper leaks – across India. A re-test was conducted on 23 June for 1,563 candidates who were awarded ‘compensatory marks for loss of time.’ 

While NEET-UG, UGC-NET and Joint CSIR-UGC-NET exams are conducted by the NTA, the NEET-PG exam is conducted by the National Board of Examination (NBE). 

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Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan – who took oath as MP amid Opposition leaders chanting ‘NEET, NEET!’ – has now admitted to “an institutional failure”, a departure from his erstwhile assertion that there have been “no paper leaks”. Even though he denied paper leaks in the CSIR-UGC-NET exam, he told reporters on 22 June that the “NTA's top leadership is under several types of questions.” 

Meanwhile, NTA Director General Subodh Kumar Singh was removed from his post last week and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took charge of the probe into malpractices in NEET-UG and UGC-NET exams. The Education Ministry formed a high-level committee, led by former ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan, to recommend reforms in NTA's functioning.

The Supreme Court, however, refused to stay the counseling process for the medical entrance exam and will hear the matter next on 8 July. 

“I don’t see how the NTA would be able to rebuild its credibility without a complete overhaul in its governance structure,” Yamini Aiyar, the former CEO of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) told The Quint.  

As the future of lakhs of students hangs in the balance, The Quint speaks to educationists and policy experts on what ails the NTA and if reforms could facilitate fair conduct of exams.   

‘Broken the Trust of Lakhs of Students’ 

“After I took the UGC-NET exam, I was positive that I would have qualified. I used to study at least 12 hours a day alongside pursuing my Masters and was hoping for some relief after the exam. Instead, we were thrown into uncertainty and more stress,” a UGC-NET aspirant told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.  

She is among the nine lakh students who appeared for the exam. Since 2018, the exam is being conducted in the Computer Based Test (CBT) or online mode. However, this time the exam was conducted in OMR (Pen and Paper) or offline mode in 1,205 exam centres across India.  

Aspirants that The Quint spoke to alleged many concerns in the conducts of the UGC-NET including exam centres being 40 to 100 kilometres away and not equipped to manage the torrid heat wave, which has engulfed the capital city.  

“It was challenging enough to take the exam once in this nearly fatal heat. The thought of doing it again is traumatising,” the 26-year-old Masters student said.  

Anil Nagar, CEO of Adda247 – which provides coaching to UGC-NET aspirants through their YouTube channel – said that taking the exam twice could prove “very distressful” for students. He said that the “trust of lakhs of students in the exam ecosystem has broken” because of this development.  

 “Agreed that conducting an exam on such a large scale is not an easy task. But the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS) and Union Public Service Commission conduct exams every year. If they can do it, why can’t NTA?” 

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‘NTA is Fundamentally Flawed’

Former CPR CEO Yamini Aiyar said that the bigger issue is that the NTA “centralises the examination system” and though it was done with the idea of standardisation and mobility for students, it completely ignores the complex political economy of the society. 

“The NTA is fundamentally flawed – both in design and in implementation. This gets clear from the massive gap between the demand and supply of colleges. Over 24 lakh candidates appeared for the NEET exam for a little over one lakh seats. The scale is untenable,” she said. 

Aiyar recalled that even when most states had arrived at a consensus on centralising the medical entrance exam to get away from corruption and Vyapam-like scams, Tamil Nadu had raised objections saying it was discriminatory and not in line with the state education system.  

“The hyper-competitive demand-supply situation, where 24 lakh candidates are applying for one lakh seats, is bound to create cracks in the system. This is even evident from the paper leaks in government recruitment exams,” Aiyar explained.  

This not only puts immense pressure on the students but also creates a “perfect cocktail for anyone with means to corrupt the lower bureaucracy.” 

Former UGC Chairman Sukhdev Thorat told The Quint that the "centralised admission in 47 central universities has resulted in a serious problem, reducing quality and reservations for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates."

"In the interest of quality and equity, it is necessary to revert to university-level admission for all the 47 central universities," Prof Thorat asserted.

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‘Doubts Over Pen and Paper Mode, Not NTA’ 

Former Education Secretary R Subrahmanyam told The Quint that alleged irregularities in the NEET exam and the cancellation of the UGC-NET exam raises “serious questions about the pen/paper exam, not as much about NTA.” 

It is to be noted that both the NEET UG exam and UGC-NET exam were conducted in offline mode.   

“NTA has been conducting other online exams with reasonable accuracy. I agree however, that there is a scope (and need) to further build its capacity and professionalise it more. We shouldn’t entrust pen/paper exams to NTA, which is not their core competence,” Subrahmanyam said.  

He added that OMR (pen and paper) exam has multiple points of leakage and is therefore a “heaven for scamsters.” He asserted that the UGC-NET exam should not have been taken back to pen/paper system.  

“But NTA is only an examination service. The entity entrusting the exam will have to define the modalities. In the NET exam case, the decision for moving back to pen/paper exam was taken by UGC, which owns the exam. NTA has only executed that mandate, although I personally think that they should have refused to go back to ‘stone age’,” he stated.  

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‘NTA an Unaccountable, Opaque Body, Needs to Be Scrapped’ 

Ayesha Kidwai, a professor of Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, stated that NTA is a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 and has “no checks and balances in place” for conducting exams across the country. The NTA is not a board like the CBSE. 

“It functions like a private institution which has the largest monopoly of conducting entrance exams. However, it is entirely opaque and not accountable to the people of India, much like the PM-CARES fund,” she lamented.  

Kidwai asserted that there was no transparency on the selection of NTA’s members, its finances and outlay, setting of question papers, or the SOPs on selection of exam centres, fee for each exam among other things.  

“There is no involvement of stakeholders such as teachers and professors on setting up papers and yet NTA is the decider of the future of universities, teachers and the entire education system. It has become the single gatekeeper of who gets entry into UG, PG and PhD courses. This is not centralisation but a coup,” she opined. 

She added that soon after, the class 10 and 12 exams will be “in danger” and that class 12 exams have already been made “irrelevant”. She underscored that NTA cannot be entrusted with any examinations and needs to be scrapped. 

However, Subrahmanyam said that NTA has been set up as a “global-standard professional, online testing service” for all the major exams being conducted by the Government.  

“Within a short time, NTA has set up structures, finalised protocols, built up question banks, tied up for IT solutions and conducted several exams without a hitch. There have been one or two aberrations and NTA has learnt from them,” he told The Quint. 

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‘Do Away With MCQs, Conduct Multi-Tier Exam Like UPSC’

The former Education Secretary observed that the NTA’s ability to conduct pen/paper exams is rather weak as such exams depend on multiple actors like state governments, colleges, schools and staff who are deputed by other entities. “This is where the weakness creeps in,” Subrahmanyam said. He added: 

 “It is essential that NTA is built as a robust online testing agency like Educational Testing Service (which conducts the TOEFL and GRE exams). They should develop in-house capability for IT solutions and logistics at the exam centres. It is not too difficult to achieve, if there is a political and administrative will."
R Subrahmanyam, Former Secretary to Govt of India (Higher Education, & Social Justice)

Dr Sanjeev Rai, an educationist and Founder of School of Open Ideas, told The Quint that there is a need to change the education system wherein the focus of competitive exams is not only on speed to answer questions but overall understanding of the subject.  

“We need to do away with Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), which are not only easy to manipulate but also don’t judge candidates based on cognitive aspects. Qualitative writing, however, provides better screening of candidates and is also less prone to unfair means,” Rai explained. 

On being asked if it was possible to conduct subjective exams on large scale, Rai said that though it is a “Herculean task to monitor the exam for 24 lakh students,” it is possible if conducted in multiple tiers akin to the UPSC exam.  

“Around 10 lakh candidates take the UPSC objective exam, but only 10,000 get to the next stage which is the UPSC (Mains) subjective exam and only 2,000 sit for the interview. This helps in screening candidates who have better understanding of the concept rather than those who have practiced previous years’ question papers. It also puts a check and balance in place and automatically eliminates unfair means.” 

 For the NTA to regain its trust, Rai proposed more participation and involvement of stakeholders including parents, teachers and students in the form of feedback and transparency. 

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‘NTA Needs Complete Overhaul, JPC Should Probe Functioning’ 

“I don’t see how the NTA would be able to rebuild its credibility without a complete overhaul in its governance structure. Those in charge will need to be held accountable for the contradictions and failures,” Aiyar contended. 

She added that it is critical that NTA is transparent in what steps it will take to ensure that irregularities like these do not occur. 

“The Education Minister has said a committee will be set up to recommend reforms in NTA but who are the members of this committee?” Kidwai asked. She added that the investigation being handed over to the CBI is "another black hole considering how central agencies have been used by the government in the last ten years."  

Kidwai demanded a probe into the functioning of the NTA since its inception by an all-party Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).

“We don’t have one language, one religion, one preference. We do not ‘need one nation one examination’. NTA must be scrapped and only the Parliament can do it,” she remarked.  Aiyar also appealed for a JPC probe into NTA.  

“More importantly, we need to have a larger Budget for building more medical colleges at the centre and the state level. There is a demand and huge gap in supply. Fill that gap.” She added that the exam should be decentralised. 

Rai too suggested “branching” of courses based on the needs of society, as it would not only create more seats but also more jobs for semi-professionals.  

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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