The student community has been left in severe distress by the tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having dedicated immense time, effort, and expense to their education, they have seen their plans disrupted, and their futures rendered uncertain by circumstances beyond their control.
Many of these students rightly saw their dedication to gaining an education as a secure path to freeing themselves from the chains of prejudice and penury. The pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns and related restrictions have been an awful setback to their dreams.
It would be a travesty to hurt these students further by imposing upon them a dreadful dilemma: a choice between their health and their academic future. Shamefully, this is currently the choice facing the immense number of students preparing for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)-Main, scheduled to be held in person in September 2020.
In The Name Of Public Health, NEET & JEE Must Not Be Held In Person
The NEET and JEE were originally scheduled for April and May 2020, but have been postponed twice since then. This means the government thought it wise to postpone these huge examinations when COVID cases in India were at 50,000, but thinks it perfectly reasonable to crowd thousands of students together in packed exam halls when the case count has crossed 3.3 million.
This is illogical and dangerous: the scientific consensus on COVID-19 clearly states that large events should not be held at this stage, and that everyone should avoid crowds and thus reduce the chance for this deadly virus to spread. It is obvious that, in the name of public health, the NEET and JEE must not be held in person.
We have seen the chaos of the alternative play out before, with the in-person administration of the Kerala Engineering, Architecture and Medical (KEAM) exams in July. I had written to the Chief Minister of Kerala in advance of the exams’ administration, expressing my deep concerns about the risk of infection and requesting a postponement. My request was ignored, and disaster ensued.
With no attempts to enforce social distancing requirements or limit the number of attendees, the examination led to huge crowding at centres in Kerala (by both exam-takers and their parents or escorts) and resulted in a spike in COVID cases.
- The pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns and related restrictions have been an awful setback to the dreams of students.
- It would be a travesty to hurt these students further by imposing upon them a dreadful dilemma: a choice between their health and their academic future.
- Shamefully, this is currently the choice facing the immense number of students preparing for NEET and JEE, scheduled to be held in person in September 2020.
- This is illogical and dangerous: the scientific consensus on COVID-19 clearly states that large events should not be held at this stage.
- NEET-JEE simply must not be conducted in September. It should, at minimum, be postponed at least to November, after Diwali.
- If that later date is still not practicable...the only way forward that is practical, safe, and respectful of the well-being of both students and examiners is an at-home examination.
If NEET & JEE Can’t Be Postponed, They Must Be Taken At Home
The NEET-JEE exams are on a far bigger scale: around 25 lakh students are already registered. This portends an extremely dire situation, many times worse than what happened at the administration of the KEAM exam. NEET-JEE simply must not be conducted in September. It should, at minimum, be postponed at least to November, after Diwali.
If that later date is still not practicable, the government is right in saying that students cannot be forced to lose a whole academic year. In that case, in my view, the only way forward that is practical, safe, and respectful of the well-being of both students and examiners is an at-home examination. This would allow students to take the exam in the safety of their own homes, and not force them to crowd into exam halls that have the immense potential, as we have seen, to become ‘super-spreaders’ of COVID-19.
For ‘Socially Distanced’ NEET & JEE, How Can Examiners & Examinees Equip Themselves?
The government should set up online-equipped testing centres for those who are unable to take the exam at home for whatever reason. But these students are likely to form a much a smaller number, so social distancing norms can be maintained in such centres to eliminate any risk of transmission.
Naturally, in order to be an accurate gauge of the exam-taker’s academic talent, the exam would have to be re-designed to fit these unique circumstances. The aptitudes it tests will have to be different from that of the standard exam, taking into account the availability of study and reference materials at students’ homes. This exam must move away from an emphasis on memory-based knowledge tests that test the students’ recall of facts and towards challenges of logic, synthesis, and analysis.
This broad change may, perhaps, be a challenge for the examiners, who are used to doing what they have done for generations. It may also pose certain difficulties to students, who have prepared for the exam in the traditional way. But in the pandemonium of the pandemic, we are being forced to question all our assumptions and fashion entirely new ways of being. It is a challenge that faces all of us, and we must rise to the occasion.
Why Govt Must Adapt To The Sobering Reality Of COVID-19 Pandemic
The risks and problems involved in proceeding with business-as-usual are considerable, and this is certainly the case with administering exams such as NEET and JEE.
Seven Opposition Chief Ministers have already moved the Supreme Court against proceeding with these examinations. The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) has embarked on a hunger-strike to achieve the same objective. If the ruling party does not wish to be seen as ‘anti-students’, and if it truly cares about the well-being of young Indians, it must listen to reason – and to the Opposition.
As has been the case throughout the ravages of the pandemic, there are no perfect solutions to the exam-administration puzzle. An at-home examination, however, would ensure that the scores of students who have worked so hard towards achieving their dreams will not find their well-being compromised at the last minute.
The government must adapt to the sobering reality of the situation. Lovers of learning should not find their paths to a bright future blocked by a myopic and ill-considered decision to hold the exams in-person at the height of a pandemic.
We must keep the future builders and leaders of India safe – for their sake, and for that of our nation.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)