JEE-NEET amid COVID: No surprise NTA sidelined students' concerns; system built to cater to candidates in privileged positions

It is evident that only a particular class of students are privileged enough to have access to resources during the times of COVID while others have no choice but to watch from the sidelines

Arghya Bhaskar September 13, 2020 18:38:58 IST
JEE-NEET amid COVID: No surprise NTA sidelined students' concerns; system built to cater to candidates in privileged positions

Representational image. News18 Hindi

In the first week of July, the National Testing Agency (NTA) issued a public notice announcing the examination dates of two major national level tests — Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and National Entrance Eligibility Test (NEET). The JEE Main were conducted last week and the NEET exams are being held today.

The number of candidates applying for the exams is so large that conducting them virtually will be nearly impossible. Therefore, these exams are being held according to last year’s ‘center-based’ examination pattern.

Eleven students from eleven states represented by advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the cancellation of NTA’s public notice dated 3 July. The plea alleged that authorities ignored the plight of lakhs of students from Bihar, Assam and northeastern states reeling under floods and conducting either online or offline exams in such places may not be possible.

"Conducting the aforesaid examination across India at such perilous time, is nothing else but putting lives of lakhs of young students (including petitioners herein) at utmost risk and danger of disease and death. The best recourse at this stage can be to wait for some more time, let COVID-19 crisis subside and then only conduct these exams, in order to save lives of the students and their parents," the plea had stated.

On 17 August, the apex court bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra dismissed the plea.

Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta, who represented the NTA, assured the court that all necessary precautions will be taken in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bench in its judgment said, “Careers of the students cannot be put under jeopardy for long.”

Justice Mishra said, “Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards... Education should be opened up. COVID may continue for a year or more. Are you going to wait another year? Do you know what is the loss for the country and peril to the students.”

The petition or plea to seek the cancellation of the NTA notice failed to achieve its purpose because the students failed to sufficiently impress upon the court the problems they face, be it financial, social or physical.

And because the NTA did a good job outlining its preparation to conduct examinations during a pandemic.

What does this tell us about the NTA? That it is far more concerned with students from a particular strata of society and is much less concerned with the less fortunate.

On 28 August, six states, Punjab, Haryana, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Rajasthan, filed for a review of the petition. It was heard on 4 September, when the JEE Main exams were already being conducted. The bench, led by Justice Ashok Bhusan, heard the plea of the Opposition-led states who argued that conducting these exams would defeat the efforts and exercise of social distancing.

The Supreme Court dismissed the plea and also announced on 9 September that, going forward, it would not accept such petitions because all the JEE exams have been conducted and other exams will similarly be conducted.

Genesis of NTA

Central to these events is the NTA, a rather young government body whose job it is to conduct 14 national level examinations on an annual basis: JEE, NEET, CAT, UGC-NET, JNU entrance test, IIFT entrance, Hotel Management JEE among them.

It is imperative to delve into the history of this body in order to understand how it was established and its complex relationship with students. My research specifically deals with JEE and NEET. Both these examinations account for over a million registrations every year, making it, by the numbers, arguably the most high-profile exams.

On May 2013, the MHRD ministry, then headed by Pallam Raju, announced the setting up of a seven-member committee led by educationist and former director of IIT-Kanpur, Sanjay Govind Dhande. The goal of the committee was to prepare a blue print for creating a special purpose of taking the NTA forward.

The committee derives its origins from a meeting of Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) held on 2 April, 2013. In the meeting, it was decided that a proposal to set up a National Testing Agency shall be taken forward in consultation with all the stakeholders.

But were all stakeholders really considered? Judge for yourself.

The then higher education secretary of India Ashish Thakur, during the time of the establishment of this committee, explained that the proposed agency would be formed through an executive order and not set up as a statutory body through an Act of Parliament.

Those were times when important agendas as policies of national interest lagged due to the complex process of getting converted into an Act. Political turmoil effectively increased the time of a policy’s enactment, and thus making the process more time-consuming.

Therefore, the decision to implementing NTA as an executive order to achieve educational reform was welcomed as a move of bureaucratic advancement over legislative traditionality. The trouble is that such reforms, when enacted as an executive order, (the kind of ordinance passed without a hearing in Parliament) deny the masses (here students) any stake in the decision-making.

The experts, of course, would have considered the masses while formulating the NTA, but they did not need their approval.

The NTA specifically designs or conducts examinations related to students belonging to the age group of 18 and above. These students form part of the voting population of the country and they would at least have skin in the game if their representatives, whether or not they are a part of the ruling government, had helped establish the NTA through an Act of Parliament.

In Union Budget of India 2017, the then finance minister Arun Jaitley announced the establishment of the NTA. In this Budget speech Jaitley said, “We propose to set up a National Testing Agency as an autonomous and self sustained premier testing agency to conduct all entrance exams to higher education.”

In November 2017, the Cabinet approved the creation of National Testing Agency (NTA). It was registered under the Societies registration Act, 1860.

The NTA was given a grant of rupees 25 crore from the Government of India to start its operations. After that it would have to be self-sustainable. Upon its establishment, it was also mentioned that it would benefit 40 lakh students.

On its website, the NTA states as its mission: “To improve equity and quality in education by administering research based valid, reliable, efficient, transparent, fair and international level assessments. The best subject matter experts, psycho-metricians and IT delivery and security professionals will ensure that the current gaps in existing systems are properly identified and bridged.”

Prevailing circumstances have put paid to any claims of bridging such a gap.

There was no  attempt on the part of the authorities to consider the plight of those students who, owing to their circumstances, could not appeal to the courts.

Thus it is evident that only a particular class of students are privileged enough to have access to resources during the times of COVID and possibly engage with authorities while others have no choice but to watch from the sidelines.

It is under this ecosystem under which organisations like the NTA function. Of course, it is unfair to blame this entirely on the present dispensation at the Centre. Elitism in higher education has been a problem since times immemorial.

Multiplicity and stress

During the NTA's formation in 2013, the MHRD ministry issued a statement saying ‘the rationale for setting up the body lies in ensuring that a multiplicity of entrance examinations leading to stress on the students is addressed in a comprehensive manner by formulating a uniform entrance examinations for admissions in different branches of higher learning.’

Earlier, students who could not get into premiere Central colleges like IITs could take state level entrance examinations to get into state universities. But when the NTA replaced state level exams with common entrance tests, it eliminated the possibility of choice and created a single gateway for students. Which creates a rather stressful environment.

The present government, which adopted this policy from the previous government, has respectfully maintained the essence of the original concept.  

Education, meanwhile, has become big business. The NTA and the MHRD know that. It is essential to note that even after the NTA introducing its 'uniformity', large institutions (BITSAT and BITS) have introduced different sylllabus and exam patterns for different entrance exams.

The NTA, on the other hand, while pushing the single-day examination as the only way a candidate can enroll in public institutions, has eliminated choice. The NTA has thus made the private sector a prominent player in the education 'market'. Thus if a student is off his mark that day, he or she could lose out getting into a government college. But not a private institution.

One can thus sense a greater push towards privatisation of the education sector.

The government may have boasted of a 'silent majority', but the numbers don't seem bear them out.

This year saw a decrease in the number of students registered for the second phase of JEE. More than quarter of students who registered for the JEE Main failed to appear for  their examinations. According to data from the Ministry of Education, of 8.58 lakh applicants, only 6.35 lakh appeared for the engineering test which was held from 1 to 6 September.

On 4 September, 2020, Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, the education minister tweeted the attendance data of first three days of JEE main examinations. The data showed a horrific figure: 1,15,000 students were unable to attend examinations.

A closer examination shows even more bad news: In Bengal, only 55 percent of students attended the first day of examinations. Punjab was one of the worst-affected states with only 45 percent of registered students managing to appear at nine centres spread across the state.

Now let's look at Bihar.

North Bihar is severely affected by floods as several rivers remain above the danger mark. And how many NEET centres does Bihar have? Only two: Gaya in south Bihar and the state capital Patna.

How are students in Bihar expected to reach examination centres?

Keep in mind that in such places, education assumes a very important role in improving the social and economic standing of families.

In many places, education is the only way up.

In Jharkhand, tier-2 cities like Jamshedpur are full of good schools. But reality sets in as soon as one moves 30 kilometres away.  Are authorities even aware of such realities or do they only cater to those who come from a privileged positions? 

The answer seems as clear as day.

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