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When NEET is not so neat

opinionWhen NEET is not so neat

Needed, credible higher education and integrity of examinations.

Sanity is not statistical.
George Orwell

Exam leaks have made one exam, one nation postulate to a serious rethink. We need a united nation, not a uniform nation. Uniformity doesn’t permit diversity, difference, democracy and dissent. These leaks have brought Bharat to a low point where the integrity of educational exams and institutional credibility are at stake. This is a wake-up call for all that all is not well with the methods of testing. Maintenance of standards is the responsibility of all, not just national agencies. Autonomy and excellence go hand in hand for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

India’s education system is a potential powerhouse that is needed to realize the vision of Vikasit Bharat. It should not become a testing ground for technological shortcuts and the display of hubris of a few individuals. Therefore, it is crucial to approach this issue with a balanced perspective, acknowledging the challenges and working towards solutions that enhance accountability and restore integrity and credibility within India’s educational landscape.

SHORTCUTS THROUGH TECHNOLOGY

Technology and economically cheap solutions are not necessarily better solutions. The overreliance on technology and shortcut methods to conduct examinations, such as through MCQs, makes it easier for tech-savvy individuals with malicious intentions to exploit the system. Throwing half-baked ideas may generate clickbait, but at the end of the day, we must be cautious to avoid knee-jerk reactions that could harm students, families, and the discipline itself in the long term. In the age of social media and the internet, no leak is local; it instantly becomes global. MCQs and master keys are the easiest to hack. The exam mafia consists of criminals with no ideology. The uniformity of one exam is dangerous because a failure becomes a calamity for the government while impacting the lives of millions of students, families, and many more.

LEADERSHIP FAILURE

The lack of foresight and accountability by the NTA and UGC leadership has made this episode more tragic. The sequence of denial, followed by misdirection and then sugar-coated evasive statements, has infuriated the nation. Granted, conducting a pan-Indian examination is complex, but how come the leadership at the NTA and UGC with all their resources, were oblivious to such challenges? Why were safe tracking measures and the best human resources not utilized? Was it all to save money? How did these problems go unnoticed until the results were announced, complicating the lives of millions of students and their families? We must understand that education is not a place to preserve but to invest wisely and inclusively. Surgery is required, and any shortcuts will only make the problem worse.

GOVERNMENT IN ACTION

For all its worth, the government’s responses have been decisive and multifarious. The education minister has taken “moral responsibility” for the issue, and the official responsible for the NTA, has been replaced. An investigation has been launched with the CBI for NEET (UG), and a detailed inquiry has also been ordered for the UGC-NET 2024 examination, which is also being handled by the CBI. Meanwhile, a high-level committee of experts under a former ISRO chief that also includes notable figures such as a former AIIMS director and respected scholars like Aditya Mittal and Prof. Ramamurthy K. from the IIT system has been constituted to ensure the fair, transparent, and smooth conduct of examinations.

Moreover, within two months, the Committee is supposed to make recommendations on reforms in processes and mechanisms, suggesting improvements in data security protocols and identifying any structural issues in the NTA. The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, has also been notified by the government, coming into effect on 21 June. Its guiding objective is to maintain deterrence by curbing unfair practices in the conduct of examinations through strict penalties, including ten years in prison and a fine of Rs 1 crore. Hence, the government’s intention is relatively straightforward on this issue—malpractices of any kind by anyone will not be tolerated. Actions will be taken, punishments will be rendered, and rectifications will be made in the conduct of public examinations with new and diverse thinking and stakeholders.

WAY FORWARD

While the government’s responses have been commendable, additional measures must be adopted in the long term to restore faith and integrity in the Indian education system. First, we need to develop a new perspective on our expectations from students, which means rethinking our approach to conducting examinations. The debate of fact vs. values was resolved in the 1980s. Yet, we still rely heavily on quantitative methods like MCQs, believing they work wonders.

Qualitative skills are still essential, as engineers and doctors must use their qualitative abilities to understand and address problems, particularly when they get out in the real world. In complex human contexts, values play a significant role, which may be discarded as biases. But the reality is that today’s examinations are limited in their ambit in testing merely the ability to memorize and vomit information, neglecting other crucial skills. In higher education especially, rote learning is the least required skill. Instead, we must focus on developing critical and analytical thinking, reading, and writing skills. Clarity in thinking and cogency in writing are the skills that should be tested, and teaching should be oriented towards developing these skills.

One can appreciate that unity is a desirable quality, such as forging a national identity. However, insisting on uniformity everywhere is a form of control pathology. As we know from Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS), diversity and change are the laws of life, and small is also beautiful. Perhaps the time has come to consider region-wise or cluster-wise examinations with a mix of objective and interpretive questions. This approach could minimize the possibility of leaks and hacking while allowing room to explore the students’ analytical and critical aptitude. Multiple versions of exam papers could be distributed randomly to further reduce the malpractice risks. Finally, new systems and individuals are needed at the leadership level—those who are empathetic, forward-looking, open-minded and responsible instead of being obstructive, parochial and inconsiderate.

An old saying is, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” This applies to education as well. One cannot achieve a high-quality workforce that is hard-working and innovative when the agencies responsible for them are unwilling to make the due expenses on the intake. There is a sincere need to rethink the perception of education in the country. Education is not merely about jobs but also social, economic, and political transformation. Investment in education must go up.

This crisis should prompt reflection on what went wrong and how to restore the credibility of the NTA and UGC. Prompt and thorough inquiries into the centres in question must be conducted. The lack of transparency within the NTA and UGC must be promptly addressed. Education policies, whether at a conceptual or operational level, cannot succeed unless they prioritize combining integrity with innovation and inclusion, excellence with empathy and equity, diversity with democracy, transparency and accountability.

Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit is the Vice Chancellor of JNU.

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