Clean up NEET to restore public confidence : The Tribune India

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Clean up NEET to restore public confidence

The National Testing Agency must live up to expectations and, together with the Centre, take immediate remedial measures that reassure all stakeholders.

Clean up NEET to restore public confidence

Prerequisites: Honesty, transparency and accountability in the admission process are a must. ANI


Former Director, PGI

IN an article published in The Tribune (August 5, 2023), I had argued that the NEET (National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test) system was a desirable and essential piece of reform, but it required fine-tuning. The recent controversy surrounding NEET-UG 2024 underscores the urgency for improvement, though it points only towards the mishandling of the NEET exam and not the redundancy of the system itself. The issue is now before the Supreme Court.

We must realise that an exercise that borders on the sacred for our students and their parents must be executed flawlessly and in a manner that inspires the highest measure of confidence in the system. Events such as those that have transpired this year erode confidence in the system and demoralise students.

NEET was introduced to bring about transparency and meritocracy in the admission system. Genuine concerns had been raised about the earlier admission system adopted by some private medical institutions being opaque and dishonest. Evils like capitation fees had tainted the system. Besides, candidates were forced to undergo multiple entrance examinations across the country to maximise their chances of getting admission to one medical college or another. A single nationwide examination like NEET was necessary to address this.

Unsurprisingly, this much-needed measure of reform was resisted by some. NEET, though initially planned in 2010, could not be implemented for a year or so on account of perceived flaws in its initial notification. It was only in 2012 that the Medical Council of India, in consultation with the Union Government, properly notified it. The exam could not be conducted that year since students did not have enough time to prepare. Before it could be rolled out from the next year onwards, the apex court intervened. The notification of the exam was set aside by a three-judge Bench with a 2:1 verdict. The court was approached to review and reconsider its decision. Ultimately, it reversed the decision and allowed NEET to be implemented.

This landmark ruling paved the way for a major overhaul of the medical admission system in India. The NEET system could finally be put in place. Wider consultations with stakeholders and state governments had also brought out the need to hold NEET in local languages in addition to English. This was important to ensure equity among students coming from different regions. Of course, it was visualised by the policymakers that once NEET was rolled out, improvements would be made whenever necessary.

Over the years, the conduct of NEET has, more or less, been free from controversy. In this backdrop, this year’s events are unfortunate. It is vital that all issues that have arisen be resolved as soon as possible. The National Testing Agency must live up to expectations and, together with the Central Government, take immediate remedial measures that reassure all stakeholders. Honesty, transparency and accountability in the admission process must be seen and felt as having been restored.

If there are any systemic issues that call for change, those must not be swept under the carpet. They must be urgently and constructively addressed.

One oft-debated area of concern is whether a multiple-choice question (MCQ)-based examination is the best method of selecting medical students. A related and valid criticism is that this format of examination has resulted in the mushrooming of private coaching academies to prepare students for the high-level competition. These academies are prohibitively expensive and concentrated in tier I and tier II cities and towns. As a result, students whose families cannot afford to pay such high fees are deprived of this valuable training tool. Urban students are able to gain an unfair advantage over their rural counterparts, who may lack easy access to coaching academies. There is a widespread belief that without the benefit of coaching in these expensive academies, it is very difficult to compete for admission to medical colleges. Many meritorious students from a poor or rural background thus feel handicapped.

Additionally, students begin to ignore their Class XII board exams, where a 50 per cent score is sufficient to be eligible for taking NEET. Consequently, students do not take their Class XI and XII studies or exams seriously, losing out on the development of analytical and scientific skills. I am shocked to learn from some students that many of their classmates join such academies and don’t attend classes at school. It appears that some schools are keen to certify them as regular students so as to allow them to sit in the Class XII board examination.

Some alterations to the current system must be considered. The NEET question papers could include questions framed on the basis of the state board syllabi, so that an equal opportunity is available to students from all regions. Well-designed MCQs, which can assess the intellectual capacity of our students and not merely their rote learning, must be introduced. The emphasis needs to be on evaluating the mental ability, quality of reasoning, depth of knowledge and analytical thinking.

It will also be helpful to attach some weightage in the medical admission process to the Class XII board examination score. This may motivate students to undertake a more broad-based learning approach and reduce the importance of coaching institutes focusing only on rote learning and mastering multiple-choice questions.

Policymakers should examine the possibility of a hybrid system for undergraduate medical admissions, with weightage for the NEET score (say 50 per cent) and the balance weightage for the score in the Class XII board examination or other similar (objective and transparent) performance criteria. This approach may not be met with much objection as far as the state quota seats are concerned. However, in view of the differing standards and the evaluation process across different states, it may be less than ideal for the all-India quota seats and Central institutes like AIIMS unless some system of equalisation or normalisation is put in place to be applied to various education boards.

NEET was an essential step in the right direction. The present controversy has impacted its credibility. Necessary action must be taken immediately to restore public confidence. Politicisation of the issue must be avoided at all costs. We cannot afford to return to the old ways of doing things. The very future of our young citizens is at stake.

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