What is it?
In less than six months, a gargantuan exercise will begin in the country, apart from the Lok Sabha election. In fact, preparations have already begun for the conduct of this operation – to allot 66,000-odd medical seats across India among lakhs of students who take the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET). A good score in this common, unified test will guarantee a student – the Supreme Court in a November 29 ruling allowed candidates aged 25 and above to appear for NEET- a place in a medical college in India. Successful students will be allotted MBBS seats through a single window counselling process. Only institutions established through an Act of Parliament – AIIMS and JIPMER in Puducherry – are exempt. NEET for 2019 will be conducted on May 5, by the newly formed National Testing Agency, an autonomous body. It is a competitive exam with objective-type answers and negative marks for the wrong answers.
How did it come about?
The forerunner of NEET is the All India Pre-Medical Exam, but it was by no means the only way of getting into a medical college. Many States had their own systems of allotting MBBS seats. It was only from 2012 that the CBSE and the Medical Council of India proposed this single test across the country. However, the first test could be conducted only in 2013. Meanwhile, States including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and West Bengal and Tamil Nadu opposed the move to impose a single test, citing the variations in State and Central board syllabi. Both States and individual medical colleges took the legal route, and in July 2013, the Supreme Court quashed NEET and ruled that the Medical Council of India could not conduct a unified test. However, in 2016, a Constitution Bench restored the validity of NEET and gave the Centre and the MCI the go-ahead for a single test. The first test was held in May 2016. Since then, NEET has been conducted yearly, with every edition accommodating many more medicine-allied courses.
Why the row around it?
NEET is no stranger to controversy. Bitter battles have been fought on the test from the moment it was proposed. Subsequently there have been several issues, some of which have been resolved, but others that were swept aside by the sobering realisation that NEET is here to stay.
One of the major arguments against the exam was that it would set State board students at a disadvantage, with the content being set by the CBSE. Some States also put forth the point that their own system of admission was crafted around the concept of providing equal opportunity to all students, irrespective of their stream of education, place of residence or family’s educational status. In Tamil Nadu, a huge uprising followed after a young aspirant committed suicide because she could not get through NEET. This top scorer, who was both poor and disadvantaged, it was argued, would have been assured of a seat, had the State been allowed to continue allotment based on an aggregate of marks in the 12th Standard exam.
States also argued that the poor would not be able to afford the coaching they would require to make the cut in NEET. When forced to follow NEET, however, some of them began to offer free NEET coaching classes for students of government schools. Another problem – the opposition to writing the test only in English – was removed after the Centre agreed that students could write it in 10 regional languages in 2018. Following the publication of results, questions were raised about the quality of the translation, and a demand for grace marks to compensate for what they claimed was lost in translation. Dust was also raised over the dress code for the test and the ‘irrational’ allotment of test centres.
What lies ahead?
The immutable stance of the Centre in going ahead with NEET has led to a certain resignation that there is no other way. Protests too have piped down, as students begin to focus on choosing the right coaching classes. Educationists have not lost the opportunity to urge State boards to up their standards.