NEET fiasco and centralised exams: Was the NTA designed to fail?

‘Fixing’ the National Testing Agency should start with the question of whether centralisation of entrance exams is necessary, and more importantly, whether entrance exams are even desirable.
NEET fiasco and centralised exams: Was the NTA designed to fail?
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The one-size-fits-all approach taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government in setting up the National Testing Agency (NTA) in 2017 has turned into a nightmare for thousands of students. The agency’s inefficacy was exposed in a blizzard of question paper leak allegations in the run-up to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to undergraduate medical courses on May 5. NTA’s callousness led to the escalation of the situation on June 4, when the results of 24 lakh candidates were declared. What followed was a series of events that sent the agency down a rabbit hole of cancelling and postponing other major exams, revealing its inability to ensure access to education for lakhs of students. However, the warning bells have been ringing since its inception. 

The BJP government reasoned that a single agency to conduct exams would help tackle corruption, prevent backdoor entry, and make lives easier for students looking to get enrolled in universities. Question paper leaks, police complaints, and emphasis on NEET, a single national test for medical admissions, helped the government’s narrative. The then Union Minister for Human Resources Development (now called Ministry of Education), Prakash Javadekar, had said that NTA was constituted to help the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) focus on board exams alone. 

Autonomous bodies like the NTA are constituted in two ways in India — either by an Act of Parliament or state Assembly or by a Cabinet decision followed by registration under the Societies Registration Act. 

The NTA was registered in 2018 under the Act by approval of the Cabinet, bypassing the Parliament. By constituting the NTA in this manner, the Union government has been accused of attacking the autonomy of states, as education has been a bone of contention between states and the Union government since Independence. 

Six years after NTA conducted its first exam, protests have erupted across the country demanding the resignation of the current Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and the scrapping of NTA.

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