NTA’s dangerous obsession with centralisation

The testing agency’s incompetence has a lot to do with the government’s fetish with centralisation; it jeopardises the future of lakhs of students.

Published : Jul 09, 2024 19:18 IST - 10 MINS READ

Students who appeared for NEET 2024 from Haryana’s Jind district, all of whom scored over 630 out of 720 and could have easily obtained admission in any government medical college, are now worried about their future because of the scandal surrounding NEET.

Students who appeared for NEET 2024 from Haryana’s Jind district, all of whom scored over 630 out of 720 and could have easily obtained admission in any government medical college, are now worried about their future because of the scandal surrounding NEET. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

I live on the main campus of the University of Delhi, popularly known as Delhi University (DU). In the month of June, one finds it difficult to negotiate the roads because young girls and boys with their parents are milling outside the gates of Daulat Ram College, Ramjas College, Shri Ram College of Commerce, or Hindu College, waiting for the call for admission to undergraduate (UG) courses. This is the first indication of the advent of a new session, which usually begins on July 21.

This year the streets were empty in June and continue to be, like last year. DU has not yet published any schedule for UG admissions for the 2024-25 academic year. Last year, this process started on August 1, 2023, which delayed the session. The academic session could start only in mid-August.

The same is true for admissions to postgraduate (PG) courses. The story is the same in universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Stalled admissions

Admission to UG and PG courses has been stalled because universities have handed over their admission process to the National Testing Agency (NTA). They have accepted the plan to admit students through a combined national examination called the Common University Entrance Test (CUET).

The NTA has not been able to declare the answer key for the CUET as yet. After releasing the answer key, a few days are given to challenge it, and only after that can final results be declared. Last year, the CUET results were announced in mid-July. It delayed the whole admissions process, thereby disrupting the session. This year is likely to be a repeat of last year.

Also Read | The fallacy of one nation, one examination

Meanwhile, private universities have started their admissions process; they have control over their academic calendars, unlike old and established universities such as DU and JNU, which have made themselves helpless by willingly discarding their time-tested admissions procedures just to benefit the NTA.

The NTA is in disarray following the exposé of a massive scam in the recently conducted National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). Soon after that, it was found that the University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) examination was also compromised. The test was cancelled on the very day it was held. This was followed by the Ministry of Education asking the NTA to postpone the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) UGC-NET exam, scheduled to be held from June 25 to 27.

The NTA’s incompetence and possible corruption in it has jeopardised the schedule of hundreds of educational institutions and created uncertainty for lakhs of students. The government is trying to brazen it out. But now, students and others have started checking the NTA’s credentials and asking why the Central government is hell-bent on imposing the NTA on the entire education system of the country.

Fetish for centralisation

The NTA is the creation of the BJP-led government, but the idea behind it is old. It is the result of an obsession with centralising everything and making everything uniform, from curriculums and syllabuses to admissions processes. The general assumption is that diversity creates confusion and also inequality. Everything needs to be flattened into one shape and form. One can also think about the idea of one nation, one election.

What is the NTA, though, which is being tasked with conducting numerous examinations? Teachers of JNU had raised this issue when the university authorities trashed the decades-old admissions process to tie up with the NTA. They went to court, arguing for the autonomy of their institution, but the court could not appreciate the point.

Now, the nation has discovered that the NTA is only a society. It has not been established through an Act of Parliament. It is registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. It has only a governing body and no general body. The rules that govern the conduct of government employees do not apply to it.

“Educationists have also been arguing that the CUET will negatively affect school education as students’ marks in board examinations will be of little relevance.”

Ayesha Kidwai, academic and linguist, questioned the logic behind this arrangement and asked why it was not created as an autonomous council under the Ministry of Education, like the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education). “Was this route chosen to evade the financial scrutiny and accountability that arises from being a government institution, by virtue of being subject to the Comptroller and Auditor General [CAG]?”

Others have been wondering, like her, why the CBSE’s capacity was not enhanced, especially when the board has a long record of holding large-scale examinations and had in place all the necessary protocols. They wonder why it was not deemed necessary for the NTA to have mandatory guidelines for accountability from the government about paper leaks, selection of experts as paper setters, modalities about conducting the examination, and the fees it can charge, apart from being accountable for issues such as breaches, wrong keys, and delays.

The educationist Prof. Krishna Kumar said that he visited the NTA website after the NEET fiasco, hoping to find a senior faculty member’s number to call and find out what was going on. “I discovered that it is one of those new-age institutions that follow the dictum ‘permanence mars efficiency’. That permanence may also jeopardise confidentiality must be another concern.”

Highlights
  • Admission to UG and PG courses in DU and JNU has been stalled because they have handed over their admission process to the NTA. The NTA has not been established through an Act of Parliament. It is registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.
  • Everything in the NTA is outsourced. An upstart with no intellectual resources, it is conducting entrance examinations for very different disciplines and courses.
  • To conduct such a large number of examinations, and that too of such diversity, the NTA has less than 25 regular staff members.

Unrealistic objectives

Everything in the NTA is outsourced. Prof. Kumar rightly says that even if the NTA’s objectives look impressive, it is daunting to achieve them as the agency is asking people from other institutions or independents to spare time for it. (The agency’s purported objectives are to improve equity and quality in education by administering research-based, valid, reliable, efficient, transparent, fair and international-level assessments.) A small body like the NTA, an upstart with no intellectual resources, is conducting entrance examinations for very different disciplines and courses. It conducts entrance exams for the three main UG admissions: JEE-Main for engineering, NEET-UG for medicine, and CUET-UG for admissions to several other UG courses. Over 50 lakh candidates appear for these three exams every year. Besides these, it conducts CUET-PG for PG admissions, UGC-NET, and CSIR UGC-NET.

UGC-NET is a test to determine the eligibility for junior research fellowships, for appointment as assistant professor, and for admission to PhD in universities and colleges.

CSIR UGC-NET is accepted for PhD admissions in chemical sciences; earth, atmospheric, ocean, and planetary sciences; life sciences; mathematical sciences; and physical sciences.

Students waiting to appear for the CUET examination for admission into various colleges in New Delhi, on May 24, 2023.

Students waiting to appear for the CUET examination for admission into various colleges in New Delhi, on May 24, 2023. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

The Common Management Admission Test, Hotel Management Joint Entrance Examination, Graduate Pharmacy Aptitude Test, and entrance tests for DU, JNU, the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are among the various other tests conducted by the NTA.

To conduct such a large number of examinations, and that too of such diversity, the NTA has less than 25 regular staff members. It has no research capability, no domain experts, and no experts on testing. It is too fragile a body to handle the burden of so many examinations being imposed on it, which require very different kinds of expertise, skill, and preparation. Many are perplexed about the eagerness of the government to depend on such a weak structure to do a job that was done by scores of very competent institutions with a long and dependable record.

Several observers have been raising questions about the extraordinary interest that the present UGC Chairman is showing in pushing all universities to hand over all their entrance examinations, from UG to PhD level, to the NTA.

The NTA’s Exam List

For universities/colleges

  • Joint Entrance Examination (Main) (JEE-Main)
  • National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate) (NEET-UG)
  • Common Management Admission Test (CMAT)
  • Common University Entrance Test (CUET)
  • Graduate Pharmacy Aptitude Test (GPAT)
  • Indian Institute of Foreign Trade Entrance Test
  • Jawaharlal Nehru University Entrance Examination
  • Indian Council of Agricultural Research Entrance Examination
  • National Council for Hotel Management Joint Entrance Examination (NCHMJEE)
  • Delhi University Entrance Test (DUET)
  • National Institute of Fashion Technology Entrance Examination
  • All India Ayush Post Graduate Entrance Test (AIAPGET)
  • Joint Integrated Programme in Management Admission Test (JIPMAT)
  • Graduate Aptitude Test – Biotechnology (GAT-B)
  • Biotechnology Eligibility Test (BET)
  • SWAYAM

For recruitment

  • University Grants Commission National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET)
  • Council of Scientific and Industrial Research National Eligibility Test (CSIR-NET)
  • Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti Recruitment Exam
  • Biomedical Research Eligibility Test (BRET)
  • Military Nursing Service Recruitment Exam
  • Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade Recruitment Exam
  • National Horticulture Board Recruitment Exam
  • Uttarakhand High Court Recruitment Exam
  • Gujarat High Court Recruitment Exam
  • EPFO Limited Departmental Competitive Examination (EPFO-LDCE)
  • Central Universities Recruitment (CUREC)

For schools

  • Scheme for Residential Education for Students in High Classes in Targeted Areas (SRESHTA)
  • Navyug School Sarojini Nagar Entrance Test (NSSNET)
  • All India Sainik Schools Entrance Exam (AISSEE)

JNU’s resistance

The teachers of JNU had resisted the attempt of their Vice Chancellor, now the NTA chairman, to force the university to join the CUET conducted by the NTA. They pointed out that the NTA is a private body. One needs to verify its assets and liabilities before doing any business with it.

The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) has been asking for the memorandum of understanding signed between the university and the NTA and the terms on which the deal was signed. It wants to know how much the NTA is charging JNU to conduct its entrance examinations and why a process being ably handled by the university with its own resources was outsourced to the NTA.

Also Read | Is NEET designed for exclusion?

The haste with which the UGC Chairman directed all universities to take the CUET route to admit students is also being questioned. Kidwai, a former president of JNUTA, said that she was shocked to find that there was no discussion in the meetings of the UGC about the CUET or UGC-NET, let alone its decision to ask universities to go to the NTA.

The entry of the NTA in the admissions process of DU has unnecessarily complicated it. I am told that apart from coaching centres for the CUET, now you have admission guides for admission to universities like DU who charge Rs.1,500-2,000 just to fill the admission form. Rural students find the whole process very cumbersome and incomprehensible and have to depend on these admission guides.

NTA sowing distrust

By imposing a centralised examination on all universities, the Central government has undermined the federal character of the country. Educationists have also been arguing that the CUET will negatively affect school education as the marks students get in the board examination will be of little relevance. What was predicted two years back has turned into reality. Thousands of coaching centres have emerged across the country to train students to crack the CUET.

One wonders then about the design of the government when it insists that all entrance examinations be conducted by the NTA. Is it to weaken the education system itself by destroying the trust in the examination? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist, has said that in a system affected by extreme scarcity, examinations remain the only validating ideology. If the trust in examinations goes, everything collapses. And that is what the NTA is doing: sowing permanent distrust in the system. What purpose will be served by disrupting the system without having put in place a new and more credible one?

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University and writes literary and cultural criticism.

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