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Protest and sharp focus on NEET UG offers a big opportunity to make it robust

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The shattered confidence in this year’ National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test [(NEET (UG)] for admission to undergraduate medical education program across India due to several issues from alleged paper leak to compensatory grace marks, looks perennial. Though NEET has been marred by allegations of malpractices in the past as well, only this time, the question of ‘grace marks’ became disproportionately larger to get the attention that it is getting  on prime time TV, from politicians and courts and of course by the street protests.

Any high value, high stakes scheme or project is prone to infiltration, corruption and scams. When the scenario is of 24 students vying for one (1) medical seat, all sorts of vulnerabilities are possible in theory. And, there is no dearth of cunning people (sort of hackers in modern terms) like corrupt wave-counter of Birbal-Akbar story to prey on those possibilities. They always reinvent and perhaps remain a step ahead.

With Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan himself admitting now that a vested interest in the form of coaching centres is playing up the controversy seeing rural and non-coaching students do better, there is a strong possibility of some organized vested interests infiltrating and corrupting the process of question setting itself. Then, use of imposters is no secret for entrance exams, courier and storage staff indulging in innovative question paper leaks, etc. is all in news and some complaints are being investigated by the police. Then, there is also Godhra caoching centre case, where reportedly it was targeting for a windfall through parental money to complete the attempted OMR sheet perhaps? Patna paper leak case is another unfolding shock.

Politicians of Tamil Nadu, who are against NEET from its inception, using the recent controversy, amplified their voice to underscore their argument for restoring state-level entrance exams for UG Medical Education admission. And, they have yet again brought home the point of undue stress caused to students by pressure of such a fiercest competition while demanding power to states to manage pre-medical  entrances.

It is also being brought to notice that re-test is limited to only candidates who approached courts and no methodology exists to ascertain if time loss occurred in other centres. And, have those students lost on this count or not?

In a way, this has been a welcome controversy, at least, nation came to know about the issues of NEET examination and then also focused on the lack of medical colleges in the country. So, a few important takeaways from this unfolding row now fully politicized can be taken up seriously by the Government to build back the peoples’ trust in its genuineness and transparency.

First, like JEE, NEET can also be administered over a few days instead of just one day that puts so much strain and stress on the centre infrastructure and human resources. That way the botched-up operations like it happened on account of wrong question papers being handed out in one centre, can be easily avoided. Then, a standard policy about loss of time and other such exigencies that can be imagined in different scenarios—all must be written in prospects itself.

Two, the question setting must embrace international practices and eliminate the possibility of wrong answers as has happened with physics question this year. The NTA should not only do it, but publicize the events, meetings and tours of experts if any to build on the public confidence.

Three, NTA and government needs to give out a firm message that coaching is necessarily not the way to qualify the NEET. Scientists and experts need to devise some formula of ensuring genuine merit, practical and applied knowledge is rewarded.

Fourth, there is a need of setting up a filter early. The NCERT’s NTSE can be adopted to test aptitude early. It can be held at two levels, in middle and secondary stages. Those gifted and having aptitude can be encouraged through some form of certification and reward points. This can potentially improve the quality of medical students and their work in later life besides bringing excellence in medical research and services .

Fifth, the Government needs to revisit NEET UG as being the sole entrance test for all medical colleges. This can be a model and states can be given powers to opt for their own tests with all checks and balances. This will ease pressure on the system.

The Supreme Court of India, which is ceased of the matter, in coming months will deal with the issues raised by the petitioners and the exam itself, still the Government on its own can start a survey of foreign countries where Indian students go to study MBBS and tie-up with some of them at government level. If it is done through an organized institutional way with Government backing, there are more chances of exercising control over quality of such medical education programs while simultaneously ensuring equivalence, bridge courses and other intermediations for supporting such students not only back home but for serving abroad with confidence and respect.

The Ministry of Education, must clean up the NTA and act decisively to win back the confidence of the student and parent community.

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