Indian students and youth protest corruption in entrance exams

Repeated cancellations, corruption, and exclusivity have disrupted the future of millions of students who write these centralized examinations every year to get admission into professional and higher study courses and certain careers

July 03, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
SFI protest in New Delhi against NTA and NEET. Photo: SFI

Hundreds of thousands of students and youth across India have been organizing and agitating to demand an end to centralized exams for school admissions and job posts. They have also called for the resignation of the Minister of Education, Dharmendra Pradhan, claiming that he has failed to address persistent problems of corruption and mismanagement of the controversial centralized exams.

The wave of protests and campaigns was sparked by controversy surrounding the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test-Undergraduate (NEET-UG), the medical school entrance exam which saw the participation of over 2.4 million students. After the results of this year’s exam were announced on June 4, a series of discrepancies and irregularities were denounced by students. For example, a record number of applicants scored 100% on the exam and several of the top scoring applicants on the exam hailed from the same exam prep center. Some applicants were reportedly awarded special compensation points without any clear provision before the exam on the same. Such inconsistencies sparked police investigations which found that question papers were leaked to applicants and testing centers before the exam for millions of rupees. Many have launched calls for a reexamination of the exams and further investigations into the leak.

The scandal over the NEET exam has sparked broader conversations about the country’s education system as a whole and the impact of the centralization of all processes and institutions.

Student and youth groups in India have alleged that the ruling party cadres and the Modi government, which was re-elected to power for the third term in June, have played a key role in dismantling the education system and letting corrupt practices flourish without any check and accountability, putting in jeopardy the future of millions.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and several other opposition parties have supported the call of the student and youth organizations and demanded that centralized exams be scrapped. In a statement issued on Monday, CPI(M) also demanded “reversal of all initiatives towards centralization of the education system” in the country.

The statement expresses “deep concern at the anguish and trauma faced by hundreds of thousands of students, parents and others,” due to “the scandals surrounding the exams conducted by the National Testing Agency” and claims that “centralization of the examination system is part and parcel of” Modi government’s drive to commercialize education in India.

Student organizations including left wing Student Federation of India (SFI), All India Student Association (AISA) and All India Student Federation (AISF) have launched agitations across the country demanding scrapping of the National Testing Agency and the centralized exams like NEET.

The National Testing Agency (NTA) was formed by the Modi government in 2017. It works as an autonomous body under India’s ministry of education and is responsible for conducting various examinations related to admissions in higher and professional studies courses including medical, engineering, management as well as for eligibility certificates for teaching in universities.

NTA: inefficient and corrupt?

Since its founding in 2017, many of the exams conducted by the NTA have faced charges of corruption, cheating or mismanagement. However, in the last few months it has been forced to cancel or postpone several exams due to allegations of paper leaks, corruption, cheating and favoritism.

The NEET scandal has added more fuel to the growing discontent with the state testing agency and despite strong demands for this year’s exam to be scrapped, the government has so far refused to comply and has only agreed to constitute an inquiry.

SFI held a protest demonstration in New Delhi on Wednesday and has called for a nationwide strike of students on July 4 to demand the scrapping of the NTA, resignation of India’s minister of education Dharmendra Pradhan, and compensation for students who wrote the last NEET and other centrally conducted examinations.

The left-wing Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) along with youth wings of various opposition parties met in the capital to discuss a joint future course of action on issues related to NEET and other centralized examinations on Tuesday.

Every year millions of students, at different levels and grades, write NTA exams for admissions in medical, engineering and other professional and higher studies courses and certificates for teaching jobs.

In the context of an unprecedented unemployment crisis among Indian youth, these examinations provide rare opportunities for a better future for some. However, repeated reports of cancellations of these exams due to the leaks of question papers and corruption leaves aspirants and their family members dejected. Reports indicate several students have died by committing suicide after the news of such cancellations.

Sanjeev Kumar, all India treasurer of DYFI who was part of the organizing meeting on Tuesday, told Peoples Dispatch that “we believe that given the lack of credibility of the NAT, emerging from its inefficiency and corruption, it must be scrapped.” Talking about why this year’s NEET should be scrapped, Kumar says “this centralized examination does not provide a level playing field for students of all communities and regions.”

Apart from the apparent corruption and highly technical nature involved in the process of conducting the mass scale examinations, people have raised concerns about its being against the interests of socially oppressed sections of the society. Students from the poor, dalit, tribal, and rural communities face significant disadvantages with regards to students from urban affluent families because of their access to expensive coaching institutions which provide meticulous training to crack these exams. The clear inequality inherent to the centralized tests has also been a major point of criticism by student and youth groups.

Tens of thousands of student and youth activists are set to participate in the July 4 national strike.