NEET & JEE: Striking a balance between students’ future and health risk they face

It is a difficult time to be an education administrator given the current spread and spurt of Covid 19 pandemic across India. Yes, the education minister at the central government level is charged with the task of facilitating the conduct of common entrance examination for entry into medical and engineering colleges.
And, he has his task cut out.
Firstly, he must get logistics of conducting the examinations in which hundreds of thousands across the country participate in place, which is a challenge even during normal times and a nightmare during the Covid 19 times we are living in.
Yes, it is Union Education Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, whose responsibility it is to strike a balance between the requirements of the education system that necessitates conduct of common entrance examinations for two of the most sought-after entry level professional courses – medicine and engineering – and the threat pandemic poses to the well-being of countless aspirants to these professional courses.
Already, the exams the NEET for entrance to MBBS/BDS courses and JEE, have been postponed once. Though JEE is not compulsory for admission to engineering courses of colleges run by state governments, for all medical courses in the country, NEET is compulsory. In fact, the Supreme Court had earlier declined to interfere in the conduct of the two examinations.
There should not be any further disruption to the academic year is the reason offered by the Union Education Minister for the government’s insistence to hold the examinations. Besides, many academicians too have decried disruption of academic schedule and said it would not be in the interests of the students too.
Well, on the face of it, there does not appear to be anything wrong in this well-meaning reasoning. But if one took into account the threat posed by a pandemic that is slipping out of control, if we are to go by the rising number of cases every day, and the danger of students contacting the virus during the process of giving the examinations, it does seem reasonable to scout for any possibilities to rework the schedules without disrupting the academic calendar.
What many educators say is that creative out of the box thinking could offer a way out of the situation – that the examinations be postponed for two months, and the loss of time be made good by spending few extra hours daily during the duration of the course.
Can the NEET be limited to central government run medical institutions is something that is being suggested by some educators who feel that state run medical colleges could use school passing marks for admissions.
At a time when few major states – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh – are facing heavy rain-induced floods and resultant disruption in transport services, that were anyway curtailed due to pandemic, many students expressed horror as to how would they reach over 100 kms to reach examination centres.
Besides, the entrance examinations would involve lot of travel and congregations of people – those accompanying the students – at examination centres and few lodges and hotels that may have to be opened for this duration. Many such establishments are not fully functionally open across the country due to different regulations in different states.
Fear of Covid 19 is palpable, among the students and their parents. But in some cases, more than the fear of the pandemic, practical difficulties seem more daunting for students living in far off places who would have to travel long distances and stay in the places where their exam centres are located. The logistics is what worries some students, as public transport services are sparse, hotels closed and these remain a challenge for outside students and their parents.
Consider the logistics from the state and central governments; there are 3,843 centres across 155 cities where NEET would be held. Nearly 16 lakh students are to take this exam. For JEE, there are 8.58 lakh students who will take the exams in 660 centres in 12 shifts.
The Education Minister’s job has become that much tougher with six opposition ruled states West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Rajasthan have moved the Supreme Court challenging the central government order on holding National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) in September. What these state governments want is postponement of the entrance examinations till the situation becomes amenable for students to appear for them.
But clearly, the centre does not appear to be in any mood to relent on this demand, and more so coming from the opposition parties. Delaying the exams further is not a realistic option, as by then another batch of students would be ready to take the exams and one year would be lost by students. And more important, since the number of seats are fixed, double the number of students would be competing for the same number of seats, which is not a desirable thing. Besides, it is not in the interests of the students at all.
In fact, there is some merit in the argument of the government that many students are ready to sit for the exams, right away, precisely for this reason – loss of an academic year. On this front, the government’s point of view appears to be one that has taken the future of the student community into consideration.
Has the opposition politicised the entrance examinations issue?
Well, there is also a groundswell of public opinion and student voices against the holding of the examinations during the pandemic. There are protests across the country against the central government decision, a fact that is not lost on opposition parties.
Just like on the issue of fighting the Covid 19 pandemic, the opposition state governments feel that it is they (state governments) who are facing the brunt – it is they who have to organise the logistics and take extra precautions to hold the entrance examinations, a decision that they said they do not agree with. The central government is forcing the decision is the sentiment that comes across from the opposition ruled states.
Well, West Bengal Chief Minister has already declared total lockdown in the state on September 7, 11 and 12. Incidentally, NEET must take place on September 13. It is hoped the students would be able to manage to reach the centres and take the test on the day after the lockdown.