Entrance exams for medical and technical degrees rescheduled

India’s Human Resource Development Ministry this week announced new dates for the national competitive examinations for admission to undergraduate engineering and medical courses. Schools were shut by the government on 16 March to contain the spread of the coronavirus – ahead of the general lockdown announced on 25 March – and reopening has now been extended to 18 May.

Around 900,000 students were anxiously awaiting the new date for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main for admission to undergraduate engineering and technology courses, which is normally held in April. The exam is now set for 18-23 July.

Meanwhile, 1.6 million students have applied for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical degrees, which will now be held on 26 July.

The JEE Main is a qualifying exam for the JEE Advanced, which is the entrance exam for the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. These exams will now be held on 23 August.

The new academic year has already been postponed by three months to start in September.

Careers in medicine or engineering are an enduring middle-class goal and therefore NEET and JEE are important tests for Indian students, who work extremely hard to prepare for them.

However, many students who took alternative private medical school entrance exams in the past will next year also have to do well in the NEET after the Supreme Court ruled at the end of April that the exam, which previously was used only to qualify for places in government-run medical colleges, will now also be used for private medical colleges.

A reduced syllabus?

Student hopes that the syllabus for the disrupted NEET and JEE exams would be reduced this year, were dashed recently.

Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' said in a live interaction with students on 5 May that a reduced syllabus for the Central Board of Secondary Education would likely be curtailed in the next academic year due to the late start of the academic year in September. That could result in a “lesser syllabus” for JEE Main and NEET being held next year.

But the National Testing Agency, which administers the exams, clarified later that there would be no change to the exam syllabus for this academic year.

The minister had said that the syllabus would be reduced for the upcoming academic session as students have lost valuable academic time due to the lockdown. The ministry said it will come out with details of the reduced syllabus in the coming days.

JEE exams are normally held twice a year, in April and January. While April’s exams have been shifted to July and August, plans for the January exams will depend on a changing situation.

Students speak

Vikas Jain, a student preparing for the JEE, noted that Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had urged Pokhriyal to curtail the curriculum for the next session by 30% as students have lost academic time.

“I think it is a very proper course of action and I’m sure the syllabus would be suitably reduced in consultation with the experts and the academics,” he said

Amit Sharma, a student from Bihar who is preparing for the JEE, said: “There is no doubt students have lost precious academic time and so reducing the syllabus is the only option. We cannot say when everything will be normal.”

“The authorities must, however, try to make every possible effort to make up for the lost time and I’m sure they will.”

Ashish Anand of Persistence Education Pty Ltd, an institute in Ranchi in Jharkhand state that provides coaching for the JEE, said: "This year it is a different situation. It will depend on how the student uses this time. If he maintains the pace of study till the exam, then it will be beneficial. But if the student loses rhythm, this extra time is of no use to him.”

Supreme court rules on NEET

Wider changes are expected in the NEET in the wake of a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last month in favour of a common medical entrance examination for all admissions to graduate and postgraduate professional courses of medical as well as dental science, to include private medical colleges and medical colleges set up for minority groups. As mentioned, NEET was previously only used for admissions to government-run medical schools.

The apex court verdict came in the matter of Vellore-based Christian Medical College and other private medical schools seeking separate entrance tests other than NEET for admission. The other institutions that petitioned the court include Manipal University, SRM Medical College Hospital and the Karnataka Private Medical and Dental Colleges Association.

The top court ruled, after a long drawn-out court battle that began in 2013, that prescribing the uniform examination of NEET does not violate the fundamental rights of the minority community to run educational institutions. The court observed that NEET has been prescribed by the legislature in the larger public interest and cannot be said to be taking away any of the constitutional rights of minority institutions.

The court said NEET is intended to bring transparency into professional education imparted by institutions and is meant to weed out malpractices that have crept into medical education, to stop capitation fees by admitting students who are lower in merit, and to prevent exploitation, profiteering and the commercialisation of education.

An official of the Telangana Private Medical and Dental Colleges Management Association, requesting anonymity, said: “A common entrance test is not fair for students pursuing a different curriculum, especially in some southern states.”

He noted that last year three women students committed suicide in the southern state of Tamil Nadu when they did not pass the NEET. “We have to develop tests and admission processes to ensure people coming from diverse backgrounds and possessing different talents and skills and pursuing different curricula are not at a disadvantage in a vast country like India.”

However, the court advised that minority quota seats would continue to be filled by minority students as long as they were selected from the NEET merit list.