The National Eligibility Test (NET), an exam that helps select future researchers and university teachers, has been given a makeover. From June 2012, NET for all subjects will be a multiple choice, objective-type test, completing the process of transformation that started last year when the new format was introduced in science disciplines. The exam is conducted twice a year — in June and December. While the University Grants Commission (UGC) conducts the exam in arts and humanities, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) shoulders the responsibility for the test in science subjects.
Significantly, students from Bengal, particularly from the science stream, have done extremely well in NET in the past. A study that appeared in the journal Current Science last year showed that Bengal had the largest number of candidates selected during the assessed period (between 2002 and 2006). Out of 29,508 students from Bengal who appeared for CSIR-UGC NET, 1,948 cleared the test. Delhi was a close second with 1,764 selected from 19,202.
Clearing NET makes postgraduates eligible to become assistant professors in universities and junior research fellows who get the Junior Research Fellowship or JRF (Rs 16,000 a month as stipend, and a proportionate house rent allowance). Clearing NET-LS, or lectureship, is the minimum criterion for university teaching jobs with a starting salary of Rs 30,000 or more.
Till recently, NET needed descriptive answers, making the evaluation of papers tedious and time consuming. This often led to inordinate delays in declaring results. Also, there have been complaints about discrepancies because of the subjective nature of evaluation. The exam has now been condensed into one three-hour paper with three distinct parts. While Part A contains questions that test a student’s reasoning and general understanding and comprehension, Part B and C have questions more specific to the subjects chosen by the student.
The new format, experts feel, will not only help to announce results on time but also judge candidates fairly. However, it may also throw up new issues, particularly in the arts and humanities. Experts say that long answers not only prove a candidate’s writing ability but also give an insight into his or her understanding of the subject.
“Descriptive, essay-type answers are required to measure the academic depth of students who intend to take up research, particularly in social sciences. Objective-type question papers are more suitable for competitive exams like civil services,” says Justin Mathew, an assistant professor in history at the University of Delhi. “This will actually promote rote learning,” he says. He wonders how such a multiple-choice question model is going to assess a language researcher’s capability.
However, some feel that testing one’s capability would depend on the way questions are formulated. “If one looks at the question or a problem carefully and provides interesting alternatives as choices, one can easily assess students’ analytical capabilities,” says L.S. Shashidhara, professor of life sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune.
Anindita Bhadra, who teaches behavioural and evolutionary biology at IISER Calcutta agrees. “The new format is student friendly. This would test their analytical reasoning more than their ability to memorise,” she thinks.
According to Shashidhara, one of the reasons experts insisted on a change is that most questions in the earlier format tested how well the student had mugged up the textbook and not analytical skills. Also, some topics within a discipline were over-represented, making it difficult for some students to clear the exam. “For example, it is easier for students of cell and molecular biology to clear NET than students of ecology, evolution and environmental sciences. The latter are deprived of any fellowship, making it difficult for them to take up research. Indian faculty working in these areas do not get talented students, making their work sub-standard," he says.
The change has gone down well with students. Sayantan Das, a fifth-year life sciences student at IISER Calcutta, says the changes are a tremendous improvement. Besides, the exam is now shorter and the multiple-choice nature eliminates the correction bias, he says.
However, much is desired in terms of the quality of questions, he thinks. “The highly factual nature of the questions demands rote memorisation. This should be replaced with more analytical ones on the lines of GRE,” says Das who appeared for the exam in December last year.
“The multiple choice format is much better. The answers are right in front of you and you just need to click the right one, which you can only when you know the answer. It’s a pretty straight forward way to give precise answers correctly, instead of writing long answers,” says Ankita Chatterjee of Calcutta, who has appeared for both formats of NET. Chatterjee is currently a JRF scholar with the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics at Kalyani.
Manabi Paul, a research scholar working on a project in behavioural science under the supervision of Bhadra, says the new format is comprehensive. “My subject (life sciences) has so many sub-topics that it is very difficult to recall answers from all of them, particularly when the answer needs to be written in an elaborate fashion,” says Paul who cleared NET-LS twice in June 2010 and December 2010. In December last year, she appeared for the NET-JRF exam.