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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 July 2024

Centre's testing agency fails test: Questions on NTA's composition and competence

Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan on Thursday admitted a question paper leak in the latest edition of the National Eligibility Test (NET), conducted by the NTA, and termed the incident an “institutional failure”

G.S. Mudur, Basant Kumar Mohanty New Delhi Published 21.06.24, 06:35 AM
Students in New Delhi on Thursday stage a protest over the exam controversy.

Students in New Delhi on Thursday stage a protest over the exam controversy. PTI picture

Two back-to-back exam controversies have amplified long-simmering doubts among sections of higher education faculty whether the National Testing Agency (NTA) has the right composition and adequate capacity to conduct nationwide tests that are crucial for careers.

Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan on Thursday admitted a question paper leak in the latest edition of the National Eligibility Test (NET), conducted by the NTA, and termed the incident an “institutional failure”.

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Students’ groups, faculty and Opposition parties have questioned the NTA’s competence after the agency was compelled to probe irregularities in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for undergraduate medical seats and to cancel the NET, meant for PhD admissions and recruitment of assistant professors to colleges.

“Cancelling NET is not a knee-jerk reaction. We have some proof. We had to take a decision,” Pradhan said at a media conference.

“Sometimes decisions are painful and harsh. We had to take a decision to protect future assistant professors and those who will be admitted into PhD (programmes). This question leak is an institutional failure from the NTA. There will be a reform committee. Actions will be taken. Responsibility will be fixed.”

The NTA had on June 19 cancelled the NET, held a day earlier, saying it had received inputs from the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre indicating that the examination’s integrity had been compromised. More than 900,000 candidates had appeared in the NET, the NTA had said a day earlier in a media release claiming “successful conduct” of the exam.

Earlier this month, amid allegations of irregularities in the NEET conducted in May, the NTA had decided to ask a “high-powered committee” to reexamine the “compensatory marks” that an earlier committee had awarded to 1,563 candidates for time lost at their exam centres.

Sections of faculty members have questioned the composition of the NTA — an agency set up in 2017 and tasked with conducting nationwide examinations for entrance to engineering, medical and management institutions, among other tests.

The Congress and other Opposition parties have blamed the Narendra Modi government for the NTA’s alleged faults.

“Every year, the non-biological PM conducts a tamasha of what he calls ‘Pareeksha pe Charcha’. Yet his government cannot even conduct an examination without leaks and frauds,” Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader and former environment minister, posted on X.

Ramesh was referring to Modi’s periodic meetings with students to advise them on handling exam pressure, and his assertion to a TV reporter during the election campaign that he believes he is not of biological origin but has been sent by the Almighty to do His work.

The NTA’s governing body (GB) has people who are not directly associated with the execution of nationwide examinations, said Rajeev Kumar, former computer science teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Twelve of the 14 GB members hold administrative positions in educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the National Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. The GB also includes a top psychiatrist from a Mumbai hospital.

“The GB has become a bureaucratic body — it is unlikely that such a body loaded with academic administrators can provide any technical inputs to refine the standard operating procedures for these examinations,” Kumar said.

Some members do not attend the GB meetings themselves but nominate faculty members instead.

Several students’ groups, including the Left-aligned All India Students Association and the Students’ Federation of India, on Thursday held protests in front of the Union education ministry building, demanding disbanding of the NTA, the resignation of Pradhan, and the discontinuation of centralised entrance examinations.

Sections of students and candidates who have taken the NET said the NTA had witnessed several instances of alleged malpractice in the past. The history paper of the NET was circulated on social media in October 2022 with candidates alleging a paper leak.

The NTA admitted that the paper circulating on social media was a true copy but denied any leak, asserting that the copy of the paper had not been available in the public domain before or during the test.

The CBI is probing allegations that a Jharkhand-based private firm had hacked the computers of the Joint Entrance Examination Main 2021 for the benefit of candidates at a Haryana centre and helped them crack the test.

The NTA barred around 20 students from taking the JEE Main until 2024.

“When the NTA faced so many cases of malpractice in the past, they took actions against the students responsible for the wrongdoing,” Kumar said. “We would have expected the NTA to correct its processes to prevent such incidents. But irregularities appear to be continuing. This raises a question about the NTA’s capacity to take corrective action.”

An email has been sent to higher education secretary Sanjay Murthy to understand the government’s reasons for appointing mostly academic administrators to the GB of an examination body. His response is awaited.

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