Not so NEET

Despite individual differences, merit is the product of a combination of social factors, including class and caste backgrounds
Last Updated : 23 September 2021, 18:05 IST
Last Updated : 23 September 2021, 18:05 IST

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The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to abolish the NEET exams in the state by legislation should help us reinvent the crux of some of the old (sociological) debates on social justice and competitive entrance exams. As the Bill passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly awaits the President’s approval, it triggers a series of questions about the whole system of entrance examinations that demands immediate national attention. The political decision, with tremendous support in the House from all other parties except BJP, reflects an emerging popular mindset that is aspiring to engage with ideas that once exclusively belonged to the policymakers’ and academics’ domain.

First, and foremost, the Bill is a rejection of the common imaginations of merit as free from class/caste-ridden social realities. It squarely brings back the relevance of social justice in our perceptions of merit. Competitive exams like the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test (NEET) are favourites of policymakers and administrators as they are expected to surpass the limitations of public/board exams that are focused on memory skills that result from rote learning. They have a higher public acceptance, especially among the middle and upper classes who unquestionably believe in their neutrality. As opposed to the public/board exams, entrance exams postulated different but specific skill sets and a sophisticated level of subject knowledge. The impersonal, automated, evaluation systems add to their neutral appearance.

However, from the beginning, there have been doubts about the net effects of having a superior examination system designed for a specific purpose. Over time, it became quite obvious that the benefits of such a system could not be impartially distributed in a society where social divisions are still very deep. Quite often, the creamy layer class, with access to high-fee entrance coaching centres and costly study materials, ensured their substantial edge over students from non-privileged segments. Even a simple statistical analysis can bring out the differences and disparities that operate on the ground.

Merit - a social product

Despite individual differences, merit is the product of a combination of social factors, including class and caste backgrounds. This reality is in opposition to the common myth and imagination that merit is the result of hard work and individual talents alone. Only in an egalitarian society can students be measured solely on the basis of their individual performances. In a developing society like ours, massive differences operate among students from different sections of the population in terms of resources and opportunities. Elements such as the educational and financial background of parents, the quality of schools, support systems in the form of peer education, tuition centres, etc., and even the urban-rural differences all have a critical role in shaping the quality and merit of students.

Simply put, the great variation in the performance of students in these exams is a result of the differences in their social positions and deep-rooted structural inequalities. The entrance exam-specific tutorials are additional factors that seal the divide. For example, in the 2019 NEET exam, not a single student from the SC/ST communities featured in the top 50 ranks. While a few from lower backgrounds certainly make it to the professional courses they are exceptions, rather than reflecting a common trend. This is the reason why when a child from a poor family or a tribal community gets admission into a medical course, the same hits the news headlines. It doesn’t happen in the case of students from ‘mainstream’ backgrounds.

In a substantial sense, exams like NEET defeat the very purpose of education by consolidating the socio-economic differences. There is an urgent need to reinvent merit as embedded in the social contexts of students than leaving it as a privilege available to a few. For a long time, management specialists, supported by a school of psychologists, have successfully diverted the attention of the public and policymakers from the social dynamics behind the production of talented individuals in a society. The decision by the Tamil Nadu government should inaugurate more discussions on the other side of merit.

Pressure pots

The entrance exam system itself also needs a major revamping, for it normalises extreme levels of competition. The crude stratification of jobs that we follow in modern societies guarantees dignity and status on the basis of a hierarchy of occupations. The excessive rush for admission for professional courses has led to the mushrooming of highly expensive, regimentally-operating entrance coaching centres, most of which are inaccessible for students from non-urban/backward locations.

The excessive pressure leading to high rates of suicides among aspiring students before and after entrance exams is another major concern. For instance, the large number of student suicides in coaching centres in Kota, Rajasthan, due to the pressure they have to live under has already caught the national attention. Between 2013 and 2018, some 72 students enrolled in different coaching centres in Kota have taken their own lives either because of fear and debilitation before the exams or because of their failure in the entrance exams. The immediate reason for the Tamil Nadu government’s Bill was also the suicide of a student fearing the NEET exam results.

The coaching centres and the availability of materials in the market directly disputes the argument that entrance exams are neutral or that they do not encourage rote learning. The objective type questions in these exams primarily call forth students’ capacity to remember from the portions covered. Even indirect questions fall back on this dynamic. Thus, memorising constitutes an integral component of entrance exams, including NEET. In fact, creative interventions are easily possible to make higher education exams more reliable for admissions. Such creative options cannot be explored in centralised entrance exams that are based on objective-type questions.

The system of entrance examination requires serious rethinking as it adversely impinges on a number of aspects that are directly connected. The Tamil Nadu government’s decision should lead to a nation-wide exercise in such a rethink.

(The writer teaches Sociology at CHRIST (deemed to be) University, Bengaluru).

Published 23 September 2021, 17:40 IST

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