Examining the NTA – in the face of the NEET-UG & UGC-NET controversies

The existence of the NTA is one marred by discrepancies, misconduct allegations, and controversy since its inception – and it seems like these issues are coming to the fore today
Examining the NTA – in the face of the NEET-UG & UGC-NET controversies

With controversies surrounding the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Exam - Undergraduate (NEET-UG) exam and the University Grants Commission - National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) this year still raging, one organisation seems to be in the eye of this storm – the National Testing Agency (NTA). 

To recall, NEET-UG candidates claimed to have faced several discrepancies during the exam on May 5, such as being given the wrong question paper. After the exam, many aspirants further contended that the question paper of the exam had been leaked. 

While NTA denied the possibility of a leak, the Bihar Police lodged an FIR and arrested 13 persons in the matter. Subsequently, when the results were declared on June 4 – ten days ahead of schedule – there were severe discrepancies in the marks. 

About 67 candidates scored 720 out of 720 marks, and six of them were from the same centre. The NTA justified these inflated scores by stating that students were given grace marks because of discrepancies and loss of time in the exam.

Over the next few weeks, students moved the Supreme Court, requesting that the exam be cancelled and conducted again, the paper leaks be investigated, and counselling be stayed. The court refused to stay the counselling and asked the NTA to respond to the students’ petitions, which are listed for July 7. 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, on June 19, announced that the UGC-NET, which took place a day earlier on June 18, would be cancelled after inputs were received from the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) that indicated a possible security breach and compromise in the exam. 

Due to these lapses, students and student groups staged widespread protests across the country, and the Ministry of Education set up a seven-member high-level committee on June 22 to recommend security measures for examinations and review the structure and functioning of the NTA. Additionally, Subodh Kumar Singh, Director-General of the NTA, was sacked. 

Amidst these controversies, let’s take a look at the organisation they all lead back to – the NTA. 

What is the NTA?

Despite being a household name in the world of examinations today, the NTA is actually barely a decade old!

The agency was established in 2017, with the then Minister of Finance, the late Arun Jaitley, announcing it in his budget speech as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education. Its function is to conduct entrance and eligibility exams for higher education institutions, professional courses, and fellowships across the country. 

According to CNBC News18, NTA conducts around 15 examinations in India, which are taken by close to 10 million students per year. This effectively makes the NTA one of the largest examination agencies in the world, second only to China’s Gaokao. 

The examinations conducted by NTA include the Joint Entrance Exam, Common University Entrance Test for both Undergraduate and Postgraduate admissions, UGC-NET, NEET UG, Jawaharlal Nehru University Entrance Test (JNUET), Delhi University Entrance Test, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-NET, and more. 

The agency is funded by the Ministry of Education and is governed by a panel that includes a chairperson, a secretary and eight or more officials from various educational institutions in India. 

The existence of the NTA, however, is one marred by discrepancies, misconduct allegations, and controversy – and it seems like these issues are coming to the fore today. 

“Autonomy” or lack of accountability?

The proposal for the establishment of the NTA was submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) (now called the Ministry of Education) in the report by a committee comprised of few of the directors of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in 2010. 

This report, titled “Alternative to IIT JEE, AIEEE and State JEEs”, recommended that a National Testing Agency be created and set up through an “Act of Parliament”. The committee explains the rationale behind this step by saying, “Only a statutory agency can ensure independence and transparency in the testing of the magnitude that is being envisaged. It will have the necessary credibility and confidence of the people.”

However, the NTA, as it exists today, was not established through an Act of Parliament, but rather under the Indian Societies Registration Act, 1860, as an “autonomous and self-sustained premier testing organisation”, as claimed by an order released by the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development on September 5, 2018. 

Many academics raise eyebrows at this supposed autonomy of the NTA, as well as how the NTA was established because they believe it is being used as an excuse by the agency (and the government, by extension) to evade accountability. 

This is illustrated lucidly by Professor Ayesha Kidwai, Professor of Linguistics at the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, through a series of posts on her Facebook account.

In these posts, Prof Kidwai questions the government’s decision to set up the NTA through the Societies Registration Act, instead of an Act of Parliament similar to the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), or as an autonomous council under the Ministry of Education like the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). 

Further, she questions why there are no measures to ensure accountability from the NTA about paper leaks, conducting the exam, fees and possible discrepancies like delays. She takes the example of CBSE, which has detailed protocols for confidentiality and managing finances. 

She also asks why no Memorandum of Association can be found for the NTA, despite being formed under the Societies Registration Act. She further writes, “...the NTA is a body whose members are handpicked by the govt but whose misconduct and failures, the govt takes no responsibility for!”

Speaking to EdexLive, she says, “The NTA does not even disclose its financial statements, and when we demand more transparency, all they can say is that they come under the Right to Information Act.” She further asks whether this is the NTA evading financial accountability from the government. 

“There is no general body of the NTA; only a governing body which does not have representation from all the education institutions in India. This body makes decisions that impact the entire higher education system in India, imposes them onto all higher education institutions without discussion or dialogue,” she adds. 

UGC implicated?

The professor questions how and why the NTA has been given the authority to determine the fate of millions of students’ admission into higher education, despite its lack of transparency and questionable track record in conducting entrance exams. 

In a follow-up piece published in The Wire, Prof Kidwai questions the UGC and its Chairman Prof Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, for “foisting on” the NTA to conduct the entrance exam for JNU in 2019 when he was the varsity’s Vice-Chancellor, despite also being a serving Governing Body member of the agency then. 

Weeks after Prof Jagadesh Kumar assumed the role of UGC’s Chairman in 2022, she points out, the UGC notified the CUET-UG as the national entrance exam to all central universities, and that NTA would be conducting the test. She further writes that this announcement was made without a meeting between the UGC and NTA, or a verification of the NTA’s eligibility. 

“Autonomy doesn’t imply lack of accountability. There are some very serious questions about the lack of accountability by the NTA and the UGC, and they need to be looked into,” says Prof Kidwai. 

Outsourced staff – the NTA’s biggest undoing?

According to academics and insiders, the NTA has always been short-staffed and conducts exams through outsourcing. 

Technical support groups, office assistants, senior assistants, consultants, consultant advisors, and data analysts are few of the positions for which the NTA issues tenders, according to CNBC News18. The agency also reportedly issues tenders for exam centres and technology like CCTV cameras and computers. 

However, they claim that this creates avenues for security breaches and paper leaks, as the agency is allegedly quite lackadaisical with its cybersecurity concerning the outsourced staff. 

“I saw outsourced workers using internet-connected computers in the NTA headquarters,” says a former professor at a renowned central university of India, who was involved in the preparation of the question papers, on the condition of anonymity. 

While the NTA hires teams of subject matter experts to prepare pools of potential questions to appear in the exam, the final question paper is ultimately set by the NTA, explains the former professor. He adds that this was not the case before the NTA took over the conduct of examinations. 

Speaking about the NET, specifically, he says, “Before the NTA was formed, the question papers were prepared by a panel of experts appointed by the UGC, and the question paper they set was the one the candidates received. However, the NTA often edited the questions we recommended.”

He also adds that the NTA, however, did not make changes to the CSIR-NET question paper.

He added that the UGC-NET was initially a paper-based exam, eliminating the scope for a cyber breach. Moreover, he said the panel members understood the need for quality lecturers and would not deliberately leak the question paper themselves. 

Attesting to this, Prof Sukhadeo Thorat, renowned academic and former Chairman of the University Grants Commission says, “The preparation of the NET paper used to happen within the purview of the UGC, and no outsourced staff or agencies were involved.”

However, the NTA would store the question papers in the laptops of outsourced private companies, which are connected to the internet, exposing them to the threat of a leak, the former professor alleged. 

“We tried to flag these security concerns, but nothing came out of them,” he says, adding that he was “not surprised” that there are security breaches and even a possible paper leak in the exams conducted by the NTA. 

However, he reiterates that this opinion is “highly speculative”, and “based on his experience with the NTA”, as he is not currently associated with the body anymore. 

Centralisation, exclusion and the question of NTA’s eligibility

When asked whether the fate of 10 million students must be put in the hands of the NTA amidst these concerns, Prof Thorat, replied with an unequivocal “No”. 

He says, “These exams do not just determine a candidate’s admission into higher education institutions, but also their livelihoods. Their future is at stake here – and this is why there is widespread distrust against the NTA today.”

Further, he adds that the NTA’s purpose and method of conducting examinations is ill-suited to a country like India. 

By making centralised exam scores the basis of admission, the NTA has effectively removed the university from the admission process, Prof Thorat adds. 

“Before the CUET was introduced, each university in India used to follow its own admission process where they would assess the eligibility of the candidate individually. Now, the universities do not get to make these assessments, as the CUET scores are the final eligibility criterion for admissions. This undermines the autonomy of the university,” he explains. 

According to him, this not only degrades the quality of the students but also reduces the diversity of students in the higher education institutions.

“Until recently, JNU used to follow its own admission process, where it had its own entrance exam and interview for candidates from all over India. Apart from having test centres in all capital cities, JNU also had centres in Dakha and Kathmandu, to ensure more diversity. The university also had liberal concessions for Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Class (OBC), Rural, women and first-generation learner candidates,” he recalls. 

Now, however, he says that the cutoffs have increased due to CUET across categories, and this has resulted in a decrease in students from marginalised communities. 

“The exams have become more exclusionary. In rural India, only 10 per cent of the students have access to a computer, and a slightly larger number of students in urban India have computers. How can the exams be computer-based, in that case? Won’t it leave out a significant number of students?” he questions. 

In fact, one state that pointed this exclusion out is Tamil Nadu, with its government, headed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) also pointing out that centralised examinations only benefit those who can afford coaching. 

Prof Thorat alleges that this reflects the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), goal of centralising the education system. “The NEP calls for a uniform, centralised board to regulate the education system in India. However, in the name of uniformity, it looks like the most marginalised sections of society are being excluded, and education in India is resting in the hands of a select number of castes,” he laments. 

To improve this, the former UGC chairman suggests that the Central Government review committee introduce a policy of decentralisation, and let every state and university conduct their own entrance exams. “If the aim is uniformity, standardise the exams – but conduct them in a decentralised manner,” he adds. 

He further recommends that the NTA not employ outsourced staff, as the security risks that come with it could be disastrous. 

(EdexLive reached out to the NTA, but all calls went unanswered.)

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