In an ideal system, admission to higher education courses would be based on assessment of aptitude and suitability, and a testing process that is transparent, accessible and fair. India’s policymakers have struggled to create a credible national admissions apparatus for professional degree programmes that accommodates the diversity and plurality of the country. The two-level Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for admission to technological institutes such as the IITs, NITs and IIITs, and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for undergraduate medical courses are steps in this direction — although much work remains to be done to make them accessible, especially for rural students who suffer from various handicaps, not the least of which is a shaky school education system. Viewed against this background, the decision of the Centre to form a National Testing Agency to conduct these and some other examinations is a progressive move. A professional agency would look at nothing other than the suitability of the candidate to pursue a particular programme. Of course, there will be those that contend that the better-run States could have their own agencies perform the same task, but the expertise of a national agency is preferable. The objective of aptitude testing in a populous country should be to enable mobility, and access to courses offered in any State. Peer-reviewed standards and curbs on commercialisation can help expand higher education. In the case of medical courses, a common test such as NEET should make it possible to attend any of about 350 medical colleges, of which 175 are run by private entities.
The idea of multiple opportunities to take a test in a single year , which the Centre has now adopted for JEE (Main) and NEET, is not really new, and is familiar to students entering universities abroad, particularly those in the United States. In fact, the Ashok Misra committee set up by the Human Resource Development Ministry to review the JEE three years ago recommended that an online aptitude test be offered two or more times a year. The move to make both JEE (Main) and NEET available twice a year is consistent with that advice. However, a computer-based test should not turn into a barrier for students from rural backgrounds, and impose additional expenditure on candidates for preparation, travel to a testing centre and so on. The reservations about online testing on such grounds should be overcome with good planning and allocation of sufficient funds. Equally important is the issue of regulation of coaching institutes — a sector worth about ₹24,000 crore a year, according to the Ashok Misra panel — in order to ensure that the changes do not result in further exploitation of students. Ultimately, any process of reform at the level of entrance examinations can be meaningful only if the school education system is revamped, and learning outcomes are improved.