New Delhi: The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) has been mired in controversy since its inception with various states alleging that it violates the country’s federal structure.

In the wake of 17-year-old S. Anitha’s suicide in Tamil Nadu, the discussion on the impact of centralised tests on federalism has gained momentum.

Critics claim that a centralised test cannot often fully capture the educational realities of every state and students like Anitha who graduate from state boards are at the receiving end of the limitations of such tests.

NEET was first announced in 2013. However, it was soon struck down by the Supreme Court in a 2-1 split verdict. In 2016, the court agreed to review the 2013 verdict and a five-judge constitutional bench upheld NEET. The test was first conducted in 2016 with the court ordering all public and private medical and dental colleges to admit students on the basis of NEET scores.

Balveer Arora, chairman, Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “Federalism in India is asymmetrical and socio-political realities vary vastly, which is evident in the difference in reservation policies across states." He cites the example of Tamil Nadu where reservation exceeds the mandated 50% because of the state’s social composition. Thus, a centralised test ignores the composition-based structure of a federal state even though federalism is designed to protect diversity, he adds.

When the Constitution was enacted, education was listed as a state subject. As part of the 42nd amendment brought in by Indira Gandhi’s government, education was among the five subjects moved to the concurrent list, thereby allowing both the Centre and states to legislate on it. However, given the Centre’s residuary powers, in matters of conflict, states must abide by the Centre’s decision.

According to Garga Chatterjee, professor, Indian Statistical Institute and a columnist, state medical entrance tests allow a state government to choose the kind of workforce it wants for its public health system. “A student writing an entrance test for an undergraduate programme has a 12-year legacy of being aligned to a board that is reflective of the state’s socioeconomic realities and priorities," he explains.

“Suddenly, that student is asked to take a test that is based on the syllabus of another board which requires intensive coaching and this automatically puts a state board student at a disadvantage vis-à-vis a CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) student," he says.

Further, most state boards largely employ the local language as the medium of instruction. “For instance, in West Bengal, CBSE schools do not allow students to opt for Bangla as their first language and thus discriminates against students who have been studying in this language all their student life. They are further subjected to an entrance test based on a syllabus they are unfamiliar with," adds Chatterjee.

Sudhanshu Bhushan, professor, higher and technical education, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, says that centralised tests, despite their inability to recognise every state’s diverse composition, are introduced for practical efficiency. “While in principle each state must be able to frame its own curriculum and conduct its own test, it is not always feasible and policies are often assessed on the basis of their efficiency," he says. “One of the possible solutions could be adapting standardised tests like the Graduate Record Examination to the Indian context."

But is centralisation of testing equivalent to standardisation? “The number of CBSE students in any state is marginal compared to the students appearing in the state board," says Chatterjee. “Thus, standardisation should mean that minority outliers are brought in the mainstream system of a state and not vice-versa."

According to Bhushan, a middle ground would be to either conduct a test that checks skills and not board-specific knowledge or allow several states to form a consortium and conduct a test to make the process more convenient for students.

“Even if a centralised test has to be conducted, universities must be allowed to frame their own admission policies that can benefit each state’s social groups accordingly," he concludes.

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