The necessary politics over NEET

The ongoing debate surrounding the NEET in Tamil Nadu highlights the challenges and consequences of centralisation, emphasising the disconnect between policymakers and students’ experiences while addressing the broader conflict between nationwide standardisation and federal autonomy in India’s education system.

ON the occasion of Independence day this year, M.K. Stalin, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, made headlines for demanding the transfer of ‘education’ back to the State List.

Education was shifted from the State List to the Concurrent List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution which means both state legislatures as well as the Parliament can make laws on it.

On occasion, political and civil society leaders have made their dissent for this transfer known.

The issue resurfaced in the news recently when S. Jagadeeswaran, a nineteen-year old National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) aspirant, committed suicide after facing disappointment over his performance in the exam.

Centralised examinations such as NEET perpetuates the cycle of coaching and reliance on private institutes for specialised training

Two days later, his father, Selvasekar, also committed suicide.

Stalin expressed his concern and provided an assurance that the government will take steps to ban the NEET exam in the state.

The problem with centralised system

In India, admission in most of the prestigious courses and universities is based on the marks obtained in the national entrance examinations such as Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering colleges and NEET for medical colleges.

A more contemporary example on the line of the centralised examination system is the Common University Entrance Test (CUET), for securing admission into central universities in India. It mimics the approach of NEET and JEE, which are more focused on technical fields. 

The idea behind the centralisation of entrance exams stems from the belief that it imparts flexibility to the whole system and prevents thousands of universities in India from devising their own entrance exam patterns.

This is supposed to spare the already burdened education system from more unnecessary work and streamline the admission process. 

The idea of centralised entrance exams might also be useful in promoting equality among students as the question paper would be the same for all students from all boards of education.

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However, on a closer look it is evident that the rationale behind the centralisation of the entrance exams is misguided.

The arguments in favour of the current system fail to appreciate that this addition contributes to the already excessive load of continuous evaluation within an examination-centric education system, simultaneously diminishing the significance of school and board examinations.

In India, the value of board examinations scores is not just a set of numbers required for admission; over time, they have become a cultural phenomenon entrenched in our social values.

Under the current education system, despite its flaws, students who dedicate themselves to performing well in school and board examinations derive a sense of contentment from the understanding that these efforts positively impact their forthcoming opportunities and choices.

Now, this confidence has been diminished, making way for an even more restricted and supplementary method of assessing, filtering and picking students for the purpose of higher education.

NEET and JEE have often been referred to as the most challenging examinations globally due to their advanced syllabus requirements, which demand a deeper understanding beyond what is covered in school for board exams. This has given rise to the thriving coaching culture in India.

NEET contributes to inequality by favouring wealthier candidates who can afford specialised coaching, while simultaneously creating higher barriers for those who are underprivileged.

Moving beyond the issue of syllabus, another problem lies in the assessment of these examinations, as school boards do not prepare students to excel in objective questions or to juggle their way around negative marking.

This perpetuates the cycle of coaching and reliance on private institutes for specialised training.

According to a report, ALLEN, the leading institute for NEET and JEE preparation, has recorded one lakh admissions for the year 2023 and expects it to record 2.5 lakh admissions by the end of the year.

According to various media reports, only 7,97,042 students who appeared for the NEET examination were able to clear it, while the number of seats available in government colleges through NEET is limited to 75,000.

A similar matrix is available for JEE also, revealing that out of 11,13,325 students, only 1,80,372 qualified for JEE advanced, out of which only 17,385 seats are available in IITs.

Clearly, the gap between students’ aspiration and realisation is too big.

This issue is highlighted every time a student commits suicide.

However, instead of addressing the situation through alternate mechanisms until we build upon our capabilities, the same cycle is initiated through the introduction of similar examination patterns in areas that were untouched till now.

The lack of understanding among policy formulators about the struggles and motivation of students is visible here, as they fail to see that if all the admissions are done based on entrance exams, there is no reason to hold boards.

However, the self-glorifying private school business in India, which thrives on board exam grades, is nowhere in the mood to go easy on students.

This creates an unending loop of exams with more advanced or altogether different syllabus and exam patterns that the students are unfamiliar with.

Also read: Centre’s New Exam System is not Reform but Elite Capture

The entrance exams become the only deciding factor regarding the students’ admission, whereas boards, which test the overall subjective understanding of concepts that have been taught in school alongside practical and other activities for over a year, appear redundant.

The state politics

In September 2021, a few months after M.K. Stalin assumed the role of chief minister, the Tamil Nadu assembly unanimously approved the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, 2021, with the backing of all political parties except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which walked out during the proceedings.

Centralised entrance examination system assumes equality without establishing an equitable platform. 

The objective of the Bill was to eliminate the NEET exam and instead establish admission to medical courses based on Class 12 examination scores, aiming to ensure ‘social justice’.

The Bill found its basis in the Justice A.K. Rajan committee, which was appointed in June 2021 under Stalin’s administration to assess the fairness of utilising NEET as a method for selecting candidates for medical courses admissions.

The committee’s findings criticised NEET for its negative impact on societal diversity and its tendency to favour wealthier individuals in the field of medical education.

The committee recommended the immediate elimination of NEET through the enactment of appropriate legislation.

The report of the committee, titled Impact of NEET on medical admissions in Tamil Nadu, reached the conclusion that the exam disproportionately benefited students who appeared for the exam multiple times (71 percent in 2021) and those who received coaching (99 percent in 2020), thus creating a disadvantage for first-time applicants.

The report argued that NEET contributes to inequality by favouring wealthier candidates who can afford specialised coaching, while simultaneously creating higher barriers for those who are underprivileged.

The report emphasised that the state possessed the authority to regulate admissions for socially disadvantaged groups, asserting that the provisions of the Indian Constitution links medical course admissions to the state’s jurisdiction.

Governor R.N. Ravi withheld the Bill until early February 2022 before returning it to the government.

Shortly after, the assembly reapproved the Bill, and subsequently, the governor informed the chief minister that it would be sent to the President for consideration. The Bill is currently pending the President’s approval.

Stalin has accused governor Ravi of neglecting his constitutional obligations and criticised his obstruction of the Bill as an assault on the authority of the state, as well as the fundamental principles of federalism and democracy.

On the other hand, the governor labelled the proposed legislation ‘anti-poor’ and contradictory to the interests of rural and financially disadvantaged students, while referencing the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Christian Medical Collage Vellore Association versus Union of India and Ors, which upheld the validity of NEET.

This is not the first Tamil Nadu government has tried to eliminate NEET. In 2017, the government led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) attempted to secure an exemption for the state through an ordinance.

Nonetheless, this endeavour did not receive approval from the President.

Nullifying NEET within the state also became a significant electoral pledge for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the lead-up to the assembly elections.

Interestingly, this matter is one of the rare topics on which both the DMK and the opposing AIADMK agree.

Also read: The ideological challenge to public education

A chance to the boards

A legitimate point in favour of centralisation is that it relieves students from the pressure of dealing with numerous examinations. However, it is important to note that having multiple tests provides students with multiple opportunities.

The impasse surrounding NEET reflects the challenge of harmonising consistency and equity while accommodating the distinct requirements and values of a varied society.

Moreover, certain tests conducted at the state level align with the syllabus of state boards, benefiting the majority of disadvantaged children.

Until now, most candidates had exclusively taken state-level exams, which increased their chances of being accepted into state government-funded institutions with reasonable tuition fees.

There appears to be no compelling rationale for how a centralised entrance system would improve the situation. It assumes equality without establishing an equitable platform. 

Institutions with limited state support are consequently disheartened, and those that are genuinely lacking in quality are left to struggle. This could potentially demoralise both faculty and students, and unfortunately, it might even lead to more tragic outcomes such as suicides or dropping out.

In this context, the decision by the Tamil Nadu government to eliminate NEET seems reasonable, even though relying solely on board results might not be the best measure, but it appears to be the best option available.

Numerous states have effectively organised their own entrance examinations for many years, enabling top performing students to secure admission into state-level institutions that have consistently been among the top-ranking educational establishments in India.


The impasse surrounding NEET reflects the challenge of harmonising consistency and equity while accommodating the distinct requirements and values of a varied society.

It further exemplifies the broader conflict between nationwide standardisation and regional independence, highlighting underlying differences concerning the essence of democracy, equality and social justice within India.


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