Why Indian students say they are being cheated out of their futures

National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) protests in Delhi over exam paper leaks (NSUI/ Twitter)
National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) protests in Delhi over exam paper leaks (NSUI/ Twitter)

Hundreds of students have taken to streets in India protesting alleged irregularities in the country’s fiercely competitive medical school entrance exam.

The controversy erupted earlier this month after an unusually high number of students scored a perfect 720 in the centrally-administrated exam known as the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), with accusations of cheating and paper leaks quickly spreading.

A gateway for students aspiring to pursue undergraduate medical and dental courses in prestigious institutions across the country, the credibility and fairness of NEET is deemed paramount to ensuring equal opportunities for candidates.

For many candidates it represents a make-or-break chance of a secure career, a means of escaping poverty and dragging up the living standards and reputation of their family as a whole.

When as many as 67 students scored a perfect 720 – unprecedented in the history of the exam – complaints swiftly followed that the credibility of the exercise had been compromised. Protests became stronger after it emerged that six of the top-scoring students all came from one exam centre in the northern state of Haryana.

“How is that six students who scored full 720 marks are from the exam centres in Faridabad, Haryana?” Sachin Bangad, a parent body representative asked the Times of India, as he alleged the exam was “managed”.

Outraged parents have sent letters to the National Testing Agency (NTA) seeking a thorough investigation into the alleged discrepancy.

At first the high number of perfect scores was attributed to bonus marks given to 1,563 candidates due to a faulty question and logistical issues, with education minister Dharmendra Pradhan denying the accusations that exam papers had been leaked.

“I want to assure the students and their parents that the Government of India and NTA are committed to providing justice to them,” the union minister said on 13 June. “2.4 million students have successfully taken the NEET examination. There is no paper leak, no proof has been found yet.”

The Supreme Court of India has intervened in the matter, such is the national importance of these exams, ruling that the bonus marks given to the students should be scrapped, with the affected students being given the choice of either retaking the exam or accepting a final score without them.

Meanwhile, investigations by state police bodies have uncovered several lapses in the medical exam across the country.

Police in the eastern state of Bihar found a charred booklet of answers matching “entirely” those in the exam paper, reported India Today.

Another case has been registered against an individual in Godhra, Gujarat, for allegedly trying to help 27 candidates clear the NEET, with charges including criminal conspiracy, cheating and criminal breach of trust.

In Maharashtra, police on Sunday arrested four people, including two teachers, in connection with the scandal. A preliminary report alleges that the accused ran a racket of selling advance information about the exam to students in exchange for large sums of money, according to India Today.

The education ministry has sought to assuage fears that the exam could be declared null and retakes ordered across the country, saying that the many hundreds of thousands of candidates who took the test legitimately should not have their careers jeopardised because of “localised” or “isolated” incidents of cheating.

“I want to assure everyone that once we have concrete proof, actions will be taken against those who are responsible for the irregularities, be it the NTA or any other official. The government is forming a high-level committee,” Mr Pradhan said while addressing a press conference.

While this is not the first year when allegations of exam cheating have been reported, they do appear to be particularly widespread. The education ministry has nullified the results of another set of exams – the National Eligibility Test (NET) – which is used as the basis for admission to doctoral programmes and for the appointment of college and university teachers, based on a report from a government cyber crime team that the “integrity of the aforesaid examination may have been compromised”.

It said the country’s top investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, will look into the matter.

The problems with the two exams have cast a shadow on the NTA’s ability to conduct entrance tests and has damaged trust among millions of students.

“After I took the [NET] exam, I was positive that I would have qualified. I used to study at least 12 hours a day alongside pursuing my Masters and was hoping for some relief after the exam. Instead, we were thrown into uncertainty and more stress,” one student told The Quint.

Over two dozen students protesting against the NEET irregularities and concerns about paper cancellations were arrested in Delhi as hundreds flocked to Jantar Mantar, a popular gathering point for demonstrations.

The main opposition Congress party said the Narendra Modi government “has ruined the country’s education and recruitment system”.

“There is huge pressure on our students. There’s a large scale unemployment in the country,” former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said. “The youngsters in India have no way through. The youth of India have nowhere to go. It’s a profound national crisis.”