A pandemic and the resultant delay in commencing admission to professional courses have put the Union Education Ministry in an unenviable position. It is under compulsion to strike a balance between ensuring physical and emotional well-being of aspirants and sustaining a merit-based admission process, while seeking to limit the academic disruption. The NEET is the only gateway for MBBS/BDS admissions in the country. In respect of engineering admissions, the JEE is not mandatory for State government-run and private institutions. Citing the Supreme Court’s recent order declining to interfere with the conduct of the two common entrance tests, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank has contended that the issue is being politicised. His argument is that a “silent majority” favours the exams as an overwhelming number of registered candidates have downloaded their admit cards. From an academic perspective, the Supreme Court has rightly observed that the career of students “cannot be put in peril for long”. Mr. Pokhriyal is apprehensive that further delay could lead to a “zero academic year”, a concern shared by many academics.
Ground realities reflect the concerns from the other side. More than the fear of contracting COVID-19 from examination centres, aspirants face practical limitations. The NEET will be conducted in 3,843 centres across 155 cities, whereas the number of applicants is about 15.97 lakh. For an estimated 8.58 lakh aspirants, the JEE will be held in 660 centres in 12 shifts. With many States not resuming public transport services and hotels remaining closed, travel and accommodation for candidates from interior regions is a major challenge. Social and cultural pressures are such that girls from villages and tier-3 towns are likely to face hurdles as travelling alone would not be encouraged under these unusual circumstances. Even if hotels are opened at short notice, the fear of the pandemic might deter a section of aspirants from staying there. Delay in admission to the IITs and medical colleges would also have an adverse bearing on BE/BTech seats in leading institutions including deemed universities as eventually they may go vacant when students opt out. Given this background, the government must explore alternatives such as allowing States to conduct medical admissions based on Class XII Board marks using standard normalisation. NEET could be limited to central institutions. Likewise, instead of the JEE, a nationwide marks normalisation could be examined but IIT Directors have argued that doing away with JEE would dilute the quality of education. Extraordinary circumstances may require extraordinary solutions. Perhaps the examination slots could be staggered and the number of centres increased drastically. Pragmatic compromises are inevitable.