Millions of students at risk: India’s elite exams hit by corruption ‘scam’

More than 3 million aspirants took India’s top tests for medical and research schools. Their future is now uncertain amid paper leaks, arrests and growing demands for a re-examination.

In this Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010 photograph, students attend a class at a cram school in Kota, India. Every year, more than 450,000 students take the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) exam, hoping for entry to the hallowed public engineering institutes located across India. Slightly more than 13,000 passed in 2010, a 3 percent success rate. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
Students attend a class at a coaching school in Kota, India. The city in Rajasthan state is home to a giant industry of schools that tutor students in cracking competitive exams for medical and engineering colleges [File: Saurabh Das/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – India’s top examinations for admissions into medical schools and research programmes have come under unprecedented scrutiny amid mounting evidence of corruption and paper leaks, leaving the future of more than three million students hanging in the balance.

The National Testing Agency (NTA), an autonomous body under India’s Ministry of Education that is responsible for holding the nationwide examinations, is at the centre of these controversies over the integrity of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), a national exam for medical aspirants held last month.

The exam results on June 4 revealed irregularities in marks and a dramatically high number of toppers, with a wave of arrests in different parts of the country for alleged paper leaks and multimillion-dollar cheating scams.

Since then, several students have approached the Supreme Court and state high courts, staged protests in the scorching heat and organised campaigns on social media platforms demanding independent probes and a re-examination. About 2.4 million candidates took the NEET, competing for 100,000 spots in medical schools.

On 19 June, Narendra Modi’s newly formed coalition government also cancelled the National Eligibility Test (NET) that selects candidates for public-funded research fellowships, just a day after a million students wrote the paper. This followed reports that questions had been leaked “in the darknet” and were circulated on Telegram, said Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s education minister, on Thursday.

The minister, however, did not specify how the paper was compromised. “Question leak is an institutional failure from the NTA. We are assuring that there will be a reform committee and action will be taken,” he said. “We will not compromise on transparency. Students’ welfare is our priority.”

Meanwhile, leaders of India’s opposition and legal experts have criticised the Modi government over its failure to crack down on corruption in the country’s elite exams that determine who goes on to become doctors and scholars.

“The NTA literally has one job to do [to conduct exams] and it has failed miserably,” said Rishi Shukla, a law research scholar in Lucknow, who has aided multiple legal petitions against the NTA.

“Millions of students’ careers and lives are at risk. The discrepancies in these examinations carry a smell of large-level corruption in the system.”

Impossible numbers and a ‘wasted dream’

While the country was focused on the results of India’s national election on June 4, the NEET results stunned students and teachers alike: 67 students scored a perfect 720 out of 720, up from two students last year. Two years ago, the topper had scored 715 marks – the candidate with that score this year ranked the 225th.

At least two students scored 719 and 718 marks out of 720, a statistically impossible result under the NEET’s marking system (+4 for a correct answer and -1 for an incorrect one), doubling down on doubts over the allegations from several students of irregularities in the results.

In response, the NTA defended itself by saying that several students were awarded “grace marks” – handed out by examiners at their discretion – in cases where candidates lost time during the tests due to factors outside their control.

“The loss of examination time was ascertained and such candidates were compensated with grace marks. So, the candidates’ marks can be 718 or 719, also,” the NTA wrote on X. However, the agency did not disclose the parameters used for awarding grace marks.

Eventually, it informed the Supreme Court in a hearing that the agency would cancel the grace marks and conduct a re-test for the 1,563 students who were awarded these marks.

“There have been issues in the NTA’s conduct from the beginning of the NEET exams this year,” said Shukla, the legal scholar, who has also written to the Supreme Court and the NTA demanding an impartial court-monitored probe.

“This agency was constituted in 2013 claiming to centralise the examination and avoid lower-level paper leaks and corruption. However, now they have lost their face.”

The NEET tests students in physics, biology and chemistry with 180 questions, and the exam was held in more than 4,500 centres across the country, where students answered multiple-choice questions by filling bubbles corresponding to different answers.

Where 304 students scored 700 marks or more in 2023, that number rose to 2,100 this year. A candidate’s rank in the highly competitive NEET is vital to securing admission to a medical school in India.

In a statement shared with the press, the NTA attributed the high scoring to a larger candidate pool, rising by nearly 300,000 from 2023. However, questions over the integrity of the exam aside, the unusually high marks this year pose another challenge: Earlier, an average of 550 marks could guarantee a place in government-run medical colleges, which in total account for 56,000 seats.

Not any more. The remaining seats are in private schools that charge exponentially higher fees than government colleges.

For aspirants like 19-year-old Pratibha, this reality represents the end of a dream. She said she does not trust the re-examination promised by the NTA for students awarded grace marks.

“This re-test is an eye wash because the government is clearly shielding corrupt people,” she said, speaking from her home in Odisha state on India’s east coast, requesting that her last name not be used because she fears punitive action.

“I have spent my teenage [years] for this dream to wear the white coat,” said Pratibha, breaking down on the call. “It all feels like a waste now. I have scored good marks but not the rank. My family does not have money to send me to a private college.”

What is the NEET paper worth?

Last week, Pradhan, India’s education minister, vehemently denied the possibility of a paper leak in the NEET. However, the police in the eastern state of Bihar, where Pradhan’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rules as part of a coalition, claim to have secured a confession that nails paper leaks.

A senior police official in Patna, Bihar’s capital, confirmed to Al Jazeera that one of the arrested men accused of leaks confessed that he secured access to the paper the night before the NEET examination – for nearly $36,000. Under Indian laws, a confessional statement made to the police is inadmissible as evidence in court.

Reacting to the findings by the Bihar police, Pradhan on Thursday evening said that the ministry was in touch with the police and was awaiting a detailed report. But he rejected calls for a re-examination of the NEET, unlike with the NET.

“Some errors are limited to specific regions. Those guilty, including someone from the NTA, will not be spared,” he said. “One isolated incident [Bihar paper leak] should not affect lakhs of students who took the exam sincerely.” A lakh, an Indian measure, represents 100,000.

But the arrests in Bihar are not an “isolated incident”.

In Gujarat, the western state that is the home of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is also ruled by the BJP, the police have revealed details of a scam in recent days where at least 30 students, from distant parts of India, appeared in one centre.

They allegedly paid between $12,000 and $50,000, involving private coaching centres, teachers and a supervisor at the exam centre, to clear the test. Five individuals have been arrested so far in this probe.

As New Delhi baked under a heatwave on June 20, Varun Choudhary, the national president of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the opposition Congress party, assembled protesting students and reached the residence of Pradhan, the education minister. They were quickly whisked away by the police.

Choudhary told Al Jazeera that the protesters showered fake currency notes outside Pradhan’s residence in New Delhi, “because we are ready to give that corrupt minister money, but we need to secure the future of our students”.

There is no evidence linking any government minister to any wrongdoing in the conduct of the examinations.

“This must be a first when the thief is confessing to a robbery, but the owner says everything is fine,” he said, referring to the confessions claimed by the police. “The NTA is incapable of conducting any examination and has become the epicentre of these leaks. We demand a ban on NTA and the resignation of [Pradhan].”

“The government is playing with the future of over three million students,” he said. “Now, there is a deep mistrust between the students and the examinations. Is this a fear you want to instil in your future doctors and scholars?”

Hearing a batch of petitions, the Supreme Court also criticised the NTA, saying, “If there’s even 0.001 percent negligence on anyone’s part, it should be thoroughly dealt with.”

However, the court did not ask for a deferment of the post-NEET allocation of medical seats, scheduled for July 1. The next hearing in the case is on July 8.

One nation, one examination?

Meanwhile, opposition leaders – many of whom have been critical of the NEET because it replaces a series of state government-run tests with a single national exam – have targeted the Modi government’s handling of the medical exam.

“Tamil Nadu was the first to say that NEET was a scam, and now, the entire country has started saying so,” MK Stalin, the chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state, said. “We will surely end this one day. It’s our responsibility. Society, financial or political situation should not be a barrier to your education.”

Neighbouring Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also accused the federal government of “gross inefficiency” that undermined the credibility of the national-level examination. “This repeated incompetence is unacceptable, leaving students in limbo and wasting public money,” he wrote on X.

Taking a dig at Modi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Thursday, “It was being said that Modi ji stopped the Russia-Ukraine war. But for some reason, Narendra Modi has not been able to stop or doesn’t want to stop paper leaks in India.”

Ahead of the 2024 election, a BJP advertisement had suggested that Modi had managed to pause the Russia-Ukraine war to secure the escape of Indian students trapped in the war zone – a claim that the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself had rejected.

Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, demanded a court-monitored probe. “The culprits must get the harshest punishment,” he wrote on X.

The controversy swirling over the NEET and NET comes against the backdrop of growing questions over India’s competitive exam industry.

Every year, thousands of students flock to privately owned coaching centres that have mushroomed in cities like Kota, in the western state of Rajasthan, and that claim to know the magic tricks needed to get a student into a top engineering or medical school.

But the dingy classrooms and high-pressure atmosphere in these coaching hubs also spawn a nightmare accompanying the dreams of success: The ever-growing suicide statistics from cities like Kota have even inspired a Netflix drama and several feature films.

Barely a week before the NEET was held, another student was found hanging in his room in the dusty town of Kota. “Sorry Papa, I could not do it this year as well,” read a note found near his body. The student had failed to secure a seat in the last two attempts and was to appear for a third time. His was the 10th death by suicide in Kota since January this year.

“We have turned our education system into a pressure cooker, and it has been exploding for some time now – the mismanagement in such a highly centralised form of examination can inflict irreversible trauma on students,” said the head of a reputed government-run medical school in Rajasthan, requesting anonymity to “save” his job.

“This ‘one nation, one examination’ does not work in a country like India,” he added. “The sooner this government understands this, the better for the future of our students.”

Source: Al Jazeera