The suicide of three NEET aspirants in Tamil Nadu has sparked a new debate over India’s stressful entrance exams. The reaction of the government of Tamil Nadu is necessarily administrative and necessarily political. This is unlikely to solve the problem and could make it worse in ways you don’t expect.
The root of the problem is neither administrative nor educational but social. Our children are conditioned from childhood to think, as Ashis Nandy once said, that they have three career choices: doctor, engineer or failure. The glamor of engineering courses has faded somewhat since the economic downturn. In addition, the engineering institutes being less rigorous to set up, their number can correspond or (as today) even exceed the demand. NEET thus replaced JEE as the teenager’s greatest career-focused torment, but both spawned serious social illnesses.
The greatest stress is usually generated by parents and family, who even pit siblings against each other. Peer pressure comes closer as a second factor. Schools are encouraged to measure their success by the number of students who complete NEET and JEE. The bourgeois enclaves slyly compare the respective successes of the neighborhood children.
A new addition to this dismal scene should, in itself, be deeply encouraging – a growing aspiration among children from underprivileged backgrounds. When such a child beats the odds to excel in school, she may face even more pressure than her privileged peers in the family and community. This is compounded by a feeling of inadequate support. These children cannot attend the coaching centers or even the courses in remote mode, let alone the residential coaching poles embodied by Kota. If they do, gaps in their education and background prevent them from making it. A family could mortgage the house and the hearth in the cause, which exacerbates the pressure. It is the group that records the most student suicides, not only among NEETs and JEEs, but in higher education in general.
The shortcomings of schooling are not always absolute, but simply in terms of the particular requirements of the entrance tests. Their structure is often strategically removed from the standard STEM curriculum – rightly so, to test the special aptitude that a course may require. This gap is exploited to profit by the coaching industry. A third player made it big during the pandemic: the online tutorials for the core curriculum. Silently but radically, this combination changes the model of Indian education, encouraged by the government’s fascination with online learning as an educational panacea. This causes consternation among teachers in India’s most modest schools, but their voices are not heard.
Sadly, it seems unlikely that the middle class will take a broader stance towards the well-being, education and careers of their children, in that order rather than the other way around. However, it is both unreal and unfair to expect the less fortunate these days to “know their place” and abandon their own ambitions. This is where the state, if it wishes, can play a constructive role.
One step would be to reverse the growing centralization of all entrance exams – including, henceforth, for “general” central universities. There is a valid argument for centralization: it frees the student from the burden of multiple tests. But also, several tests offer several chances. And some tests, organized at the state level, are tailored to state council programs for the most disadvantaged children. That means one less gap to cross – sometimes a huge gap. So far, most of the participants had taken state-level testing, with a better chance of qualifying for a state-run institute with affordable fees.
To that extent, Tamil Nadu’s proposal to withdraw from NEET makes sense, although the council’s results alone may be an unreliable yardstick. Many states have productively run their own entrance tests for decades, bringing high-performing students to state-owned institutions rated among the best in India. (The Center took over some of them because they had excelled in running the state. They are now relegated by official decree to second, below IITs.)
There seems to be no reason for a centralized entry system to improve on the previous scenario. It assumes parity without providing a level playing field. The institutions benefiting from less state patronage are thus demoralized and the most deficient ones are abandoned. This can further discourage staff and students, which can lead, we hate to say it, to more suicides.
This is the crux of the matter. The current policy of the Union has brought to the point of crisis an evolving scenario over the last three decades. Previously, higher education was the only space where young people of all classes and communities could meet on an equal footing, at least in terms of institutional facilities. Many institutions were of inferior quality; others are particularly productive, as evidenced (everything else aside) by the success of their former students among the Indian diaspora. Instead of consolidating this success while addressing the very real shortcomings, the system has been overturned. The most important change is the entry of private institutions: they now enroll two out of three students at the higher level. More fundamentally, the whole system, even the state sector, is increasingly oriented towards demands which alienate, where they do not exclude, the disadvantaged student.
We accept without debate that more and more institutions will operate at a sub-optimal level if they cannot meet certain predefined stipulations which are managerial, financial and social in nature rather than academic. Such an agenda clearly emerges between the lines of the new education policy and is evident in the annual education budget. More disadvantaged students are enrolling than before, but are confined by the system to this sub-optimal level – the surest recipe for frustration. If they attempt the big jump to the top, they fall too often and get injured. The most privileged suffer more subtle damage, which their social and economic security may or may not compensate for.
We inspire countless young citizens to dream dreams while denying them the means to make them come true. These means are quite practicable. Until recently, we had at least tried to implement them, even in an inept way. Today we are destroying the very possibility.
The author is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University