This year’s National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) has generated quite a controversy. Amidst rapidly moving developments, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has admitted to ‘wrongdoing on two accounts’. This is welcome as acknowledging a mistake is the first step to corrective measures. A committee has been set up by the National Testing Agency to probe allegations of irregularities.

But for the 24 lakh aspirants and their wards who have staked their all for this exam, a quick resolution of this rather messy situation is called for. It is important that one of the country’s most important entrance exams, and for a discipline as critical as medicine, be conducted in an atmosphere of good faith. There were a record 67 toppers this year, six from a single centre in Faridabad, while the total number of toppers since NEET’s inception since 2016 is just 74. And as many as 1,563 candidates were initially awarded grace marks for not getting the allotted time to answer the paper, distorting the result. The Supreme Court rightly struck down the grace marks, but these candidates have been offered a re-test option. To add to the confusion, 13 people were arrested in Patna just before the NEET exam in May allegedly in connection with a ‘paper leak’. Suspicion has been raised over why candidates from other States opted for centres in Gujarat to give the exam. The demand for a total re-test has arisen because these episodes do not inspire confidence. This deserves some consideration, notwithstanding the delays in the admission process or the difficulties in conducting a re-exam.

Meanwhile, NEET has to be reconfigured. It should be electronically conducted, like the JEE (where one does not hear of leakages) or global tests such as GMAT and GRE, where question papers are set in many combinations. Electronic exams also ensure that the marking is error proof, with marksheets not being mixed up, as has been alleged in the case of NEET. Experts note that the scope for leak is high in an offline paper, as there are many points of human interface – from its framing to printing and distribution. 

But a foolproof exam system alone will not address issues plaguing medical education. While 1.08 lakh medical seats are available in all (private and government seats in roughly equal proportion), over 13 lakh aspirants have cleared the exam this year. This leaves 12 lakh aspirants in the lurch (many of whom go to Bangladesh, Nepal, Ukraine and other central Asian countries to study medicine). But what is grossly unjust is that even those ranked in the top one lakh are not assured of a seat, as private colleges could charge admission fees beyond their reach. The answer is to increase capacity. More government medical colleges need to be created to reduce the cost of education and, therefore, care. This can be done by adding medical colleges to existing hospitals. A reduced proportion of private set-ups will make health education and services better and cheaper.