The suicide of S. Anitha in Tamil Nadu, which has rekindled the debate over the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) to medical and dental colleges, is a reminder of the difficulties of levelling the field in a nation with multiple syllabi, marking conventions and media of instruction. Tamil Nadu was one of the states to oppose a nationwide entrance test run by a central board, arguing that the test syllabus diverged from those of state boards. Students also objected to the test being offered only in English and Hindi, which was exclusionist. This year, Tamil numbered among the regional languages added to the list, but students complained that questions in these languages were tougher than those in English and Hindi. Reform seemed to open up fresh inequalities.
The education map of India has always been chaotic, marked by multiple syllabi, and the education system has struggled to level it. In the 20th century, it was common for central boards to informally award positive weights to students of boards known for a tradition of low marking, like West Bengal (another state opposed to the NEET), to bring them up to par. The need for common tests also arose with the recognition that all school boards did not mark equally. Medical entrance tests were a special case, because the quality of the student body has a bearing on the future health of the nation. Gaps between school syllabi and the expectations of test examiners have introduced their own inequalities. Coaching shops rushed in to fill them, but access to extracurricular tuition is unequal, conditioned by purchasing power and location. S. Anitha, the daughter of a daily wage worker, was clearly disadvantaged on this count, and as a litigant, she became the human face of the protest.
The NEET was instituted with excellent intentions, to curb corruption and ensure that candidates are equal to the demanding courses in medicine and dentistry they apply for, at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The proliferation of private medical colleges had made it possible for candidates to pay their way to a seat, and the exorbitant costs focused their careers on recovery of the investment, rather than research and the delivery of quality care, especially to the underserved. And yet, the repeated protests and challenges that NEET has faced underscore how difficult it will be to erase inequality of access and truly level the playing field. A common entrance exam does indeed guarantee the supremacy of merit and firewalls against corruption. But it can work only if state syllabi converge, at least in the sciences, and entrance tests respect their benchmarks. That would be the first step towards equitable reform.