Is the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) a flawed, eccentric approach that causes injustice and goes against the spirit of the Constitution? The Justice A K Rajan committee, appointed by the state government of Tamil Nadu to examine whether NEET is an equitable method of selection, thinks so. Its report lends credence to the belief that NEET tends to give an advantage to students from privileged backgrounds. It also observed that NEET, in terms of orientation, is biased towards the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
Acting upon the committee’s recommendation, the Tamil Nadu government has passed an Act seeking an exemption from treating NEET as the sole and mandatory requirement for medical admission in the state. The Act, which is yet to get approval from the President, may be an act of political expediency, triggered by the anger following students’ suicide in the state. However, the committee and the Act raise substantive questions about equality of opportunity and distributive justice that call for careful scrutiny.
There are at least two important questions. First, does NEET help foster equality of opportunity for everyone without unduly advantaging or disadvantaging anyone? Second, is NEET’s bias towards CBSE justifiable in an immensely diverse country like ours, where varied school curricula coexist with a highly unequal access to financial and educational resources and opportunities?
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” At the core of this quote, erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein, is the concept of “parity of participation”, espoused by the political philosopher Nancy Fraser. In Fraser’s conceptualisation, parity refers to the condition of being a peer, on a par with others, with an equal footing in a given activity. A significant impediment to this is the absence of objective condition, denoted by maldistribution of resources undermining the participant’s independence and voice. Fraser’s conceptualisation informs that the socio-economic inequalities are detrimental beyond their immediate adverse impacts. More importantly, socio-economic inequalities and absence of objective conditions are distributivity unfair because they decisively hinder the parity of participation.
The question here is: How can NEET promote parity of participation when aspiring first-generation students from marginalised and poor households participate from a highly unequal position in the first place? Instead, NEET promotes a kind of competitive equality which is socially insensitive: It disregards the fact that the terms and conditions of participation are highly unequal and biased. What’s more, it pays scant attention to how success in NEET is attained, especially the regressive and exclusive process it sets in and how it intensifies the inequality of opportunity and parity of participation.
In the section titled ‘Size of coaching market’, the report brings out two poignant facts. One, by inadvertently creating a “market for coaching”, NEET has helped to create an “extractive industry of coaching” as an essential condition for clearing it. Surprisingly, the so-called meritorious students have to undergo long-term and repeated coaching in coaching centres. Two, the coaching fees are not only high, but are beyond the reach of many, especially the poor and marginalised. Importantly, coaching centres create a strong belief that it is impossible to clear NEET without long-term or repeated coaching.
The socio-economic and psychological consequences created by such coaching centres are serious and deep. They effectively crush the poor and marginalised students’ “capacity to aspire”, to deploy the term of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. The dejection and the suicide of the students need to be viewed in this context. An educational intervention which was introduced as a solution to foster equality of opportunity has turned out to be the primary cause of deepening inequality of participation and opportunity. Thus, it seems to serve the exact opposite of what it was intended to do.
What needs to be done? Here, the National Education Policy (NEP 2020) becomes pertinent. It envisions a curriculum and pedagogy which will promote holistic learning, social responsibility and multilingualism, among other things. It emphasises education in the local language/mother tongue and claims that children learn best through their mother tongue. It is important, therefore, to significantly restructure the focus of NEET keeping in mind the spirit of NEP and varied school curricula in regional languages. A restructured NEET, which does not require intensive and repeated coaching as a prerequisite and is not biased towards any board, can go a long way in promoting the parity of participation and nourishing the capacity to aspire, especially of the poor and marginalised.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 16, 2021 under the title ‘An unfair trust’. Jose is RBI Chair Professor and Sunkari is Assistant Professor, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal.