Updated: September 25, 2021 7:55:57 am
The suicide of three NEET aspirants in Tamil Nadu has sparked yet another debate on India’s stressful entrance exams. The reaction of the Tamil Nadu government is necessarily administrative and inevitably political. It is unlikely to solve the problem, and might worsen it in unsuspected ways.
The root problem is neither administrative nor educational but social. Our children are conditioned from infancy to think, as Ashis Nandy once put it, that they have three career choices — doctor, engineer or failure. The shine has faded somewhat from engineering courses since the economic downturn. Besides, engineering institutes being less rigorous to set up, their number can match or (as today) even exceed the demand. NEET has thus replaced JEE as the career-driven adolescent’s greatest torment, but both have spawned serious social maladies.
The greatest stress is usually generated by parents and the family, even playing off siblings against one another. Peer pressure comes close as a second factor. Schools are induced to measure their success by the number of students clearing NEET and JEE. Middle-class enclaves snidely compare the respective success of neighbourhood children.
A new addition to this dismal scene should, in itself, be deeply heartening — growing aspiration among children of disadvantaged backgrounds. When such a child beats the odds to excel at school, she might face even more pressure than her privileged peers from family and community. This is aggravated by a sense of inadequate support. These children cannot attend coaching centres or even courses in distance mode, let alone the residential coaching hubs epitomised by Kota. If they do, deficiencies in schooling and background make it hard for them to cope. A family might mortgage home and hearth in the cause, which exacerbates the pressure. This is the group registering most student suicides, not only with NEET and JEE but in higher education generally.
The deficiencies in schooling may not always be absolute, but simply in terms of the peculiar demands of entrance tests. Their structure is often at a strategic remove from the standard STEM curriculum — justifiably so, to test the special aptitude a course may require. This gap is exploited for gain by the coaching industry. A third player has made it big during the pandemic: Online tutorials for the core curriculum. Silently but radically, this combination is changing the pattern of Indian education, cheered on by the government’s fascination with online learning as a pedagogic panacea. This is causing consternation among teachers in India’s humbler schools, but their voice goes unheard.
It seems sadly improbable that the middle class will adopt a broader attitude to their children’s well-being, education and careers, in that order rather than the reverse. That being so, it is both unreal and unfair to expect that the less fortunate will, in this day and age, “know their place” and surrender their own ambitions. This is where the state, if so inclined, can play a constructive role.
One step would be to reverse the growing centralisation of all entrance exams — including, now, for “general” central universities. There is a valid argument for centralisation: It frees the student from the burden of multiple tests. But equally, multiple tests offer multiple chances. And some tests, held at the state level, are geared to the curricula of state boards catering to most underprivileged children. That means one less gap for them to cross — sometimes a huge gap. Most entrants had hitherto sat for state-level tests alone, with a better chance of qualifying for a state government-run institute with affordable fees.
To that extent, the Tamil Nadu proposal to opt out of NEET makes sense, though board results alone might be an unreliable criterion. Many states have productively held their own entrance tests for decades, bringing high-performing students to state-level institutions that ranked among India’s best. (The Centre took some of them over because they had excelled under state management. They are now consigned by official fiat to second rank, below the IITs.)
There seems no reason why a centralised entrance system should improve the earlier scenario. It assumes parity without providing a level-playing field. Institutions enjoying less state patronage are thereby demoralised, and the truly deficient ones left to flounder. This can further dishearten both staff and students — possibly leading, one hates to say, to more suicides.
Here lies the crux of the matter. The present Union policy has brought to crisis point a scenario evolving over the last three decades. Previous to that, tertiary education provided the one arena where young people from all classes and communities could meet on something like equal footing, at least as regards institutional facilities. Many institutions were substandard; others notably productive, as evinced (all else apart) by the success of their alumni among the Indian diaspora. Instead of consolidating that success while addressing the very real deficiencies, the system has been overturned. The entry of private institutions is the single biggest change: They now enrol two out of three students at the tertiary level. More fundamentally, the entire system, even the state sector, is increasingly geared to demands that alienate, where they do not exclude, the underprivileged student.
We are accepting without debate that more and more institutions will operate at a suboptimal level if they cannot meet some pre-set stipulations that are managerial, financial and social rather than academic in nature. Such an agenda emerges clearly between the lines of the New Education Policy and shows glaringly in the annual education budget. More disadvantaged students enrol than before, but are confined by the system to this suboptimal level — the surest recipe for frustration. If they attempt the great leap upward, all too often they fall and get hurt. The more privileged suffer subtler damage, for which their social and economic security may or may not compensate.
We are inducing countless young citizens to dream dreams while denying them the means to realise them. Those means are entirely practicable. Until recently, we had at least tried to implement them, however ineptly. Today we are destroying the very possibility.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2021 under the title ‘The torment of aspiration’. The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University.
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