NEET disaster underscores all that’s wrong with India’s entrance exam system

Ashraf Engineer

July 6, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

The latest controversy over the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate), or NEET, has brought into sharp focus the decline of India’s entrance exam system. Paper leaks and corruption are common, calling into question the effectiveness of the system and where it leaves aspirants. The leak of papers and release of incorrect results is common and they have been connected to several student suicides.

NEET, formerly known as the All India Pre-Medical Test, is a nationwide entrance exam conducted by the National Testing Agency, or NTA, for admission to undergraduate medical programmes. It is a very tough exam and is held annually for admission to medical, dental, AYUSH and  Bachelor of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry colleges.

This year, at least 67 students got perfect scores against the average of two or three per year. Grace marks were awarded to more than 1,560 students for unclear reasons and the paper was leaked. All this led to great anger among students and rocked Parliament, leading to the government cancelling the results.

What’s wrong with India’s examination system and how do we fix it?


Entrance exam season is a period of dread for students and their families. In India, such tests are critical because they are the doorway to medical and other professional degrees, which are highly sought after. The results often dictate not just the economic but social status of families. They determine social mobility in many cases, which raises the stakes substantially.

This year’s NEET controversy is only the latest in a long series of scandals involving paper leaks, which have become common now. Over the past seven years, there have been 70 confirmed paper leaks in 15 states, raising doubts about the integrity of our examinations. These leaks affected 1.7 crore applicants with this year’s paper leak affecting 24 lakh aspirants.

So, what exactly was wrong this year?

On May 5, 24 lakh students appeared for the exam at 4,750 centres in 571 cities, including 14 international locations. The result, declared on June 4, led to an outcry with aspirants raising multiple issues.

As per the result, 67 students got a perfect score of 720, an unusually high percentage compared to previous years’. Last year, for instance, only two students achieved the perfect score; in 2022, there were three; two in 2021; and one in 2020.

Six of this year’s toppers appeared for the exam at the same centre in Haryana. And let’s not forget the paper leak either.

The NTA initially justified the result, saying that three lakh more candidates took the exam this year, which is what led to the increase in high scores.  It also said that the exam was easier than previous years’.

Students argued that, after the maximum score of 720, the next highest score possible was 716. Yet, there were students who had scored of 718 and 719, indicating irregularity. The NTA, on its part, said that some candidates, including six of the toppers, had got compensatory marks for “loss of time”.

NEET has an interesting history. Its introduction was actively considered in 2010 at the Ministry of Health to address three specific problems. First, standardising competence of students entering medical colleges because a majority of them were found to have negligible knowledge of even basic chemistry, physics and biology. Second, reducing the number of entrance tests from an estimated 46 to one. Lastly, to eliminate capitation fees levied by private medical colleges by reducing their discretion in granting admissions and basing it on scores instead.

Implementation of this ‘one exam NEET policy’ was attempted in 2013, but the Supreme Court suspended it after private colleges petitioned it saying the exam had taken away their institutional autonomy. It was only in 2016 that a five-judge bench restored NEET.

However, there was another challenge. What should be the standard for the exam because India does not have a uniform standard for school education? Central Government schools follow the CBSE syllabus, states have their own syllabi that are easier and now we also the International Baccalaureate, or IB, in many high-end private schools. With such variations, it’s virtually impossible to arrive at a uniform standard. With the bias towards CBSE in NEET, students clearing state exams have been forced to sign up for coaching classes.

The coaching industry has laughed all the way to the bank, growing to an estimated Rs 58,000 crore in size and growing at 15% annually. Its very existence is the result of a failed school system plagued by problems such as tinkering with the syllabi, a focus on rote learning, poor quality of teaching and many others.

The NTA was constituted in 2017 to conduct entrance examinations such as NEET but it’s been at the centre of controversy since its establishment, with complaints of irregularities.

Tamil Nadu opposed NEET from Day One. It argued that it has a perfectly functioning state policy of linking medical college admissions to high school performance. In 2021, Tamil Nadu formed an expert committee headed by Justice AK Rajan, which presented evidence of rural students from Tamil-medium schools losing out — between 2017 and 2021, from an average of 15% of admissions of Tamil-medium students, the number fell to 1.6% to 3.2%. The number of rural students admitted to government medical colleges fell from 62% to 50%.

Tamil Nadu’s fears were well founded because its good public health system has as its foundation students from rural backgrounds willing to work in primary health centres, unlike the upper and middle classes who have their sights on foreign lands.

Tamil Nadu made several requests to the Ministry of Health to review NEET and even passed a law scrapping the need to pass NEET for entry into medical colleges. However, the centrally-appointed Governor never gave it his assent.

That NEET needs a revamp is beyond argument. Among the ideas floated are making MBBS a six-year degree with a pre-medical year to bring students up to a certain standard in critical subjects like zoology, chemistry and physics. There is also a suggestion to decentralise the exam to states and universities as it was pre-NEET.

India, of course, is not the only Asian country to grapple with entrance tests for institutions of higher education. China, for instance, has the Gaokao, a nine-hour entrance exam that is referred to as the “pressure cooker test”. Bizarrely, some aspirants come to the exam venue equipped with intravenous drips so that they can get through the exam.

South Korea, meanwhile, suffers from a high suicide rate among students because of a system geared towards test taking.

In India, it’s up to the education and health ministries to get it right. In its present form, NEET is not fulfilling its purpose. The high demand for medical college seats makes the system ripe for corruption.

The long-term solution, of course, involves improving school education, decentralising exams and strict oversight. Perhaps the foreign university model is a good one. They take entrance exam scores as just one of many inputs. Others include long-term academic records, personal interviews, etc.

As long as a high premium is attached to such exams, they will always be vulnerable to irregularities. In fact, earlier this year, as Parliament was debating the Public Examinations Prevention of Unfair Means Bill, there was ironically another leak — this was a paper for the constable recruitment exam in Uttar Pradesh.

Such leaks underscore not only loopholes in the exam system, they also lead to panic and frustration among students who feel their future is being jeopardised.

The Public Examinations Prevention of Unfair Means Act specifies severe penalties for culprits with a prison sentence of not less than three years. The Act covers exams conducted for all Central recruitment agencies and the NTA.

However, will a stricter law solve the problem? Many states — including Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha — have legislation criminalising cheating. However, exam-related crimes continue.

Any exam that people have confidence in must be reliable and standardised, measure what it intends to measure and remove all scope for subjectivity in the evaluation. The process — setting the question paper, ensuring against leaks and evaluation — must be watertight.

However, the reality is that, from setting question papers and their printing to transporting the completed answer sheets to evaluation centres, the entire process is compromised. No aspect of it has ever been audited by a third party.

Much of the problem lies in society and our emphasis on doing well in such exams. This leads to desperation and, in turn, the rise of organised cheating in the form of paper leaks and other irregularities.

India needs a foolproof system. Until that happens, students will feel that their future is in the hands of the corrupt and a system that can be easily manipulated by those who can pay.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.