The entrance exams for entrance to engineering and medical colleges are to be held in the month of September. The JEE (Mains), a qualification exam for admission in Central universities and stepping stone to sit for JEE (Advanced) for admission into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) will be held on September 1. The medical equivalent of it, NEET is scheduled to be held on September 13.
The pandemic is showing no signs of abating in India. For holding the exams during the pandemic, the government is at the receiving end of criticism. There is a request to postpone these exams. Students have submitted petitions to courts and have made their displeasure known. And the political parties have latched on it for their own gains.
That is what we are witnessing in the media. But is that all that there is to the story?
The students concerns about safety and health concerns are genuine. But do all students want exams to be postponed? And before passing judgement, let us understand the diverse points of view and the chronological order of events to get a more informed perspective.
On 6 August 2020, 11 students from 11 states filed a petition in the Supreme Court to postpone JEE 2020 and NEET 2020. In their plea to the court, they cited the pandemic as the reason to push the dates back. And conduct the exam at a later date. It is also believed the plea also included the plight of students affected by the flood situation across states in the country.
The Supreme Court after a brief hearing on 17 August 2020 dismissed the petition. Making an observation during the hearing, the bench led by Justice Arun Mishra observed that postponing exams would put ‘careers of students in peril’. And it dismissed the case through a writ petition. This order of the court is being challenged through a review petition.
This voices the opinion of students who do not want the exams to be held on the current dates. But do all students voice that opinion in a single voice?
In recent days, news channels have held debates on the issue of JEE and NEET exams. Students advocating for ‘for’ and ‘against’ the issue came on air and presented their case. The template of discussion though was limited to health concerns due to the pandemic. The students invited were children who had recently passed their class 12 exams. This skews the narrative of the debate. As it does not represent all sets of stakeholders even among the students.
What they do not take into consideration is that the issue is not as simple as they make it out to be. Health safety is not the only criteria that is relevant. There are many students pinning their hopes on exams this year. If the exams are not held, it might have an adverse impact on their lives.
Ignoring the segment of students on this side of the divide, various Twitter ‘influencers’ and media organisations are running polls to show how students are totally against the idea of writing the exams. I have a few questions for the self styled Twitter influencers about their polls on JEE and NEET 2020.
What is the size of the sample you have taken?
How many of those respondents were students taking JEE or NEET this year?
What is the reach of your Twitter handle that people know that there is a poll?
How do you know all the online respondents were Indian citizens?
Are you sure there were no responses from bots and fake accounts?
These self styled influencers were chest thumping on being an echo chamber to the voice of postponing the entrance tests. A few media organisations were trying to echo the sentiment.
The Ahmedabad Mirror, a sister publication of the Times of India, ran a report stating that 55.6% of students wanted the exams to be postponed. I wanted to have a look at their sample size and methodology before determining how accurate their projection is.
Each year almost 8 lakh students appear for JEE (Mains) exam. And the number of students that appear for NEET is an approximation between 13 lakhs to 15 lakhs (1.3 million – 1.5 million). The Ahmedabad Mirror had a sample size of 616 students combining both JEE and NEET aspirants from 60 selected schools in a particular city. With such a huge number of students appearing for the exams, the sample size of 616 students is too miniscule to map out a trend of displeasure.
While there has been a concerted campaign on social media trying to make a case for postponing exams, the other side of the divide is symbolically annihilated. There are parents and students who have opposed the move to postpone exams. They have raised their concerns when the exam was postponed earlier in July. These concerns were not given as much space in comparison with the media traction gained by advocates for delaying the exam.
A primary concern of a lot of students is the stress they are under due to continuous postponing of dates. They want the exam to be held at the earliest, so that they can begin laying the foundation for their professional career. But the possibility of the current academic year being a zero year is adding not helping matters.
Competing against 8-10 lakh students for a few thousand seats is challenging and taxing. If the current academic year becomes a zero year due to exams being postponed, the next year the current set of students will have to compete with the batch graduating out of class 12 next year. Imagine the agony and stress they would have to go through.
The age limit on exams is a factor mostly ignored. There are students who are giving the JEE and NEET exams again because the scores they have received in their previous attempts did not make the cut-offs. Some of these students have up to 2-3 gap years.
For a candidate to be eligible for JEE (Advanced) and NEET, they need to be below 25 years of age. Students who have dropped out midway through other courses and have prepared for a career change are banking on these exams being held. If they cross the age threshold, they might not be able to pursue their ambitions.
With continuous delays in conducting the exam, many students are losing interest and are giving up on the possibility of getting admission this year. Postponing exams once again will remove the chance to begin classes this year and might impact many lives.
The students who want the exams postponed and fear that they might be infected with COVID have genuine concerns. But the space ceded to just one narrative and forcing postponement of the exams without taking all possibilities into consideration is playing with the lives of students.
No one is forcing the students to write the exams. And the chances of being infected with the virus are just as good when an individual goes out to buy grocery, or make a visit to the saloon. Giving the exam has a similar amount of risk. It is up to the student to decide if he or she wants to give the exam.
The guidelines issued by the government list that the students have to give a self declaration of their interest to give the exam despite the COVID situation. Further delaying the exam might convert the academic year into a zero year and all students will have to take the exam next year.
It is better if we leave the decision of writing exams to the students. Those who want to take the exam can participate in the admission process this year and others who are apprehensive can give their exam the next year.
In conclusion, let the students decide if they want to give the exam. I would also take the opportunity to apologise for putting this piece up at the eleventh hour instead of putting it up earlier.