NTA’s refusal to conduct NEET abroad makes it tough for medical aspirants

Students outside India who are registered to appear for the NEET, the entrance exam to medical colleges in India, are in a Catch-22 situation, on the horns of a dilemma. On Thursday, the National Testing Agency clarified that it is not possible to provide exam centres outside India for the NEET 2020. It also said that the pen and paper exam cannot be held online and has to be held in a single shift at the same time to maintain uniformity. 

This was in response to the demands by students and parents in the Gulf that like the JEE, they be allowed to take the NEET outside India because of the prevailing Covid-19 circumstances. 

Close to about 4000 students take the NEET in the Gulf and there are many in countries in Nepal and Singapore as well. The usual practise every year of course, is to choose an exam centre at a city in India where it is easy for them to get accommodation and is convenient to travel to from Dubai, Muscat, Doha. But this time, given the flight restrictions, they have requested for a test centre in the Gulf itself. 

They have signed an online petition, written letters to the PM, Education minister, Health minister, National Testing Agency (NTA) but it has not managed to make an impact. The offline exam is on 13 September as per the schedule released on 3 July by the NTA. 

Is the request by the students unjustifed? Is it unreasonable? In light of the present circumstances, not at all and the NTA could have done well to be flexible in this regard. Especially when it says everything will be done in the academic interest of students. 

Let us examine the issue in detail and see why the parents are seeking what they are seeking. 

1. There are no commercial flight operations right now. When I asked the NTA about this, the response was that Vande Bharat flights could be made use of in order to travel to India for the exam. But that is not without complications. The students and accompanying parent will have to undergo a quarantine. The rulebook says 7 days of institutional quarantine and 7 days of isolation in home quarantine. 

2. Then there are issues beyond the exam. Apart from the quarantine in India, parents accompanying children to India for NEET will have to  undergo quarantine once they get back to the country they live in. Parents tell me that in most companies these would be deemed to be unpaid leave and that is not a good situation given how the job scene is. 

3. The irony is that NTA that conducts the JEE as well, has centres for JEE in the UAE. In fact, JEE will be conducted in nine cities outside India  including Bahrain, Doha, Singapore, Kathmandu and Dubai. Now the problem comes for those students who are enrolled for both exams. JEE is between 1 and 6 September while NEET is on 13 September. It is impossible to appear for the JEE abroad, then travel to India by whatever means and complete the quarantine period before 13th.

4. Parents tell me that the Kerala Engineering Entrance Exam was conducted in Dubai on 16th July 2020. So they ask if JEE and Kerala entrance Exam could happen, why not NEET?

5. Parents from the UAE tell me they are not seeking an online exam. They point to the CBSE that conducts pen and paper Board exams at UAE schools for classes 10 and 12 and say NEET could be done in the same manner, with invigilation done by authorities in the Gulf. 

6. There is yet another practical problem that has been highlighted. Schools are scheduled to reopen in UAE on 1 September. Travelling for over a fortnight to India at this time would be a loss academically as well. 

But the NTA has been adamant none of these demands can be met. Here is why. 

1. It says JEE and NEET ought not to be compared. It says the question papers and other exam material have to be physically transported from NTA headquarters to more than 6000 centres across India which admittedly needs diligent planning for safe conduct of the exam. What is being implied is that if the question paper is sent outside India, there is apprehension that it could get leaked or that NTA may not have total control over it. 

The point is that the students are making this request because these are extraordinary circumstances. Could a one time exemption be made? Why is it that the agency is only thinking about its problem? Why is it not bothered about what it is subjecting 4000 candidates to? Why can’t an attempt be made to make things easier for the students, whose cause it is expected to represent?

2. Parents say if the NTA insists on a single day single shift exam at the same time for everyone – which is fair – the same can be done according to the Indian Standard Time, with the authorities in the Gulf supervising it. Surely that kind of cooperation is possible in a difficult situation.

3. Parents ask when the NTA can make arrangements for the exams and transport exam material to far flung areas across India, including towns in the hinterland, why should it be difficult to set up and arrange an exam in UAE and Qatar. 

The ball is now in the Supreme Court which has to decide on this case.

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