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NEET-UG row: What is NTA? Why was it formed and how does it conduct exams

Modeled after the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the US, the agency's development was furthered in 2013 when the Ministry of Human Resource Development (now the Ministry of Education) formed a task force to devise plans. The establishment of the NTA was officially announced in 2017, followed by Cabinet approval.

Amid controversies surrounding the NEET UG exam, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has emphasised the need for reform and improvements in the NTA. On Saturday (22nd June), the government announced a high-level committee of experts to ensure transparent, smooth, and fair conduct of examinations. The expert panel will make recommendations to further improve NTA, its structure, functioning, examination process, transparency, and data security protocols. 

This panel will be headed by Dr. K Radhakrishnan, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairperson and the chairman of the board of governors, IIT Kanpur. The other members of the panel include – 

  • Dr. Randeep Guleria, former director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)
  • Prof. BJ Rao, vice chancellor of Central University of Hyderabad
  • Prof. Ramamurthy K, Professor Emeritus, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras
  • Pankaj Bansal, co-founder, of People Strong and Board Member- of Karmayogi Bharat
  • Prof. Aditya Mittal, Dean of Student Affairs at IIT Delhi
  • Govind Jaiswal, joint secretary at the Ministry of Education (member secretary)

According to a statement from the Ministry of Education, the high-level panel will analyze the entire examination process and recommend ways to enhance system efficiency. The panel will conduct a comprehensive review of the National Testing Agency’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and propose measures to fortify them. Additionally, the members will recommend monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance at every stage.

NTA’s Origin story

While the government has announced a panel to improve the NTA, it’s important to note that the agency was established seven years ago to overhaul the examination process and address the shortcomings that had plagued state-level exam bodies and multiple other agencies. The call for establishing such an agency through legislation has been voiced for several decades. 

Incidentally, the agency’s inception can be traced back to the Programme of Action 1992, which advocated for national-level common entrance tests as outlined in the National Policy on Education 1986. 

In 2010, a committee of directors from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) recommended establishing the agency through legislation to ensure autonomy and transparency. Modeled after the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the US, the agency’s development was furthered in 2013 when the Ministry of Human Resource Development (now the Ministry of Education) formed a task force to devise plans. The establishment of the NTA was officially announced in 2017, followed by Cabinet approval.

The demand for the NTA arose from concerns over shortcomings in state-level exam-conducting bodies and the need to streamline the process for students who had to independently clear multiple entrance exams. 

In a statement, the HRD ministry said, “The rationale for setting up the NTA lies in ensuring that multiplicity of entrance examinations leading to stress on the students is addressed comprehensively by formulating a uniform entrance examination for admissions in different branches of higher learning.”

National Testing Agency

In 2017, the central government established the National Testing Agency (NTA) as an autonomous body under the Department of Higher Education within the Union Ministry of Education. It conducts examinations for admissions and fellowships in higher education institutions. Currently, it is responsible for conducting various national-level exams for admission and recruitment in fields such as engineering, medicine, management, and pharmacy including JEE Main, NEET-UG, NET, CMAT, and GPAT. Overall, it conducts 15 highly competitive entrance exams for admissions to higher educational institutions.

With an initial budget of Rs 25 crore for its first year, it became operational on 5th September 2018 and conducted only the UGC-NET exam in the first year of its functioning. From 2019 onwards, it gradually started taking over the responsibility for other exams. Currently, it oversees more than 2,546 centres. 

The NTA is officially registered as a society under the Societies (Registration) Act, of 1860. Initially, it administered exams previously managed by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), as well as the CMAT and GPAT exams designated by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

At present, the agency is led by former UPSC chairperson Pradeep Kumar Joshi. Its governing body comprises a team of 14, including directors from esteemed institutions such as three IITs, two NITs, and two IIMs, along with other educational and medical experts and bureaucrats. 

As per its mandate, the NTA handles everything from test preparation to delivery and marking in a “scientific manner,” consulting with subject matter experts and psychometricians throughout the process.

Major controversies over the years

In 2021, the JEE Main exam was compromised when Russian national Mikhail Shargen hacked the exam software, benefiting over 800 candidates. This breach allowed students to cheat by enabling teachers or coaches to take control of their computers and take the test on their behalf, according to NDTV. 

Additionally, there have been a few cases of gross misreporting of student numbers which, although not a major controversy that could raise questions about the functioning of the NTA, eliminating such errors is paramount, as they significantly affect individual students.

Over the years, the exams conducted by the NTA have faced allegations including a lack of transparency in allocating grace marks, issues of technical glitches at exam centers, and instances of hacking/fixing. However, many of these issues, such as technical glitches, inadequate infrastructure, malpractice, and corrupt activities, often arise due to the involvement of officials at a few local centers. This underscores the need for increased scrutiny in the selection process of examination centers.

How does NTA select centres for examination?

The NTA claims to follow a rigorous process to select exam centres. Initially, it identifies potential centres from a list that includes government schools previously used by CBSE and the NTA. The performance of these schools as exam centres is reviewed, and AICTE-recognized institutions and colleges may also be considered. Once a final list is created, the NTA seeks permission from the schools and conducts background checks on new centres.

A third-party organization is contracted to evaluate the exam centres and their management. This includes assessing infrastructure, and seating capacity, and ensuring the absence of conflicts of interest, particularly with coaching institutes. The centres must also be accessible and friendly to the differently-abled. Any centre with a poor record is blacklisted by the NTA. A virtual tour is conducted to inspect security measures, including personnel at key entry and exit points.

The NTA, which will be reformed as per the recommendations of the recently constituted expert panel, has been formulated as a major stride in the process of streamlining the exam process, overcoming loopholes faced by previous agencies, and incorporating decades of suggestions from educational experts and institutions.

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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