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Cleaning up the NEET mess

Courts and PILs

July 29,2013

India Today

India’s system of higher education consists of powerful statutory regulators: AICTE, MCI, UGC, NCTE and those for architectural, pharma, veterinary, indigenous medicine and other higher educations.

At once greedy for money, status and power, these regulators fight each other for turf and importance. Corruption is rampant and resulted in to Parliament putting in a Board of Governors to replace the Medical Council. The MCI wants to be frontline and imagines new ways of asserting its authority and importance.

What has intoxicated the regulatory tendrils is the judicially recognised fact in TMA Pai (2002) that higher education has changed immeasurably into a huge public-private partnership. This has increased the regulatory empires of MCI, AICTE and the like. On the flip side it has increased their lust for power and the spoils of regulation – with private colleges (some worthy and some not) grovelling before these authorities.


In the 11 judge TMA Pai verdict (2002) the apex court saw the need for standards and education but was worried that the State would treat private colleges as providers of largesse or treat them as “government departments.” The Court therefore sought to protect the autonomy of private institutions in four significant areas (i) admissions and selection of students, (ii) financial autonomy, (iii) selection of staff and their discipline, (iv) management. Two caveats were added (a) standards were to be laid down and overseen by statutory regulators; and, (b) independent admission committees would ensure clean merit-based education without capitation fee and finance committees would ensure probity. Each committee was to be headed by retired High Court judges.

To minimise too many individual college tests, room was made for state tests and collegiate tests whereby like-minded colleges grouped together to hold independently administered tests. MCI was a party to these decisions and bound by them. But, uneasy lies the head that thinks it wears an imperial crown. AICTE started the quest for an All-India admission under its control. Some Supreme Court judges liked the idea. The MCI decided to totally take over entrance admissions and announced a NEET test for graduate and post graduate courses irrespective of state, region or institutions, contrary to the Supreme Court decisions and contrary to the MCI Act which gave them no power to do so.

In the NEET judgment of the Supreme Court (18 July 2013), the Court divided 2 judges: 1 judge against the MCI usurpation of monopoly power, which was the principal issue. The MCI Act allowed regulation and prescription of standards (even for tests) but not to take over admissions. Equally, the judgments of the Supreme Courts were crystal clear that government admission would be made by government devised tests and private college admissions (especially those of minority and unaided institutions) by collegiate tests – each with oversight committees.

The MCI had simply acted illegally and overreached itself. To change this situation, MCI needed not only to amend its MCI Act but also ensure reversal of 7 and 11 judge benches of the Supreme Court.

In Justice Dave’s spirited dissent, that the MCI had the power on the basis of an analogy that “even (in)… manufacturing, (the attempt is) to make (the)… final product excellent. Principle is no different in the field of education.” Unexceptional for manufacturing, but a bad analogy.

It was no one’s case that the best product eluded the present system. The Supreme Court in Preeti’s case (1999) decided that the relaxation of standards by states had to be reasonable and in the AIIMS case (2013) that specialties and super specialties were exempt from reservation.

Supervision over collegiate and state tests existed; and this ensured that these complied with the Supreme Court’s ‘Inamdar’ (2005) triple test of being fair, transparent and non-exploitative.


NEET was obviously MCI and the Union’s brain wave. But the NEET tests themselves had their peculiarities. The test was more a question and answer aptitude test. There were to be different answer sheets for different students. To get a fair standard, tougher answer sheets were to be equalised against not so tough ones, the equivalents to be worked out by different people differently.

Further standards could be lowered.

The cut-off was not a percentage but a percentile and could vary. If the first 50 per cent candidates got much lower than 50 per cent that would be the cut off. Again, unlike with State and collegiate tests, the best would go to some states and institutions and other states and institutions would look at the bottom of the NEET barrel for students.


Some have argued that a one-time NEET test is good for students. This is not how most students felt. The test was like a draw of lots forfeiting options. As with selections all over the world, the system of selection is based on choice. Choice of an institution by the student if they have reached a certain level. Choice of the institution for the kind of students they want.

Christian College Vellore wants students who will work in rural areas. So, do some states. This system of choice is at the heart of a good merit-based counselling.

To assimilate all this into ‘All-India tests’ run by a power hungry MCI whose regulatory reputation is blemished seems an unworthy experiment. It is also beyond the MCI’s statutory power and an infringement of Constitutional guarantees, which form the basis of how the private-public partnership would work in medical and higher education.

Looked at every which why, the MCI’s NEET test is not so neat.


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