On June 22, Centre constituted a high-level committee to look at ways for reforming the process in the conduct of examinations by the National Testing Agency (NTA). The development came after malpractices were reported in the conduct of National Eligibility cum Entrance Test- Undergraduate (NEET-UG).

The model that is being considered for adoption is the one used by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to conduct its Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) every year. Just like the NEET for medical colleges, JEE is one of the most prestigious examinations in the country. JEE, conducted in two stages, has had its share of troubles in the past. In 2021, manipulation at an exam center in Haryana led to a CBI inquiry. However, the integrity of the process has never been under doubt. JEE has had some success in fighting the attempts of the coaching industry to game the examination.

The first stage of IIT-JEE, called JEE (Mains) is now conducted by NTA, with some involvement of the IITs. The second stage, JEE (Advanced), is handled entirely by the IITs themselves.

Pros and cons of computer-based tests

The key difference between NEET and JEE is that the latter is now an entirely computer-based exam. Both the stages are held at designated computer centers, run by a unit of Tata Consultancy Services. It helps that a far lesser number of students appear for JEE than NEET. In recent years, about ten lakh students have taken JEE (Mains), about two lakh of whom qualified to take JEE (Advanced). In contrast, about 23-24 lakh students have taken NEET in recent years.

The TCS test centers can together accommodate about two lakh students at a time. Therefore, JEE (Advanced) can be conducted in one session. JEE (Mains), however, is held over multiple sessions — each session has a different question paper with comparable difficulty level.

Festive offer

There are other companies that have similar infrastructure in different cities to conduct computer-based tests, but they have smaller capacities. Except 2022, JEE has been conducted at the TCS centers since the online examinations started in 2017.

An online test removes several vulnerabilities from the examination process like the possibility of question paper leak during transportation and distribution to the centers. It also reduces the involvement of outside agencies such as a printing press or a transport company. The ongoing probe into the irregularities in NEET has highlighted these vulnerabilities.

But online tests introduce new risks like that of technology-based irregularities, and digital impersonation. For instance, in 2021, one entire center in Haryana’s Sonepat was duplicated, and remote access of the computers at the actual center was given to ‘solvers’. Subsequently, the TCS test centers were banned, and other centers were used for the 2022 JEE. The centers began to be used again from 2023 only after TCS enhanced security and plugged loopholes at the test centers. In this case, the problem was localized and could be contained. A CBI investigation is still pending in the matter.

Close supervision of IITs

In 1997, a bigger embarrassment happened for the IITs when question papers of all the three subjects — physics, chemistry, and mathematics — were leaked a few hours before the entrance test. The examination, which used to be pen and paper type back then, had to be canceled and rescheduled.

Since then, JEE has undergone several changes, including the introduction of a two-stage process a few years later for other reasons.

For JEE (Mains) now, the IITs are involved mainly in the question-setting phase. The other processes are taken care of by the NTA. But for JEE (Advanced), the IITs control the entire examination process, which begins almost a year in advance with the nomination of a JEE chairman and vice-chairman at each of the institutes. The seven older IITs have a more active role to play with each one of them taking turns to become the main organizer.

The IITs take great care to ensure that question papers are prepared in complete secrecy. Two groups work in two different cities to prepare two different sets of questions for each of the three subjects. Each group has one faculty member of each of the seven older IITs. These groups are made fresh every year, and none of the other faculty members at the IITs are aware who all have been nominated to prepare the question papers for the year.

The two sets of question papers are handed over to the JEE chairman, who alone decides which of the two sets would be used for the examinations.

The test centers are given access to the question papers a couple of hours before the scheduled start of the test. The IITs depute two to three of its faculty members at each of the test centers to supervise the process. Earlier, when JEE used to be a pen and paper examination, it used to be IIT staff themselves who would carry the question papers to each of the test centers.

The active involvement of the IITs in the entrance examination has been one of the main reasons why the sanctity of has been maintained, according to the people who have been previously involved with JEE.

“IITs and its faculty members have a lot of stakes in this system. In a way, it is not just about the reputation of the institute, but also our livelihoods. If admissions are not done properly, then our own careers are over. So, there is a very strong sense of ownership,” a faculty member who has been involved with the process in the past said.

Another faculty member, now retired from IIT, said the control over the examination was probably the key distinguishing factor between the JEE and the NEET.

“Earlier, AIIMS used to conduct their own examinations. There was never a question about its credibility. IIMs conduct their examinations and that too goes on smoothly. One problem, of course, is the very large number of students appearing for NEET. There is a huge gap in demand and supply of seats in medical colleges. That raises the stakes and makes people willing to pay any amount to get an advantage at the entrance. I think this question needs to be addressed too. But in the meantime, creating computer-based testing capacities should be one of the biggest priorities of the NTA now. NEET is too important an exam to be allowed to have these kinds of weaknesses,” he said.