New Delhi: Deepak Kumar, a science student of class 11 preparing for JEE (mains), appeared happy and relaxed as he walked into his weekend classes in Delhi's Kalu Sarai, a veritable hub of engineering and medical entrance coaching centres.
According to his friends, his countenance displayed a marked change since the HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar's surprise announcement on Sunday informing students that they can now appear for the crucial National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main twice a year.
"I am overjoyed. This is the most important examination of our lives and we are all working very hard to do well. But we all have bad days. The new reform has given me encouragement that all will not be lost if I do not get through in the first try," Deepak Kumar said.
Deepak is one of many who have lauded the HRD Minister's announcements to conduct NEET and JEE(M) examinations twice a year.
As part of reforms introduced to the structure of the crucial, state-supervised examinations, Javadekar further announced that instead of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) that was so far responsible for the tests, the newly formed National Testing Agency will now be conducting the examinations.
Aspirants can now appear twice for the same seat and the best of the two scores shall be considered for the admission.
NTA will also take over conducting the UGC-NET examinations which were earlier conducted by the CBSE.
Another major announcement Javadekar made was that from now all examinations will be held online and students only have the option to appear for the tests online.
Abhinandan, a school pass-out and currently preparing for JEE(M) from Fitjee in Kalu Sarai said that making the tests online would help students save precious time during exams.
"The OMR sheets that earlier had to be manually filled in were tedious and required a lot of time and unnecessary effort. Students also had to answer correctly at one go or the answer would stand cancelled. Online OMR sheets will allow students to review their answers and change the response if they need to," said Abhinandan.
Other students also felt that the two exams will give an opportunity to those who have weaknesses to polish their flaws before the next sitting.
"Students can look at this as a pre-selection exam before the final examination. If one has weaknesses, they will be found out during the first try. I think it is an excellent decision," engineering aspirant Pooja Soni told News18.
Pooja's views were echoed by RK Mishra, Director and HOD of Physics at 'The Guidance Classes' in Kalu Sarai.
"It is a specially good news for weaker students and the timing is also perfect. Earlier the JEE main entrance was held right after Class 12 boards and thus students would often be divided between devoting time to boards and to JEE preparations. Now the exams are more easily timed and students can actually get some time to breathe," Mishra said.
However not all students were as optimistic as that.
Luck vs Merit
"The NTA will conduct the examinations in batches of four. That means there will be eight sets of question papers for the same seat. It is bound to create confusion and discrimination among test takers as not all question papers will be equally tough or easy," Ankit Singh, who is currently studying for JEE (M) at the Guidance Classes.
"Many students will feel alienated if they receive a particularly tough paper instead of an easy one that their friend taking the other sitting received," Ankit further warned.
The concern was also reiterated by students online, with many questioning the validity of the decision:
Sir my focus is on neet As per your notification neet will be conducted in 8 sittings . This means 8 different type of papers . For the same seat 8 different papers , it's not fair .don't spoil it like CGL . Kindly have the same paper for all students as per supreme court guide — Prince Singh (@Lovely2lyf) July 7, 2018
@PrakashJavdekar Sir, if exams on different dates will have different question paper then how can we ensure that there will be same difficulty level of each paper and no discrimination in marks list(merit list)?? #neet #neet2019 #NEET — Hussain Bayazeed (@HussainBayazeed) July 7, 2018
IIT Roorkee alumni Rahul Parmar agreed that the decision was borderline absurd.
"From a merit-based system of testing, the exam patterns is going to become more luck based. It's not like the reforms bring any changes in the question paper in terms of its structure - questions will still be objective, which isn't entirely a bad thing for JEE (M). This will just increase more unfair assessment and re-checking of answer sheets at students' cost," Parmar said.
No 'NET' gains
NET aspirants appearing from humanities also criticised the reforms as being incomplete.
"NET is primarily an entrance for teachers. As a PhD student studying modern history, I find it problematic that ancient and medieval history are clubbed in an MCQ format in the question papers. there is a lack of scope for me to prove my intellectual prowess since the structure of questions is restrictive and more in tandem with engineering question paper patterns," Saib Bilaval, a third year PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University said.
NET aspirant and literarture student Bidisha Chandra from Kolkata agreed with Said, claiming that irrespective of who was responsible for conducting the tests, students were likely to suffer if the question patterns were not changes.
"It doesn't matter which agency is conducting it, CBSE or NTA. I feel the whole pattern of testing is unscientific. If the NTA can bring in substantial change in how a literature student will be evaluated for NTA, then I will be satisfied. " Bidisha told said.
Many have also questioned the fact that higher number of selected students also need to translate into an equal number of seats.
"Would there be enough vacancies? Because if not, then conducting examinations twice will only lead to more college-less students," Jadavpur University student and NET aspirant Manaswini Sen wrote on Facebook.
However the strongest criticism came from students pursuing NEET.
Sangeeta (name-changed), an MBBS aspirant studying at Akash Medical Institute in Noida's Sec 18 told News18 that the new rules could end up creating more confusion.
"Earlier the CBSE told Supreme Court that there will be just one common question paper for all NEET entrance examinations after CBSE's mismanagement of the multiple question papers system. Who's to say that a new body will not suffer from the same problems? It's not like there are any efforts to help improve student quality," Sangeeta said.
Rural students may suffer
NEET aspirants also raised questions against the decision to go entirely online with the tests.
"Many medical applicants come from villages and not have computer literacy at par with their city-dwelling counterparts. In case of a fully digital test, many who are not well versed with technology shall suffer. There are so many who still get their online exam forms filled by the cyber cafe owner," said 19-year-old Rita Sahu, who studies at a private Kota institute.
Rita also added that considering the number of suicides, exam procedures needed to be simplified for students, not made more complicated.
The government in Tamil Nadu, a state already rife with contentious debates about the NEET examination, has refused to accept the reform to conduct NEET twice a year claiming that six months was too short a span to allow students to re-take an examination.
The Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) in Tamil Nadu have also opposed the move, attacking the union government for creating confusion among students appearing for medical entrance tests. In Feb 2017, the state had adopted two Bills which sought Tamil Nadu's exemption from NEET.
However, most students looked forward to the National Testing Agency taking charge of the examinations.
"The only reason these exams were not held twice a year was because of lack of manpower and bad management on CBSE's end. NTA, which is single a body specifically for conducting examinations,should help bring in some transparency," Promit Mookherjee, former Delhi University student and NET aspirant told News18.
"I am looking forward to giving the exams in December without having to wait till next year." Promit said.