The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) has again taken centre stage in Tamil Nadu’s political discourse. Governor R.N. Ravi’s remarks that he would never approve of banning the test in the State if it were up to him have triggered a row. This was followed by the unfortunate suicide of a student and his father after the former failed to secure a higher score in the test. The ruling DMK youth wing on Sunday last observed a day-long fast against NEET.
Against this backdrop, it would be interesting to look at Tamil Nadu’s chequered history with entrance examinations for professional courses. The AIADMK government of M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) had first introduced the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Examination (TNPCEE) in 1984-85. Curiously, such a proposal was mooted even in 1977 when the State was under the President’s rule. A report in The Hindu on March 31, 1977, soon after the Emergency was lifted, said the State government was examining a proposal to conduct an entrance examination for professional colleges for the 1977-78 academic year. The idea, however, was given a swift burial.
Charges of arbitrariness, corruption
The MGR government introduced TNPCEE after criticism mounted over the interview system, in force until then. Besides the Class XII marks, weightage was given to marks secured by students in the face-to-face interview, leading to allegations of arbitrariness, corruption and favouritism. An editorial by The Hindu in March 1984, endorsing TNPCEE, observed that “not a year passes without the final lists [of selected candidates] being challenged in courts of law”.
Despite opposition from the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and the DMK, MGR stood firm. While he defended the interview system, he said the government was introducing TNPCEE because of the Opposition propaganda that the interview system gave room for favouritism and corruption. He blamed the DMK for misusing the system when it was in power. The DK legally challenged the examination, arguing that it would be disadvantageous to the weaker sections from rural areas. However, the Madras High Court upheld it and the first entrance examinations in Tamil Nadu’s history took place on July 14 and 15, 1984.
A committee, headed by the then Vice-Chancellor of Anna University, V.C. Kulandaiswamy, oversaw the examinations. The tests were conducted separately for engineering, medicine and agriculture courses with 120 objective-type questions, each with a duration of two-and-a-half hours. Around 16,000 students for engineering, 13,000 for medicine and 8,000 for agriculture competed in the first edition for roughly 2,150, 1,100 and 460 seats available respectively. Albeit occasional legal and political challenges, TNPCEE continued, carrying a weightage of 100 marks. The marks calculated on the basis of the scores in the core subjects in Class XII carried a weightage for another 200 marks.
Single window system
In 1997, the government, prompted by the proliferation of self-financing engineering colleges and the Supreme Court’s judgment in the landmark Unnikrishnan case, introduced the single window system, implemented by Anna University, to streamline the admission to engineering courses. M. Anandakrishnan, who had stepped down as the Vice-Chancellor of Anna University in 1996 after serving two consecutive terms, was instrumental in establishing and fine-tuning the system, which was lauded for its efficiency and transparency.
There were rumblings though, with the self-financing engineering colleges — which had increased to around 250 by the early 2000s — attempting to conduct their own examinations. However, TNPCEE, combined with the single window system, continued undisturbed. However, in 2005, the then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, shocked everyone with the announcement that there would be no more entrance examinations and only the Class XII marks would be considered.
2005-06, a chaotic year
The government argued that with the proliferation of “teaching shops” in urban areas to train students for entrance examinations, the students from rural areas were at a disadvantage and a separate quota introduced by the government to ease the situation was struck down by courts. The year 2005-06 proved to be chaotic for students aspiring to join professional courses. Jayalalithaa announced the decision in the first week of June 2005. By then, the Class XII examination and TNPCEE results were published. The Madras High Court quickly struck down the government’s order and the government’s challenge in the Supreme Court failed.
Most other political parties, which were in support of abolishing the entrance examinations, asked the AIADMK government to enact a piece of legislation or promulgate an ordinance. Jayalalithaa said an Act might not be helpful as certain Central government regulations stood in the way. She said that instead of making such suggestions, the Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, which were sharing power at the Centre (as part of the United Progressive Alliance), should get these regulations changed.
State Board students exempted
After delays, the admission started in 2005 on the basis of the entrance examinations. In January 2006, the AIADMK government, in another surprise move, said the State Board students alone need not take the entrance examinations. It brought in the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Admission in Professional Courses Act to implement the decision. Doubts were immediately raised on whether the Act would stand legal scrutiny. Expectedly, the Madras High Court struck it down and the AIADMK lost power soon after. The DMK, which came to power in May 2006, set up an expert committee under Anandakrishnan for abolishing the entrance tests. After holding public hearings, receiving representations from around 3,000 persons and analysing admission-related data, the committee recommended that the admissions solely based on the Class XII marks could ensure merit, while preventing an additional burden on students and parents. A marks ‘normalisation’ method was adopted to ensure parity among students of different Boards of Education.
‘A bane for students’
The DMK government passed a piece of legislation to this effect, and it received the President’s assent, and was upheld by the judiciary. In an opinion article published in The Hindu in July 2007, Anandakrishnan argued how the entrance examinations were a bane for students of poor families and rural areas and students of Tamil medium. From 2007, the admission to professional courses went on unperturbed until NEET changed the status quo in the admission to medical courses. The admission to other professional courses is still based on Class XII marks.