How exam scandals threaten the future of India's young people

 Candidates leave after appearing for National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET-UG) exam at Cambridge school in Sector 27 Noida on May 5, 2024 in India
More than two million aspirants competed for over 110,000 medical college seats this year [AFP]

Last week, on a blistering day in Delhi, Kavya Mukhija travelled for hours to take a crucial government-run exam for entry-level teaching positions at Indian universities.

The 25-year-old freelance researcher and disability activist uses a wheelchair as she has a rare congenital condition of stiff joints and found the exam centre difficult to access. The road outside was dug up, the steep ramps were unusable for wheelchairs – and the centre itself did not have a wheelchair.

If all this was not enough, a ruder shock awaited her.

A day after taking the four-hour test, with her caregiver mother waiting outside in the sweltering heat, authorities cancelled the UGC-NET - as the exam is called - which had been taken by over 900,000 candidates across more than 300 cities.

The education ministry initially put out a cryptic statement saying the “integrity of the exam may have been compromised”. A day later, minister Dharmendra Pradhan admitted the question paper had been leaked on social media platform Telegram and on the “dark net”.

“I feel very angry. It’s like a double whammy for me. I don’t think I have the energy to go through this exam again,” Kavya told me.

Kavya Mukhija
Kavya Mukhija says she has no energy to sit for a retest after her exam was cancelled [BBC]

Nearly 1,000km (600 miles) away in the city of Patna, Archit Kumar faces a similar challenge.

In May, the 19-year-old aspiring doctor sat for a 200-minute nationwide government-run undergraduate exam where 2.4 million aspirants competed for over 110,000 medical college seats.

A scandal erupted shortly after the exam – four people were arrested in Bihar state for allegedly leaking the question papers of what is called the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate), or NEET-UG exam.

There were widespread allegations of cheating, with many candidates scoring suspiciously high marks. Aspirants openly reported being cold-called by touts demanding up to 3m rupees ($35,918; £28,384) for question papers just hours before the exam. Some even recorded the calls as evidence.

Many students and parents are demanding a re-test, with numerous petitions filed in courts for the purpose – and the Supreme Court is examining this. Mr Pradhan ordered an investigation and admitted “some errors limited to specific regions” had happened. He said the fate of millions of aspirants would not be held hostage for “some isolated incidents”.

Archit Kumar studied 12 hours a day for two years to prepare for an exam which is now compromised [BBC]

None of this comforts Archit.

For the past two years, he had given up his social life – avoiding even meeting friends – and studied up to 12 hours daily for one of the world’s most competitive exams. Scoring 625 out of the final 720 marks, he secured an all-India rank of 53,000.

“This has come as a shock. There’s a lot of anxiety. I have a friend who sat for the exam for the fifth consecutive time this year. Imagine his state. Imagine if we have to sit for a retest. I have forgotten so many things,” says Archit.

India’s examination system is in chaos. To be sure, cheating and paper leaks have long plagued exams. But now, major exams managed by the state-run National Testing Agency (NTA), including those taken by Kavya and Archit, appear compromised. In the past month, alleged paper leaks and manipulated marks in these exams have put the futures of 3.5 million aspirants at risk. Last week, three other public exams conducted by the government were either cancelled or postponed, affecting another 1.3 million candidates.

“Things have gotten worse. There’s a mafia-like nexus of teachers, touts and people who run exam centres which is creating this situation,” says Maheshwer Peri, an educationist who has been tracking paper leaks.

NEET exam candidates and their parents protest against cancellation of Neet Re-Exam at Jantar Mantar on June 12, 2024 in Delhi
Candidates and their parents have protested against test scandals [Getty Images]

Mr Peri says touts typically contact aspirants, demanding payment for question papers, sometimes even accepting post-dated cheques. In written exams, they leak papers to the candidates in advance and supply solved answers for them to memorise. During online exams, touts gather candidates' digital credentials to remotely access their computers and answer questions on their behalf.

Things are worse in state exams. Question papers for various local government recruitment exams are frequently leaked amid fierce competition for jobs in an economy where most positions are largely informal, insecure, and low-paying.

Recruitment exams for policemen, foresters, engineers, veterinarians and income-tax inspectors have been affected by leaks in the past. Papers have been leaked on WhatsApp, and stolen from storerooms. Suspects have hacked into servers of private companies handling exams. In 2022, Delhi police busted a major online cheating ring, helping candidates to cheat in top exams. They had hired Russian hackers to develop undetectable software, allowing them to remotely hack computers in exam centres.

Earlier this year The Indian Express newspaper investigated an astonishing 41 documented instances of paper leaks in recruitment exams over the past five years across 15 states, led by governments of different parties.

Congress leader and MP Rahul Gandhi with party spokesman Jairam Ramesh, addressing media person on the issue of Neet Exam at AICC HQ on June 20, 2024 in Delhi
Opposition parties have protested against paper leaks - they have become a hot-button political issue [Getty Images]

It found that the leaks had affected schedules for some 14 million applicants vying for just over 100,000 posts. Things have been so bad that paper leaks became a hot-button issue in states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana during recent elections. Most are now ruled by PM Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

In 2015, the most audacious exam cheating scandal rocked Vyapam, a government office in Madhya Pradesh overseeing more than 50 exams for government jobs and local medical colleges.

Question papers were leaked, answer sheets rigged, impersonators - themselves bright, young students - were hired to sit for candidates and seats were sold to the highest bidder. Complicit teachers filled incomplete sheets, boosting grades.

“We have created an education system which encourages such fraud,” says Mr Peri.

For one, there is a yawning gap between demand from students and supply of seats, coupled with concerns over affordability.

 Delhi police arrested two private school teachers and a one tuition teacher from the national capital on Sunday for allegedly leaking CBSE question papers before the exam, on April 1, 2018 in New Delhi, India. The teachers, Rishabh and Rohit, took photos of the Class 12 economics question paper and shared it with Tauqeer (26), a tutor at Easy Class Coaching Centre, in outer Delhi's Bawana, almost an hour before the exam started, RP Upadhyay, special commissioner of police (crime), said.
Private school and tuition teachers were arrested in Delhi for leaking high school exam papers in Delhi in 2018 [Getty Images]

The fact that 2.4 million students competed for just 110,000 medical college seats this year underlines the immense pressure and fierce competition. Of these some 55,000-60,000 seats are in government-run colleges, with the remainder in private institutions. Half of these seats are reserved for underprivileged students.

Students prefer government colleges due to their affordability – a five-year MBBS course in a government college costs between 500,000 and 1m rupees, whereas private colleges can charge up to 10 times more.

Many believe India's jobs crisis is largely to blame for this. "This is largely a skills crisis," economist Karthik Muralidharan notes in his new book, Accelerating India’s Development. "Millions of educated youth are unemployed, yet employers struggle to find adequately skilled manpower."

The education system's emphasis on passing exams through cramming leaves many students lacking understanding of subjects and practical skills valued by employers. India’s young would be better served through improving skilling and vocational education, Mr Muralidharan says. He also emphasises the need for exam system reforms to not only capture students' marks and rankings, but also their skills and knowledge.

Aspirants undergo a security check before entering the exam centre as they arrive to appear for the NEET exam at Bal Bhavan Public school, on May 7, 2023 in New Delhi, India.
Aspirants undergo a security check before entering the medical college exam centre [Getty Images]

For the moment, the government has promised a rigorous probe into the latest scandals and Mr Pradhan, the minister, has taken “moral responsibility” for the loss of faith among students.

Much more needs to be done. It's unclear if a new anti-cheating law for government jobs and college entrance exams has been a deterrent. Mr Peri questions why authorities don't conduct basic "hygiene" checks during the compilation of exam results. He suggests that authorities should investigate any irregularities if, say, six top scorers are from one exam centre or students who performed poorly in high school top an undergraduate exam.

“That would be a basic, good start,” he says.

The students don't appear to be hopeful though.

"We are losing faith in our exam system,” says Archit. “We just don’t understand what is going on.”