By: Srijan Jha
Higher education in the country is coveted and selection in the prestigious universities and institutes is governed through exams as they provide a transparent display of merit and standings against constructions on what has been taught uniformly across the country. Unlike the application-based admission system of the West, the race here is to finish above everyone else to secure a seat in the dream college. This year as well, we saw clearing entrance exams as a criterion for selection, and with these exams arose the incidents of discrepancies, authorities’ misconducts, mistakes and frivolous litigation. This article focuses on judicial intervention in the set pattern and the legal recourse if the need so arises.
Before we head straight to the point of judicial intervention, it is important to look at the prevailing examination system. These entrance examinations, can be organised by a State authority or by a consortium of participating universities or by a particular body for exclusive admissions; the scores of which can be accepted by other non-participating institutions as well, unless it is the selection in the medical field, where all the Central, State, Municipal and private bodies providing MBBS degrees are mandated to provide entrance on the sole basis of performance under All India Entrance Examination. Following the examination, the results are announced in the stipulated time across public platforms and the students head for the counselling process. In the counselling, the candidates are offered a seat of the highest preference that has not been taken by the higher rank holders. With successive rounds of such counselling, followed sometimes by a mop-up round to fill up all the vacant seats, the candidates are directed towards the admission process.
The process is transparent and is conducted solely on the ground of merit determined by the entrance examination. One more thing to be noted here is the aspect of limited seats. The number of candidates that can be selected in a particular year is fixed because of the tangible reasons such as availability of classrooms, teaching facilities and residential facilities, and hence, the concept of carrying over of vacant seats in the next year becomes pointless unless additions in the infrastructure are carried out at individual institutions.
JUDICIAL INTERVENTION AND REVIEW
Every year, lakhs of students put in hard work but the results cannot please each and every one of them, given the paltry selections against the applications. The dissatisfaction can rightly originate from discrepancies in the examination questions, irregularities in counselling or admission process or rejection from the institutes with vacancies. Recently, in the judgment of Education Promotion Society for India v Union of India, the question of admission in cases of vacancy and alleged discrepancy came up again, just like every year. The petitioner, who claimed to be representing the interests of medical colleges that give admission in UG and PG courses had come up to the Supreme Court (hereinafter ‘SC’) seeking an extension in the counseling process as there were over 1000 seats left vacant in PG medical courses, in the wake of need of more doctors. Arguing for the same, the petitioner provided the incidence of Himank Goyal v Union of India where the SC had allowed the filling up of 553 seats by the Director-General of Health Services on the request of Central Government. However, rejecting this line of argument of the petitioner, the SC opined that the vacant seats at that point were not the clinical branch seats in reputed colleges, rather they were majorly in non-clinical branches in less sought private institutions, and the motive behind this petition for an extension of the deadline was more profit-driven than to fill the acute shortage of doctors in the country. The SC also reiterated that the extension orders by the courts so provided by the petitioners were not intended to be used as precedents and also pointed how important it is to have a uniform admission process across all disciplines to further the cause of Article 14 of our Constitution and Medical Council of India Rules.
The disadvantages of extensions of deadlines were pointed by the Allahabad High Court (hereinafter ‘HC’), in 2018, as:
- Delay and unauthorised extension of schedules defeat the principle of admission on merit, especially in relation to the preferential choice of colleges and courses; a price which the meritorious students pay.
- Midstream admissions will be permitted under the garb of extended counselling or by extension of periods for admission.
- These delays in admissions and starting of the course lead to a lowering of the standards of education.
- The highly competitive standards for admission to such colleges stand frustrated because of non-adherence to the prescribed time schedules.
Accordingly, the HCs and the respective governments have been requested to strictly adhere to the prescribed timeline.
THE RIGHT TO COMPLAIN
It may appear that there is no legal remedy available once the competitive exam procedure has begun, for the sole reason of protection and encouragement of talent. This, however, is not true. It is the candidates’ fundamental positive right under Article 14 to be uniformly subjected to the same process as the other students. The recourse available is in the writ jurisdiction of HCs and the SC, under Article 226 and Article 32 respectively, and in the form of complaints to the exam conducting authorities.
Questions will be raised in the events of misconduct of the authorities. In 2017, the SSC examination was tainted with allegations of the questions being leaked beforehand. The same saw a huge wave of agitation by thousands of students and setting up of a 7-member committee by the SC for looking into the matter. Not just this, CLAT 2014 saw discrepancies and re-release of results. JEE 2013 and JNU entrance exam 2019 saw discrepancies in the questions asked, as the answers provided in the answer key were not correct. In this light, it is commendable to mention that the authorities sometimes do look at the legitimate problems and existence of complaints, as (1) the MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) had extended the deadline for JEE-Mains applications for the candidates in cyclone-affected Odisha, earlier this year and (2) UPSC had granted a 7 day window to appeal for discrepancy in the questions post the respective stages of Civil Services Examinations.
There are two important principles involved: (1) Remedies do not come from legislation, but by the wrongs alleged in every individual complaint and (2) the process of conducting competitive exams is sacrosanct and shall not be reviewed unless there is a gross error.
Re-evaluations and re-examinations are indeed methods of protecting the quality and providing equal opportunity, but they come along with loss of the valuable years of preparations, machinery and resources put in the examinations. At the same time, there is a dearth of professionals so needed for an entire year, with no carry forward option available. These constraints make the exams to be conducted by their respective set of rules which are disclosed at the time of application unless there is a huge human error.
SC has seen the two extremes of this proposition. In the 2017 UPPSC Upper Subordinate Examinations, SC overturned the Allahabad HC’s order of re-evaluation of the paper, on the ground of a few wrong answers, saying that ‘the sanctity of an examination would be lost if courts through their power of judicial review keep interfering with the decisions taken by authorities conducting competitive tests.’ On the other hand, SC in its decision of Asha v BD Sharma University of Health had held that protecting the candidate from a manifest negligent error on the part of the authorities where no fault is attributable to a candidate and she is denied admissions on arbitrary decisions, the schedule/rules should not be permitted to operate as a bar to admission particularly when it would result in ruining professional career of a meritorious candidate.
The SC is the legal guardian of the fundamental rights, and the authorities also work for the selection of the most meritorious candidates. Concluding, the proper recourse after crying foul in any competitive entrance examination is getting back into the loop of admission for the timely beginning of a new academic session, and not in delaying the procedure for everyone with extensions. This recourse is only available after the candidates have successfully undertaken all the prescribed steps or there has been a gross error on the part of the authorities. The former demands successful participation of the candidates in the process while the latter requires a gross error on the part of the authorities.
(Srijan is a graduate from Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.)