Is the National Testing Agency a public body or a private one? This is one of the key questions that has been raised in the controversy about the agency and its litany of failures in at least three crucial public examinations that it conducts.

Journalists and academics argued that as a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, the agency is a private body, although it has permission to use the emblem of the Indian government.

They circulated images of the agency’s certificate of registration and drew attention to the fact that it advised anyone dealing with it to make the “necessary verification (on their own)” of the organisation’s assets and liabilities “before entering into any contract/assignment with them”.

The certificate also stated that the organisation cannot use the “translated/abbreviated/acronym name and shall use the original name only with the caption that it is governed by a private body/ society and not government”.

In response to the criticism, the Press Information Bureau put out a post on X stating that the National Testing Agency fell within the ambit of the Right to Information law and that key personnel were appointed by the government. Two days later, the agency itself put out a post stating that it was established as an “autonomous and self sustained premier testing organisation” after “approval from the union government”.

In the argument over the National Testing Agency’s precise categorisation, what was less discussed were the specific ways in which it fails to meet the standards of transparency and accountability that an organisation of its kind should meet.

“There is no doubt that the agency has to be held accountable in the same way that other government bodies are, especially because it is dealing with such a critical purpose that affects lakhs of students,” said Sasikanth Senthil, the recently elected member of Lok Sabha from Tiruvallur in Tamil Nadu and a former Indian Administrative Service officer. “They have to be completely transparent about the way they function and what their finances are.”

Scroll emailed queries about criticism to the National Testing Agency. This story will be updated if it responds.

The NTA’s status as a society

Though much of the criticism has focused on the National Testing Agency ’s status as a society, experts that Scroll spoke to noted that it was not unusual for the Central and state governments to establish such organisation's as societies. They explained that the government typically did so when it wanted bodies to function with greater autonomy than they would have if they fell entirely under the purview of the government.

“It allows them to come up with new ideas, have some flexibility in their functions,” said Senthil. “It becomes a para-government body.”

Manuraj S, a lawyer at the Madras High Court and a spokesperson of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, described this kind of organisation as a “hybrid” one. “When you want to hire new talent, encourage new ways of thinking, get people from the corporate or private section to participate, it makes it easier when the body has autonomy,” he said.

But even in such a situation, carrying the kind of disclaimer that the registration certificate does was unusual. “Just because the government has put a disclaimer, doesn’t mean the government can say they have nothing to do with the agency,” Manuraj said. “It doesn’t absolve them of anything.”

Students protest against the NTA in June. Photo: Twitter/SFI_CEC

Manuraj added that in Tamil Nadu, the government had set up several such “government-associated entities” that are societies, such as Guidance, an agency that promotes investment in the state, the Tamil Nadu Text Book and Educational Services Corporation, and the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu. “But it doesn’t distance itself from them like this,” he said.

In this regard, the National Testing Agency’s use of the national emblem was questionable, experts noted. “Ethically it isn’t right to allow usage of the emblem and then ask people to verify on their own,” Senthil said.

When the government authorised a body to use its symbol, he explained, it indicated that the body adhered to government guidelines in matters such as transparency, accountability, ethical standards and internal processes. “So one would assume that these processes are there in a body that has a symbol indicating that it is controlled by the government,” Senthil said. To use the symbol without granting these assurances was highly unethical, he argued.

Ayesha Kidwai, a professor of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who is among the National Testing Agency’s most vocal critics, echoed this argument. “The government is allowing the agency to use the emblem but then telling people, ‘You do your own verification’,” said Kidwai. “Why this duplicity?”

Lack of transparency

Many other autonomous bodies, such as the National Body of Accreditation, the Central Board of Secondary Education and Central Medical Services Society, which function as societies under the Central government, have published their memorandums of association on their websites. Such memorandums are legal documents prepared during an organisation’s formation and registration process, which states the objectives for its founding, maps out its organisational structure in detail and sets out key laws and regulations that govern it.

Scroll was unable to find any such document on the National Testing Agency’s website. “Nobody can locate its founding papers or the memorandum of association,” said Maya John, who is part of the faculty at Delhi University and a member of its academic council.

Senthil noted, “This document should be available to everyone. Only then will we understand how it was founded and how it is supposed to function.”

Similarly, very little is known about the workings of the agency. For instance, no information was available about the personnel who set question papers and the processes they followed, academics said.

“How do we know that somebody who aligns with a particular party is not setting the paper?” Kidwai said.

By comparison, the website of the Central Board of Secondary Education hosts a detailed document that specifies the qualifications that personnel such as paper setters, moderators and examiners should have, processes they should follow and guidelines to guard against conflicts of interest. It also lists the duties of personnel responsible for maintaining secrecy through the examination process, known as “secrecy officers”, as well as instructions for drawing up evaluation criteria.

A section of the National Testing Agency website titled “RTI”, or right to information, purports to make “suo moto disclosures” of its composition and functioning, but much of the information on it is perfunctory in nature.

Under “norms for discharge of functions”, the website merely states, “Efforts are made to deal with the cases as expeditiously as possible in accordance with the rules, regulations and other instructions issued from time to time” and lists four decision-making authorities.

Under a section about arrangements for consultation with the public, the website offers the incomplete sentence: “The particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof through CPGRAMS [the Central government’s Centralised Public Grievance Redress and Monitoring System], Help Desk, etc.”

The National Testing Agency “is an opaque body,” said Moushumi Basu, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association. “In just three-four years, it has taken over so many exams. How do we know they even have the wherewithal to handle so many exams?”

Members of the All India Students Federation protest in July in Hyderabad against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG exam. Photo: Noah SEELAM/AFP

Academics also criticised the National Testing Agency for failing to consult key stakeholders, such as teachers and education experts, in its functioning. “We as stakeholders have no idea what is happening in the NTA,” Kidwai said. “We don’t even have access to the minutes of their meetings.” In contrast, the minutes of the University Grants Commission meetings are publicly accessible on its website.

Financial details

Another key concern that academicians raised was the lack of transparency about the National Testing Agency’s finances. Other organisations, such as the Union Public Service Commission, All India Institute for Medical Sciences and the Central Board for Secondary Education, have reports available online that provide information about their finances and expenditures. The Union Public Service Commission’s annual reports provide details about the body’s budget and expenditures, and the All India Institute for Medical Sciences annual reports provide detail of its finances, audits and its finance committees. Meanwhile, the Central Board for Secondary Education website carries a detailed annual budget for the body, as well as a finance manual detailing policies on the organisation’s financial activities.

The National Testing Agency website, under its right to information section, provides far less detail about its finances. One document that claims to mention the “system of compensation as provided in its regulations”, does not mention any details of such a system, rather only lists the monthly remuneration received by 12 employees, including the director general, other directors and superintendents. In contrast, the Central Board for Secondary Education website carries a 19-page document with information about more than 1,000 salaries across the organisation, including of the chairperson, secretaries, superintendents, accountants and drivers.

The right to information section of the National Testing Agency website also carries a link to a page titled “budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made”. But the document it links to only states that the type and number of exams the agency conducts “vary from year-to-year. Therefore, it is difficult to maintain Head-wise/ Exam-wise Budget.”

The scale of the NTA

Senthil argued that a key problem with forming the National Testing Agency as a society was that it had to carry out its work on a massive scale.

Other such autonomous bodies under the Central government that are registered as societies include educational institutions such as the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, research bodies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and other bodies such as the Sports Authority of India and the Children’s Film Society.

Such societies largely carry out more focused work, and bear “smaller” responsibilities than the National Testing Agency, Senthil said.

He argued that unlike these, “The NTA has been given a humongous task” that involves working with numerous Central agencies, semi-governmental bodies, private organisations and other autonomous entities.

“Such a mammoth exercise is taking place without proper government control,” he added. Entrusting such a crucial responsibility to a society that does not make public something as fundamental as a memorandum of association “is a recipe for disaster”, he noted.

Given the scale of its work, he argued, the National Testing Agency was also severely understaffed. “There is only one IAS officer as the director general and he is the only person who has some operational capacity,” he said. “The others are all academicians. In a country as large as India, the operations are a huge challenge. You simply cannot centralise these activities.”

No act of parliament

The National Testing Agency was formed abruptly in 2017 without any public consultation, academics say. “It all happened so quickly,” Kidwai said.

John noted that the National Testing Agency dealt “with admissions to professional courses, universities, and government jobs. How can it come through without any transparency, without a parliamentary process?”

She added that if the National Testing Agency had been set up by an act of parliament, like the Indian Institutes of Management were, there may have been scope for debate about its objectives, its constitution and its functioning. “We could have relied on the collective wisdom of parliamentarians to have discussed the need for an agency,” she said. “And as a bill, it would have been presented in the public and stakeholders could have discussed it.”

Senthil and Manuraj agreed that this should have been the process the government followed. “Nobody is saying it would not have been passed,” Manuraj said. “The ruling government had a brute majority and so it would have gotten passed. But the bottom line is that this needed to be scrutinised.”