Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

A test for a new time

The proposed changes to the civil services exam were an attempt to prevent candidates from gaming the system

The proposed changes to the civil services exam were an attempt to prevent candidates from gaming the system

The use of almost exclusively academic tests to select officers for careers in the civil services has a long history in India. Oxford historian J.M. Compton has written about the “inescapably suspect” Macaulayan scheme for the ICS examination circa 1855 that had papers whose limits were “almost co-extensive with human knowledge itself”. Many attempts at finding the right way to test have been made in the century-and-a-half since then,and many august bodies — including the recent Second Administrative Reforms Commission — have reported ways to improve the examination. The changes wrought by the UPSC in the 2013 civil services examination — now suspended,following resistance in Parliament — are the latest in the current series of reform that started with the preliminary stage in 2011.

The major changes suggested were in the main examination: one,elimination of qualifying papers in Indian languages and English; two,enhancing the scope of the compulsory essay paper to include English comprehension and précis of 10th standard level (totalling 300 marks); three,vastly increasing the scope of compulsory general studies papers and increasing their number from two to four (250×4=1,000 marks); four,reducing optional subjects from two to one (with two papers,250×2=500 marks); five,marginally reducing the personality test marks from 300 to 275 to retain its overall weight at around 13 per cent; six,making undergraduate education in an Eighth Schedule (ES) language medium mandatory for answering papers in ES languages other than Hindi,and imposing a condition that at least 25 candidates must opt for a language medium; and seven,making graduation in the literature of the respective language as main subject a requirement for choosing it as an optional subject,and removing six non-ES language literatures from the list. The total marks for merit ranking have thereby been reduced from 2,300 to 2,075. Papers other than literature will continue to be set in English and Hindi.

The changes are a response to the discomfiture with the previous scheme that was seen to encourage gaming of the system by candidates,helped by the coaching institutes that strategise on their behalf. By increasing the weight given to compulsory papers and reducing the number of optional subjects from two to one,the new scheme offers a level playing field by addressing legitimate concerns regarding the comparability of marks across the smorgasbord of optional subjects. The coverage of general studies has been expanded to include many more topics in Indian and world history and geography,and most crucially in areas considered relevant to a civil service career in a modern,globalised context: areas such as governance,polity,international relations,security,technology,economic development,ecology and biodiversity,which are also not easily amenable to cramming. Of particular interest is the addition of one full paper on ethics,integrity and aptitude that aims to “test the candidate’s attitude and approach to issues relating to integrity,probity in public life and his problem-solving approach to various issues and conflicts faced by him in dealing with society”. This is a tall order. While the syllabus is useful enough as it requires candidates to gain exposure to topics in ethics,attitude,aptitude,emotional intelligence and public service values,it is difficult to conceive of a written test in these areas that cannot be gamed to yield favourable outcomes,case-study method notwithstanding. The relatively large number of candidates is also likely to place an additional burden on the evaluation of this paper.

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The language question has always been fraught,and the proposed changes tread the fine line between the letter and spirit of the Official Language Resolution,1968,which states that compulsory knowledge of either Hindi or English is required for selection for recruitment to Union services and posts,and that all ES languages (and English) shall be permitted as alternative media for the examination. I have argued elsewhere that under the previous examination scheme in place since 1979,there has been a decadal increase in the relative number of candidates opting for one of the Indian languages and most of these candidates are Hindi-speakers. While the causes and consequences of this trend can be located in the wider society and are open to debate,the 2013 stipulation (regarding use of ES language as the medium of examination only by candidates graduating in that particular language) further underscores the status of Hindi in the examination scheme. Another stipulation related to literature as an optional subject is also intended to reduce strategising by candidates,given the difficulties associated with eliminating linguistic biases in evaluation.

Other issues — including modifying age limits and number of attempts and interview reform — remain unaddressed in this round. The retention of even one optional subject can also be reconsidered,as this could be not only inter se discriminatory but also because many subjects are not included in the list in the first place. That said,the proposed changes would augur well for coherence and competence in the civil services,recognising as they do that the selection process needs to be attuned to India’s development vision and that it would be counterproductive not to recalibrate the examination in line with the current techno-managerial imperatives of the Indian state. Whether that much is sufficient to foster administrative excellence is,of course,a whole different question.

The writer is a civil servant and former joint secretary,UPSC,on furlough at CSLG,JNU,New Delhi. This article is a purely academic exercise and views expressed are personal

First published on: 18-03-2013 at 03:46:17 am
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