Urgent need to reform civil services exams

| | in Oped

The current civil services examinations need to be thoroughly overhauled if it were to serve as an effective instrument for selecting suitable candidates for the country’s premier civil services. Nearly one-year long process, comprising preliminary screening test followed by mains and interview for shortlisted candidates, leaves unsuccessful candidates little time to devote to anything else or to take any break and they find themselves immersed again into another year devoted solely to preparations for the exam. This cycle is repeated year after year and some candidates spend as much as 5-6 years exclusively in preparations for the civil services entrance examination. Some of them do succeed but surely that is not the best way for a bright youth to be spending his/her most productive years. And look at the colossal waste of human capital in the case of those who unfortunately are not able to crack the exams.

Average age of the candidates has been steadily going up over the years. As against 24.20 in 1960, it had gone up to 27.50 in 2005 largely due to relaxation in the upper age limit from 24 in 1960 to 32 currently. Of some five lakh candidates who took the exams in 2015, nearly 10 per cent were well past 30. The upper age limit was raised to provide a level-playing field to candidates from rural areas and to increase the proportion of those from economically backward and underprivileged classes to make our premier civil services more representative of the Indian society, instead of being elitist. But this has resulted in candidates taking multiple attempts without doing anything else and wasting prime years of their youth. Instead of contributing to the financial wellbeing and upkeep of their families by taking up jobs which would have been available to them, they end up becoming an unmanageable financial burden on their families. Should we encourage this kind of start for our young people?

Administrative Reforms Commission in its report in 2008 expressed doubts over the suitability of the candidates being currently recruited in terms of temperament and motivation and commented that “entrants into civil service at a late age bring with them a baggage of entrenched mindset.” It even recommended recruitment after school and longer training in public administration on the pattern of recruitment of commissioned officers in our defence forces.

A large number of engineering and medical graduates passing out from country’s prestigious institutions, including IITs, are taking the civil services exams these days. One cannot normally find fault with this since career choice is a matter of individual freedom and aptitude except that the professional degree acquired with so much of effort is rendered useless since that degree can hardly be of much use in the administrative jobs. Considering that most of these institutions are funded or subsidised by the Government, such non-utilisation of the technical degree for the intended professional purposes amounts to tremendous wastage of Government funds. It is also a loss of opportunity for someone else who might have utilised the professional education and degree better by contributing to the much-needed growth of manufacturing sector and economic development of the country.

A big problem with the present structure of the civil services exam is that it requires extensive preparations leaving someone pursuing a regular or even part-time job severely disadvantaged, which explains why candidates either give up their jobs or decide not to take up any jobs while attempting the civil services exams.

Long descriptive answers required to be given in the answer-sheets encourage rote learning of selected questions and not in-depth understanding and comprehension of the subject matter. This problem has persisted from the early days and regrettably no solution has been found even though several other exams based on objective type tests such as GMAT, GRE and CAT have been around which manage to assess a candidate’s intelligence, capability and potential far more accurately.  The civil services exams currently depend a great deal on the luck factor since if a candidate finds his anticipated questions, which are well prepared by him, in the actual question paper he tends to do well. Subjectivity in evaluating descriptive answers further aggravates the luck factor. Strangely, performance of the same candidate could swing from one extreme to another within the space of one year.

The provision of an optional subject to be chosen by the candidate in addition to general studies and current affairs is perhaps the biggest culprit in disturbing the level-playing field among candidates taking the exams since different subjects have vastly different scoring patterns. Good Science and Maths students, for instance, can score very high marks in their optional papers but the same would not hold true for those who may be equally excelling in their chosen humanities field. In fact, engineering graduates often do not find it viable to choose one of their technical subjects as the optional subject and are forced to select totally new subjects like anthropology, sociology, geography, public administration or even regional languages literature.

The ARC report observed that most of the optional subjects had no relevance to “the problems that a civil servant may need to address.” Commenting on this issue, the Alagh Committee on Civil Services Exam Review in 2001 noted that “re-examining the candidates in their own subjects appears to be of doubtful utility.”

As a young man of 21 in 1976, I took a number of service entrance exams and found the test conducted by SBI for selection of Probationary Officers decidedly the best — in fact, far better than the civil services exams. To this date, PO exams remain worthy of emulation. It starts with one hour objective type preliminary test comprising 3 sections on English language, quantitative aptitude and reasoning. It is followed by mains exam comprising an objective type test in four relevant sections, including reasoning, computer aptitude, data analysis, general economics and English language for 200 marks and a small 50 marks descriptive test to assess the candidate’s skill in essay and letter writing which has considerable relevance in actual job condition. Qualifying candidates have to also appear in a “Group Discussion” apart from personal interview.

The Government must take immediate steps to simplify the civil services exam structure and to shorten the whole process to ensure that unduly strenuous preparatory work is not required to succeed and degree of subjectivity is reduced to the barest minimum. That would bring much needed relief to the candidates and they would also be able to continue with their jobs while appearing in the exam. If this were done, one would be justified in reducing maximum age limit and the number of attempts. UPSC should look at the SBI recruitment exam to draw some inspiration.


(The writer retired from the Indian Foreign Service recently and has been associated with ‘Samkalp’, an NGO, which helps poor and underprivileged children in preparing for the civil services exams)

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