Only crammers need apply

The pattern of the Civil Services examination makes a mockery of the UPSC’s demand for ‘depth of understanding’ from candidates

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:37 pm IST

Published - November 24, 2012 01:20 am IST

24th edpage sketchs

24th edpage sketchs

The Union Public Service Commission’s Civil Services (Main) Examination, 2012, just got over. The results for this phase of the multi-tiered examination will be declared around March/April, 2013. Based on the marks scored in this examination, candidates will be shortlisted for the Personality Test, also known as interview, to be conducted around April/May, 2013. Based on their performance in the main examination and the interview, candidates will be recommended for All-India and Central government services.

The Constitution has tasked the UPSC with preserving the merit system in the country. The merit system, as opposed to the spoils system, may be defined as one in which recruitments are made on the basis of objective evaluation of skills and knowledge through open examinations. No one doubts the objectiveness of the Civil Services examination in which candidates go through a three-level test. Those who make it to the final list are annually feted as the best and brightest minds on whose hands will rest, for all practical purposes, the governance of India.

Required ‘merits’

The ‘merits’ that UPSC looks for in the candidates are mentioned in its Notification for the examination, where it is emphasised that no marks will be allotted for superficial knowledge, and that credit will be given for orderly, effective and exact expressions. The main examination intends to assess, according to the UPSC, “the overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding of the candidates rather than merely the range of their information and memory.”

Even a brief analysis of the huge number of questions asked, length of answers stipulated and the three-hour time limit raises doubts about whether it is possible to find a candidate’s “overall intellectual traits and depth of understanding” through this type of examination. In fact, it seems the examination system and the stated desired outcome are quite incompatible.

For instance, the General Studies papers are common for all candidates. This year’s GS Paper I contained 33 questions requiring answers ranging from 250 to 10 words. In other words, candidates are expected to write a total of around 3,000 words within three hours to answer 33 questions.

For popular optional subjects like Political Science or Sociology, there are around 20 questions (depending on the questions chosen) to be answered in three hours with a total word count of around 3,750.

How realistic is that? A normal student may struggle to put together 3,750 words, legibly written, on a pre-selected subject within three hours. It should be noted here that these 3,750 words are to be expended not on one question, but on 20 very different questions with no time given to think through them. It is unrealistic to expect candidates to show their true intellectual traits and depth of understanding in the answers they write in the short time given, on so many tricky questions. Not surprisingly, even those who got as low as 800 marks out of a total of 2000 at the Mains were called for interview in 2011.

Some samples

Let us sample some questions asked. In GS I, a 250-word question asks for a “critical examination of the issues involved in the context of the growing demands for the ban of Endosulfan in the country. What, in your view, should be done in the matter?” Another question asking for a 150-word answer is: “There is an urgent need for the Planning Commission to revise the chapter on health in the 12th Plan document. Comment.”

In Political Science II, here goes a question requiring a 150-word answer: “Do you agree that liberal international theories are essentially ‘Eurocentric’ and not necessarily imperialist?” Another question, for a 250-word answer, asks: “Is power a zero-sum or variable game in international relations? Can zero-sum game explain the mixture of conflict and cooperation of the present dynamics of international relations?”

As should be evident, these are not very easy questions. Good answers to these questions require nuance and complex arguments, which in turn require thinking and time, even for someone well-versed with the subject. Framed with more time at hand, the answers to these questions may indeed help analyse a candidate’s intellectual traits and depth of understanding. But the problem is that the three-hour time limit does not allow for thinking, or even for basic organisation of thought. In the Civil Services (Main) examination, time is such that if you start thinking, you are in trouble.

How do candidates cope? Given the severely limited time given, one often has no choice but to cram and mug up so that you have as much information as you can on your fingertips. You practise writing continuously for speed and flow. You make notes and diagrams, or buy material from coaching centres. As someone said, what matters here is not how much you know, but how much you can put in within those three hours. In the process, candidates go for the most commonplace arguments that they get ready-made from guidebooks or Wikipedia, with hardly any chance to exercise their analytical skills or critical thinking capacity. Weighted down by the clock, candidates usually write whatever comes to their mind. Some say that they gave opinions in their answers that on second thought, they would have reversed. That means the candidate’s answers often do not reflect his or her considered opinion.

Severely limited time

Hence, while the questions may be good, the circumstances, especially the severely limited time relative to the number of words required, do not allow for proper answers to be given. The answers, written in a hurry, often give a misleading and deceptive account of the candidate’s ‘intellectual traits’. Add to this the requirement of mastering not one but two subjects, as part of two optional papers. All this load of work makes a mockery of the Commission’s pious demands for ‘depth of understanding’ from candidates. It all boils down to hard work, perseverance, tenacity, consistency, good memory, and good coaching notes.

As in previous years, around 1,000 candidates will eventually make the cut in this year’s examination cycle, counted from the highest mark until the vacancies are filled. They will be put through a gruelling training regimen and inducted into service. Some will shine. Others will be just mediocre, jack of all trade-types, good for gruelling routine, file-shuffling work. As for the deep-going, analysing, intellectual types that the UPSC professes to want, they would be lost in the rush.

(T.K. Ngaihte completed his M.Phil in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2010. He wrote the Civil Services Examination (Main) thrice.

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