Testing time

Civil services aspirants are determined not to allow the aptitude test of the preliminary examination this year on the grounds that it privileges the English-educated and those with engineering and science backgrounds over those who do not write in English and who have specialised in the humanities.

Published : Aug 06, 2014 12:30 IST

Civil services aspirants protesting against the CSAT in New Delhi on July 25. The poster in Hindi reads “Why is UPSC giving precedence to English?”

Civil services aspirants protesting against the CSAT in New Delhi on July 25. The poster in Hindi reads “Why is UPSC giving precedence to English?”

WITH tempers frayed, thousands of civil services aspirants have been out on the streets of Delhi demanding that the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), the preliminary examination for the civil services, be scrapped or postponed. They say the test discriminates against students who study in Hindi and other Indian languages. Besides, the format, with its focus on analytical reasoning and solving numerical problems, gives undue advantage to engineering/science students over those from the humanities background. The Civil Services Preliminary Examination is scheduled for August 24.

Data compiled by the agitators do lend credence to the charge. For example, until 2010 the percentage of arts students cracking the civil services examination was more or less the same as that of engineering students (in the 28-30 per cent range). However, in 2011, when the CSAT was introduced, the percentage of arts students who cleared the exam went down drastically to 15.38 per cent, while 49.7 per cent of the engineering/science students were successful.

Figures also show that the new format favoured English-speaking candidates from urban areas. In 2010, as many as 4,156 candidates with Hindi as their medium of instruction qualified for the main examination, but in 2011 that number fell to 1,682. Similar was the case of students who studied in other Indian languages; the number of Telugu medium students went down from 69 in 2010 to 29 in 2011, Tamil from 38 to 14, and Kannada from 38 to five. The rural-urban divide sharpened, too. A study by the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration showed that post-CSAT there was a sharp increase in the number of students from urban areas and a fall in those from rural areas. When the issue was brought to the notice of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, it constituted a three-member committee headed by former Secretary, Department of Personnel, Arvind Verma. The committee, which was to have submitted its report in March, sought a three-month extension. It is not clear if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, which came to power in May, agrees with the students’ demand or not.

Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office who is also in charge of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), told Parliament on July 15 that in view of the fact that the issue involved the future of thousands of students, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) had been “advised” to postpone the examination and look into the matter. However, on July 24, the UPSC began issuing admit cards for the examination, once again bringing students on to the streets. Following this, the government said on July 25 that it had asked the Verma Committee to submit its report within the next seven days and added that the issuance of the admit cards would not affect the government’s position on the issue. It said it would not allow any discrimination against non-English speaking students. The students are not convinced and believe that this year’s civil services examinations will continue in its present format without their grievances being addressed.

Origins of CSAT

“The CSAT paper is so skewed against non-English speaking and humanities students that they are out of the race even before it has begun. It is not fair because it robs us of our fundamental right to equal opportunity in public employment,” says Sunil Singh, a candidate.

The CSAT was introduced in 2011 on the lines of GMAT and such other tests in order to test a student’s analytical, reasoning and comprehension abilities. This was one of the major recommendations of the Y.K. Alagh Committee, which was set up in 2001 to suggest comprehensive reforms in the civil services examination. The committee had recommended that instead of testing students in their optional subjects, they should be tested on their aptitude for public service. The committee said: “The present testing of optional subjects is based on college/university curriculum. Re-examining the candidates in their own subjects appears to be of doubtful utility. The universities have already done the work…. What is important is the relevance of a subject to the job requirements of a civil servant, especially in the changing scenario.”

A parliamentary standing committee headed by E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, which had also examined the issue, agreed with the Alagh Committee’s suggestion on the optional subject. Subsequently, another committee, headed by former University Grants Commission Vice-Chairman S.K. Khanna, was formed in 2010. The Khanna Committee prescribed the present CSAT format, in which students are tested on English comprehension, analytical, numerical and reasoning abilities, interpersonal skills, problem solving aptitude, decision-making capacity and so on. According to the UPSC website, the questions in this paper are of Class Ten standard. The optional paper has been totally done away with in the preliminary examination.

Problems with CSAT

The first stage of changes in the preliminary examinations was introduced in 2011, which brought in the testing of aptitude, reasoning and comprehension skills, replacing the optional paper. The problem, however, is that the question paper is now in English or Hindi. Students say they find the English comprehension portion in the paper difficult. Some of the questions are translated so badly in the Hindi version that students often end up giving the wrong answers. For example, an iron plant is translated as “ lohe ka paudha ” and the North Pole as “ uttari khamba ”. “The Hindi version of the paper is so bad that we waste precious time trying to understand the question itself, then how can we even think of competing with the others on a level playing field?” asks Abhishek, a student who took the exam last year.

“It is high time the government did something because they have been sitting on it for the last one year. We are not going to give up our agitation,” says another student protester.

Experts agree that the points raised by the students need to be looked into and resolved. They say the data given by students, which have not been contradicted by anybody in the government or the UPSC so far, do call for some action. “We need a relook at the entire examination format because when we say students need to be judged on their aptitude for civil services, then who will decide what aptitude is required for a civil servant? There has to be a lot of transparency in the entire exercise,” says a UPSC official who did not wish to be identified. According to him, there is little indication that this exercise will be undertaken any time soon.

Dismal educational standards

Senior bureaucrats agree that the system of examination can definitely be improved, but say that postponing the examination or scrapping the CSAT or changing the language policy is not the right thing to do. They say it is sad that those who aspire to become administrators in the country are not able to handle questions that are of secondary school level. “This is a sad commentary on the entire education system of our country if those who want to be IAS [Indian Administrative Service], IPS [Indian Police Service] and IFS [Indian Foreign Service] officers are not able to comprehend English of basic school level or cannot answer questions which are of Tenth standard level,” says T.S.R. Subramaniam, former Cabinet Secretary.

In his opinion, putting the entire onus on the UPSC and condemning it for all that is wrong with the civil services examination is wrong. While admitting that there is indeed a rural-urban, English-vernacular, science/engineering-arts angle to the issue, he says the UPSC is not solely to be blamed and it is wrong to accuse it of any bias.

He cites the NGO Pratham’s latest ASER (Annual Survey of Education Report) study, which pointed to the abysmal level of Indian school education. Indeed, the ASER 2014 report says the quality of education in government schools has gone down so badly that more than 50 per cent of Class Five students cannot read books of Class Two standard or do simple division.

“It is true that students from rural areas and smaller cities are handicapped when it comes to their English comprehension abilities, but the UPSC cannot be faulted for that,” says Subramaniam. He adds that it is one of the few institutions in India which has remained professional and not got politicised. The solution, he says, is for the government to step in and provide special coaching to students besides improving the standard of education at large.

Natchiappan, a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress and one of the architects of the CSAT, agrees. According to him, the rural-urban and English-vernacular divide in the civil services examination is a fact and the government can take steps to correct it. He says, the CSAT can be conducted in other Indian languages too so that students from all regions have a level playing field. But he does not think the science-arts divide exists.

Interestingly, Congress leaders have shied away from the controversy, preferring to play it safe since the controversy is of their making. It was during the UPA regime that the format was changed and the agitation began, but except for setting up the Verma Committee, the government did nothing. In fact, senior Ministers in the UPA government, requesting anonymity, told Frontline that there was not much substance in the students’ grievances because the CSAT actually provides a level playing field to all the regions of the country unlike in the past when people “from Patna” dominated the civil services.

“Now there is good representation of people from the southern States too, which is a good thing. The CSAT has been able to select meritorious students from all regions of the country, and from all disciplines. Earlier, only those who could afford expensive coaching and were good at mugging up were being selected. The students’ demand has no merit. That is why the previous government did nothing,” says a former Minister and senior Congress leader who was actively involved in the issue last year and earlier this year when a controversy erupted about the change in the format of Civil Services (Main) Examination also.

But now with the issue coming into the public domain and the students on a warpath, what should the government do? Subramaniam says there definitely is scope for improvement, but scrapping the exam or postponing it is no solution. “There are howlers no doubt, as there are in all exams all over the world, be it GMAT or GRE, but that does not mean the exam should be scrapped or postponed. That would be unfair to lakhs of students who have been preparing for the exam for months. Improvements should be made, but the language policy should remain the same because students have to understand that English today is the lingua franca for all practical purposes, be it inter-State work, or business- or industry-related work or international communication. So they have to improve their English comprehension abilities.”

He says another point that students need to realise is that this is a competitive examination, not a welfare scheme where the target is to reach all those who are needy. “And a competitive examination is aced by clearing hurdles, so the students better prepare themselves to cross all hurdles. Otherwise, how are they expected to cross hurdles when they start working?” he asks.

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