Thousands of graduates from across Pakistan try their luck every year in the competitive examination (CE), also known as Central Superior Service (CSS) exam, conducted by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC). CSS is considered the most prestigious exam in Pakistan as it opens, for successful aspirants, the doors to the country’s bureaucracy, or more rightly, the Civil Services of Pakistan. It has been, however, a sad fact that every year over 90 percent of the aspirants fail this exam – in other words their dream. The drastic decline in passing ratio in CSS exam during the recent years has exposed the quality of higher education in Pakistan. Experts say that the principal reason behind these declining percentages is that the institutions of higher education in Pakistan focus more on quantity rather than quality; increasing the number of institutions, research articles/papers published and PhDs with no quality is a manifestation of that. This is a big question mark on the standard of these, supposedly, seats of higher learning. Why these public- and private-sector universities are no longer producing big names like Dr Abdus Salam and Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan? This does not mean that students are not talented; they really are, but it is the education system that is not capable enough to polish their talents. This is a sad fact that no Pakistani university ranks among top 100 worldwide. Perhaps concentrating on fewer but quality universities would have a greater impact. The numbers game has to stop once and for all.
Annual percentage of successful candidates in CSS exam has been decreasing, according to the FPSC’s annual reports. It has been on a steep decline between 2002 and 2016; the passing percentage of the candidates in the written examination was 30 percent in 2002 while in 2017, the figure has plummeted to a mere 2.09 percent. According to the FPSC’s Annual Report 2016, the FPSC could only select 240 candidates for 285 seats that were open to candidates – perplexingly, no suitable candidates were found for the remaining number of seats. Observations in the 2016 report highlight the problematic trends within the examination process, the most apparent of which is the low quality of writing, a factor that has affected performances in all subjects. That is evident from the result of English Essay paper: only 24 percent 9,062 candidates of passed and among them only 31 candidates could get a score of 60 percent or more.
Another main reason behind this fiasco is candidates’ inclination toward ready-made study material; like notes, guides, etc. By resorting to these sources, candidates wrote what they had learned by heart. Rote-memorization has remained particularly problematic in Literature, History of India and Pakistan, and Public Administration papers. English language skills have also been declared poor generally, hampering candidates’ ability to answer questions effectively. Owing to an acute lack of analytical skills, most candidates could not attempt the questions regarding Women and Islam, in Islamic Studies paper; a vast majority of candidates failed to adequately consider contemporary issues regarding the veil and secularism in society. According to an examiner’s report, the level of aspirants in Islamic History and Culture paper was also mediocre, with only a superficial understanding of the subject demonstrated. Main dilemma in failure of CSS exam on the side of candidates has always remained that answers were neither proper nor precise.
There are reports that chairman and members of FPSC have expressed concern about the overall decline in education and its quality across the country. They opine that it is not at balance with modern demands and is badly impacting the superior examinations. There is also a great concern on the rising number of so-called academies, ‘guess papers’ and other such material that is often used by candidates as a shortcut to pass the CSS exam.
Reports further say that the FPSC has put forth a number of suggestions for the improvement of education in the country and has also proposed reforms in the CSS examination. One of the proposals is aggregating the marks for English Essay and Précis and Composition papers. There was also a proposal for conducting a single exam in a day instead of the prevailing trend of asking the candidates to appear in two in a day – this proposal has been accepted and CSS 2018 exam will be conducted in this manner i.e. one paper a day.
There are also calls for a “complete overhaul” of the civil service under Vision 2025 of the government. However, it must be understood first that the recruitment process for the bureaucracy does not exist in a vacuum; if the education system is producing low-standard graduates, how this low level of human capital will offer a very capable talent pool for CSS administrators to choose from? Whether it is government sector or the private sector, a vast majority of our educational institutions from the primary level to higher education are not producing men and women qualified enough to meet the challenges of the modern times. Whether it is the civil service or any other sector, without massive, visionary and long-term reforms in our education system with more and more focus on quality, achieving the desired targets will be next to impossible.
Enhanced efforts are required to collaborate with universities and Higher Education Commission to improve the standards of instruction and learning. There is a need to improve the standard of education in underdeveloped areas of the country to bring them at par with the developed areas. Education must be provided on an equal footing to all citizens of Pakistan to eradicate the anomalies in education standards that lead to unfair competition in CSS examination.
FPSC Annual Reports
Every year, FPSC publishes a report, which carries scathing details about the ailing civil service, identifying the challenges it faces in conducting the Central Superior Services exams and the way out – and submits it to the National Assembly as per constitutional obligation but hardly a few bother to look into the green book put before them on their desks. The 2016 report had some eye-opening details and statistics along with suggestions for the government to look into and help the FPSC.