Analysing the factors behind the fiasco

The result for CSS-2016 written exam has shell-shocked many as only 202 candidates, out of 9643 who appeared, could actually make it. Although pass percentages in recent years have been on the decline — 15.77 percent (2009), 8.26 percent (2010), 9.74 percent (2011), 7.95 percent (2012), 2.09 percent (2013), 3.33 percent (2014) and 3.11 percent (2015) — what actually has baffled everyone is a drastic fall to a mere 2.09 percent in 2016. On the one hand, this is highly perplexing for the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) and is a big question mark on the performance of educational policy makers of Pakistan, on the other.

This shocking result, as expected, caught media attention and some anchors even subjected the FPSC and its chairman to vitriolic criticism. However, what solely lacked in this ‘campaign’ was the element of rationality as the whole blame of this fiasco was put on FPSC while completely ignoring that the onus lies on the candidates and the declining standards of education in Pakistan. These armchair critics completely ignored that Chairman FPSC is a thorough martinet and disciplinarian and he does not, in any case, compromise on merit. His illustrious career as a civil servant bears testimony to this. As the head of country’s top recruiter, his job is to ensure that only the rightest are recruited to the country’s bureaucracy and there is an absolute transparency in all this process. He’s doing it well. What can be a bigger proof for this than the fact that a big chunk of the successful candidates comprises highly qualified people like doctors, engineers, foreign qualified, and those who have graduated from country’s top universities?

So, what we need here is to dig deep into the causes that effected such an embarrassing situation, instead of chiding FPSC and its chairman.

The first and foremost among them is the falling standards of education in the country; a problem the FPSC has been consistently indentifying. For instance, in its Annual Report 2014, the FPSC pointed out:

“The examiners from various universities across the country have pointed out deficiencies in intellectual and cognitive abilities and common sense amongst candidates appearing in various examinations. It includes lack of analytical skills and critical approach, inability to comprehend the issues, non- familiarity with subjects and poor presentation based on illogical arguments with wrong or irrelevant data. They have also observed vast differences in standards of public and private school and higher education institutions accentuated by urban/rural divide.”The report recommended:

“Higher education system in the country requires urgent attention and focus of the policymakers for a comprehensive review of the disciplines presently offered by the Universities/Institutes, both private and public, to determine inefficiencies as well as redundancies and firming up measures for qualitative advancement.”Almost three years have passed since this report but the situation hasn’t changed, and now we are back to square one; writing elegiacally on the need to improve education system of the country.

FPSC’s annual reports must have been an eye-opener for the policymakers but, unfortunately, the unending lethargy on the part of those at the helm of affairs has culminated into what we have seen in CSS 2016 result.

Let it be very clear, drawing up policies to improve country’s education system is neither FPSC’s job nor its mandate. CSS exam the Commission conducts is like a tool to measure the quality of educational standards. The FPSC recruiters are only to assess the candidates, which are considered the crème de la crème of Pakistan, and report their findings to the President. The responsibility of improving standards of higher education in the country lies with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which has miserably failed in fulfilling it.

At present, educational indicators are far from satisfactory. In recent years, the governments have been boasting country’s ‘improved’ educational standards merely because the number of PhDs in the country is growing. But, what no one talks about is the enigma that none of the 171 Pakistani universities ranks among the world’s top 500 universities. As per Times Higher Education’s 13th edition of World University Rankings, only seven institutions from Pakistan were among world’s top 980 universities with COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, National University of Sciences and Technology and Quaid-i-Azam University all in the 601-800 cohort. And, as per the 13th edition of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, NUST Islamabad was Pakistan’s highest-ranked institute, remaining in the 501-550 band. Both these rankings, issued very recently, speak volumes about the ‘so-called’ rising literacy rates and standard of education in Pakistan.

Besides this, another matter of great concern is the element of quality of knowledge imported to the students. There is a growing disparity between the graduates of public and private sector universities. Many universities just to gain higher rankings are involved in corrupt practice of awarding degrees to their students without fairly assessing them. This is like playing Russian roulette with their future and also with the education standards in Pakistan. Resultantly, we often see that these ‘highly-qualified’ students lack basic knowledge and skills — a fact the FPSC has repeatedly pointed out.
And even if we carefully analyze the standard of PhDs of the country, we find that the quality of knowledge most of them possess is extremely poor. And this is because many of them — and even university professors — have been found guilty of plagiarism. Would a sane person believe that the universities, which conferred these doctorates, aren’t willing to induct their own degree-holders into their faculties? Fake degrees are sold, and even the lawmakers of the countryhave been disqualified for having those.

Another factor which almost everyone has failed to comprehend is that owing to the prevailing disparity, only the graduates of private universities, where only the rich can afford studying, are getting inducted into the Civil Service, and majority of inductees belong to urban areas where there are better facilities available. It is due to this factor that the ratio of officers belonging to rural or even remote areas of the country is decreasing. This, with the passage of time, will make the Civil Service of Pakistan a club of rich people and people belonging to rural areas will not have a fair share in country’s bureaucracy. This state of affairs is alarming and requires urgent attention of those concerned.

After this diagnosis, to cure all these ills, the HEC, in a nutshell, must:

Take stern action against those who have made education a mere business.

Work to completely overhaul the Higher education system.

Ensure that the disciplines offered by universities are in line with the modern-day needs.

Lay special emphasis on improving students’ general knowledge and polish their analytical skills, as most graduates tend to go for CSS, which is all about their prowess in general knowledge and analytical skills.

Exam system must be re-devised to discourage rote-learning and assessing students in knowledge.

Eliminate disparity between public and private sector universities in terms of quality of education.

Minimize the disparity between rural and urban areas in terms of provision of educational facilities.

Now comes the role of FPSC which, admittedly fulfils a large part of its duties, yet cannot be exonerated of the blame for this fiasco. It too has many lacunae that need to be plugged in at the earliest.

First of all is the matter of the assessment of papers which, we have repeatedly said, needs considerable improvement. In the existing scheme of things, it is an oft-observed phenomenon that many brilliant candidates, despite having secured excellent marks in almost all papers, are thrown out of the race just because they failed English Essay or Précis & Composition paper by only one mark or two. Is it not playing with the future of the talented candidates, and for that matter, with country’s future? There is all likelihood that an examiner may not award good marks to a candidate whose ideas do not go well with him. All analytical abilities and presentation skills of a candidate go in vain when his/her literary essay goes into the hands of a political science professor or the one on a topic related to current affairs goes to the one who had studied and taught English literature all through his career.

So, in order to address this apprehension, the FPSC should vigorously work not only on training the examiners but also on changing the paper pattern to such an extent that the chances of human error get minimal.

A better option in this regard can be introducing a new scheme under which English Essay and Précis & Composition papers are clubbed and a candidate who secures at least 33 in Essay and 80 in both is considered having passed both. This is nothing new as in General Knowledge papers, a candidate who secures 120 marks out of 300, gets passed.

Another option can be changing Rule 8. (i) of the Competitive Examination Rules, which says “A candidate who fails to secure at least 40% marks in any of the compulsory subjects, 33% marks in any of the optional subjects, 50% marks in the Aggregate will be considered to have failed in written examination and will not be eligible for medical examination, Psychological Assessment and Viva Voce.” Why 40% marks overall in compulsory papers and 50% aggregate can’t be the criterion for qualification? It will help a lot in eliminating the chances of human error ergo the elimination of really deserving would-be officers.

It has been observed that candidates are increasingly getting indulged into rote learning and some CSS papers even encourage this trend. But, this is to the detriment of their analytical abilities and skills and they end up among those who in the words of FPSC “lacked basic writing skills and their scripts showed crammed knowledge.” Another possible strategy to discourage this practice is to increase the marks reserved for objective part of a paper. At present, most papers contain a 20-mark portion comprising MCQs which can be increased to 40 or even 50 marks. It will be beneficial on two fronts: first, it will ensure that only those candidates get through the exam who have in-depth knowledge of the subject and do also have a good command over it; and secondly, it will minimize the chances of human error as awarding marks shall not depend on an examiner’s choice. Negative marking should also be done in objective portion so that the “Tukka Brigade” stays away from blindly guessing the answers or otherwise pays the price for not well preparing for the exam. Moreover, the subjective portion, which is used as a measure to assess a candidate’s analytical skills, can also be broken down into parts with more emphasis on short questions and answers after the pattern followed in General Science & Ability paper.

In addition, the FPSC must also weed out irrationalities in grouping of, and syllabi for, optional subjects. The present scheme of things makes the selection of International Relations or Political Science almost obligatory on every candidate. And for the remaining 400 marks, one has to pick subjects from four different groups. This is where the problem lies as we find many subjects which in the previous syllabus carried 200 marks but there weight has been halved with almost the same syllabus. That’s why subjects like Geography, Psychology, Histories, etc., all have become the last choice for most of the aspirants. It is always advisable that the syllabus for a subject must be complemented by the marks it contains.

On the other hand, decreasing the marks carried by subjects, like Law, was also an imprudent subject especially given the fact that LLB has now been made a 5-year programme. Most universities now offer 4-year programmes for BBA or BS degrees but Business Administration is still a 100-mark subject. In addition, in today’s era of information technology, the ever-growing importance of media has been denounced by the FPSC as it has allocated only 100 marks to an important subject of Mass Communication & Journalism. Hence, regrouping and re-evaluating the weight of subjects is inevitable if FPSC is serious in recruiting the best brains of the country to the country’s civil service.

The third stakeholder in CSS exam is the candidates who are highly talented and brilliant and enter this competition with only one aim: to embark on an illustrious career where they will be able to serve their homeland to the best of their abilities. However, no sane person would deny that if the country’s falling educational standards and some peccadilloes on the part of FPSC have been responsible for the CSS-2016 fiasco, then the candidates also share the burden of it. However, there is lesser onus on them because when they enter onto the race, most of them are clueless regarding the direction they should choose. This is because a thing named “career counselling” had been unknown to them. Hardly any university in Pakistan would conduct career counselling sessions or seminars in order to guide the students to a better future. They just charge exuberant fees, somehow award degrees, and that’s it. These degree-holders come out of their almae matres with no sense of direction regarding their future. Among this lot those who aspire to join the Civil Service of Pakistan, out of necessity, go to academies and coaching centres where, barring few exceptions, they are made to choose only those optional subjects which they can teach. In doing so, they completely ignore a candidate’s educational background, his aptitude and inclinations and, above all, his abilities. And, the candidates blindly follow what they have been told by these so-called mentors. Thus, wrong subject selection on the part of aspirants culminates into what we have seen in CSS-2016 result.

Moreover, a number of such academies have also propped up which lure students with showy advertisements containing the pictures of past years’ toppers. But, these so-called “best academies,” don’t give a damn care about students’ future because they have only one- or two-member faculties to teach all subjects. Here students are also responsible because they fail to differentiate between an academic degree and a competitive exam like CSS. In CSS, unlike university degrees, you don’t get a chance to give another try to one or two papers; you’re out of the race even if you flunked even by a single mark. So, join only those institutions where you get what you are supposed to have in your quiver when you appear in actual exam to and just keep in mind that you have paid for that.

Another big reason behind persistently poor CSS results is that many candidates appear in the examination but half-heartedly. Due to a sheer lack of confidence in their abilities as well as the knowledge they had gained during months of preparation, aspirants fail the exam and then put the whole blame on FPSC. What they need is soul-searching so as to find out the flaws and kinks in their strategies regarding the exam.

And, above all, the government must adopt measures to improve the quality of education and introduce reforms in country’s bureaucracy as in the present state of affairs, we are going to enter a blind alley. Unless these reforms are made, Pakistan will not be able to achieve the dream of a successful, thriving nation.

In the end, it is quite encouraging to note that on its part, the FPSC has launched an investigation to find out the challenges faced by test-takers and test-makers. It has sought HEC’s help in this regard. The move is strongly approbated with an earnest that all the stakeholders will do their part to ameliorate the exam system in order to ensure that no deserving candidate is left behind and only the brilliant people are recruited to the country’s bureaucracy which in the words of Quaid-e-Azam is “the backbone of the state.”

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