Reform the CSS examination
ON 18 February 2021, the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) commenced the examination of Central Superior Services (CSS), 2021.
On the first day, language proficiency in English was tested through two papers, English Essay and English Précis & Composition.
Last year, for CSS-2020, total 39,630 candidates applied for the examination but 18,553 candidates appeared and only 376 candidates could clear the written examination.
The FPSC has not released the figures for 2021, but it is expected that the number would be higher than or equal to that of the previous year.
The sheer number touching 19,000 is a gigantic task to evaluate candidates in subjective written examination. Nevertheless, the major fiasco or failure comes through the papers of English Essay, English Précis & Composition or Islamyat.
In 2018, while assigning the task to Dr Ishrat Hussain, the incumbent government informed the public of its resolve to introduce reforms into the CSS-exam system. After three years, the reforms have not seen the light of the day.
One significant aspect of the reforms was to introduce screening test before the written examination to winnow out the candidates ill-prepared for attempting the written examination.
The reform, if introduced, would lessen the burden of checking thousands of papers each year cumbersome for the FPSC.
Second, the reform would help the examiners mark the answer sheets, which would be fewer in number, more fairly than before. Resultantly, a just evaluation of each candidate appeared for the written examination would take place.
In CSS-2021, the FPSC once again promoted cram learning by offering trite topics in the paper of English essay. Out of ten given topics, the candidates had to attempt only one essay. Of given ten topics, three were substandard viz., “Meaning purposive education”, “Gender equality: a popular slogan”, and “Pros and cons of globalization”. These topics were substandard because these have been the oft-repeated topics for the past ten years.
These topics fall under the class of generational essays – the essays which are prepared and used by one generation and then they are handed down to the successive generation.
When a choice to intellectual escape is given, candidates prefer to attempt such commonplace topics. In principle, essay topics are meant for prompting original thoughts in candidates. This was not the case.
In the market, called the CSS-market, these three essays were cardinal part of the guess papers issued by almost all CSS coaching academies.
In the CSS-market, dozens of quotations are available to attempt such essays. This is where the rub lies. When topics are predictable, quotations and parroting come in.
Except where books and their contents are quoted, quotation-inflicted essays do not reflect ingenuity and inventiveness of a candidate, who dissembles to be a genuine sedulous one, thereby denting the right of scoring high of assiduous fellow candidates who count on originality and creativity.
By offering such hackneyed expectable essay topics, the FPSC has facilitated once again disingenuous candidates to pass the examination, outsmart the fellow painstaking genuine candidates, and join the civil services.
It is now known that most candidates have attempted any of these three essays. Expectedly, such candidates would keep relying on conventionality and excerpts anchored in precedents and would keep on avoiding novelty in their thoughts and actions throughout their service careers.
If the masses suffer at the hands of such civil servants, the responsibility lies squarely on the recruiting body, the FPSC. In fact, by promoting such essay papers, the FPSC has done disservice to the country.
Advertently or inadvertently, by giving such essay topics, the FPSC has helped CSS coaching academies survive.
CSS coaching academies, which are now plenty across the country, convince candidates to bank on confirmed predictable essay topics on which these academies arrange mock tests.
Currently, the coaching charges for one five months’ course per candidate are around one lakh rupees.
Candidates with modest or lowly background can neither attend these coaching academies nor can they sever the symbiotic relationship extant between CSS coaching academies and the FPSC.
The government needs to intervene to offer equal opportunities to candidates from rural background to express their talent without financial pressure shifting onto their families, and it is doable.
In CSS-2021, the objective section (Q 1) of English Précis & Composition was pictured by some candidates and the section came out of the examination center. This section was supposed to lie hidden.
The FPSC failed to put a check on candidates, who brought their mobile phones or pen cameras to the examination hall.
To find out the meaning of 20 words through given multiple choice options, seven words were odd: SOT, Bricloge [Bricolage], Demiurge, Hagiographic, Tousled, Chiaroscuro, and Caitiff.
Instead, preference should have been given to asking the meaning of the words used in functional English. The oddity was enough to permeate insecurity amongst candidates.
Nevertheless, beauty of this paper was that précis and other questions were perfect for exploring both grammar and comprehension abilities of candidates.
This paper evinces that FPSC has understood clearly and rightly so that without raising standards of English, Pakistan’s civil servants cannot compete with their counterparts from other countries.
In today’s competitive world, the need is not to lower the quality of knowledge but to raise it.
Certain CSS coaching academies, especially in Lahore and Islamabad, have been inciting CSS candidates into standing up against the FPSC and malign it to make it compromise English standards both in written and viva voce.
A campaign is underway to compel the FPSC to conduct viva voce – the stage that comes after a candidate passes the written examination – in both Urdu and English.
This is a step towards discounting English from viva voce initially and then from the written examination eventually.
The proponents of such a malicious campaign have failed to realize that, in this globalized world, English is now an international language being learnt by even those nations such as Japan, China, Germany and Russia which kept reeling under the unwieldy heft of nationalism to militate against English.
Besides, English is a language of science and, without understanding science, life cannot be valuable.
—The writer is a retired civil servant and now a coach to candidates aspiring to join the civil services.