UPSC row: Are the exams even equipped to choose the perfect bureaucrat?

For the moment, forget the quantitative and analytical components of the Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT), ignore the raging controversy over whether or not its papers are biased in favour of students who have passed out from English-medium schools in cities. Read below the question chosen from the UPSC paper of 2013, presumably framed to gauge whether the examinee has the attributes of civil servant.

There is a shortage of sugar in your district where you are the District Magistrate. The Government has ordered that only a maximum amount of 30 kg sugar is to be released for wedding celebrations. A son of your close friend is getting married and your friend requests you to release at least 50 kg sugar for his son's wedding. He expresses annoyance when you tell him about the Government's restrictions on this matter. He feels that since you are the District Magistrate you can release any amount. You do not want to spoil your friendship with him. In such circumstances, how would you deal with the situation?

The question lists four answers from which the examinee has to choose one. These are: a) Release the extra amount of sugar which your friend has requested for; b) Refuse your friend the extra amount and strictly follow the rules; c) Show your friend the copy of the Government instructions and then persuade him to accept the lower amount as prescribed in the rules; d) Advise him to directly apply to the allotting authority and inform him that you do not interfere in this matter.

The assumption of the person who set this question is puerile. For one, the person believes young examinees will necessarily tick their preferred course of action. It is obvious the question seeks to identify whether or not the attributes of a bureaucrat are present in examinees –respect for rules, non-partisan attitude, and empathy.

Indeed, you have to be a dud or freak to tick Option No 1, for it would undoubtedly be deemed wrong. The person who set the question, and chose the four options, is palpably in denial of the chasm between idea and reality, said a woman civil servant to whom I read portions of the CSAT paper.

 UPSC row: Are the exams even equipped to choose the perfect bureaucrat?

Representational image. AFP.

Having put in nearly 20 years of service, she said India’s famed patronage system has as its pivot the largesse bureaucrats bestow on friends and relatives. This virus of favouritism afflicts most civil servants when they enter the service, not before. Laughing, she added, “Perhaps one of the options should have been, ‘Persuade your friend not to invite so many guests.’”

Her remark conveys the complexity inherent in assessing decisions which are subjective. This problem is marked in another question from the same 2013 paper.

You are a teacher in a University and are setting a question paper on a particular subject. One of your colleagues, whose son is preparing for the examination on that subject, comes to you and informs you that it is his son's last chance to pass that examination and whether you could help him by indicating what questions are going to be in the examination. In the past, your colleague had helped you in another matter. Your colleague informs you that his son will suffer from depression if he fails in this examination. In such circumstances, what would you do?

The examinees were required to choose one of the four options: a) In view of the help he had given you, extend your help to him. b) Regret that you cannot be of any help to him. c) Explain to your colleague that this would be violating the trust of the University authorities and you are not in a position to help him. d) Report the conduct of your colleague to the higher authorities.

I read out the options to a friend and she said she’d choose C, arguing it would be futile to report him to the authorities as she would have no evidence to support her complaint. It would be her word against that of her friend.

But it can be argued that a person inclined to seek illegitimate assistance for his son is likely to violate the clause of secrecy in case he is ever assigned the task of framing a question paper. Therefore, might it not be prudent to report him to the authorities? Wonder what the UPSC thinks is the right answer.

Then again, considering the question seeks to test the ethical value of examinees, they have to be daft to tick Option 1. This is because the question erroneously presumes that a person who conceives or resorts to an act does only because he or she finds it ethical. Yet, even the murderer is acutely aware of violating law, precisely why he or she commits crime in secrecy and seeks to conceal it.
Would then an examinee reveal his or her true self at the expense of not clearing the CSAT? Obviously not, suggesting to us that the CSAT is a joke conceived in the ivory tower.

Computation and analytical components

These twin aspects of CSAT have sparked off fury among those civil servant aspirants who studied social sciences in universities. Having dropped mathematics and sciences in Class X, they fervently believe those from engineering, commerce, economics, management, and science streams have an inherent advantage over them. Those who support the inclusion of questions on computation in the CSAT argue that a civil servant should at least possess the skills required of Class X students.

Their argument is fallacious. The marks obtained in the computation section of CSAT are not merely qualifying, but are added to the candidate’s total score. The higher the scores of candidates, the higher the cutoff marks for deciding who can take the UPSC civil service mains examination. This is precisely why students from the humanities stream feel they are disadvantaged, as against those who have read the sciences and mathematics till graduation and post-graduation levels. They maximize marks in the computation and analytical sections and consequently raise the cutoff point.

The veracity of their claims can be judged from the following questions.

The tank-full petrol in Arun’s motor-cycle lasts for 10 days. If he starts using 25% more everyday, how many days will the tank-full petrol last? The four options are: 5,6.7,8.

Or take another question: In a rare collection, there is one gold coin for every three non-gold coins. 10 more gold coins are added to the collection and the ratio of gold coins to non-gold coins would be 1:2. Based on the information, the total number of coins in the collection now becomes…90, 80, 60, 50.

No doubt, these questions are of Class X level or below. Nevertheless, those who belong to the humanities stream need to return to their arithmetic books that were tossed away years ago. Perhaps they can even hone their computation skills. But there is no denying those from science or commerce/economics streams have an inherent advantage, time-bound as the CSAT papers are. Speed is of the essence.

A more fundamental question to ask is: Are aptitude tests an appropriate measure of the examinee? Perhaps it is instructive to take a look at contemporary analyses of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which the CSAT mimics.

The Washington-based The Chronicle for Higher Education reported last year that several companies have begun to ask for GRE scores from candidates applying for jobs.

Typically, though, these companies belong to the financial and banking sectors that require complex data analysis. Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, told the Chronicle, “"I suspect that there are some jobs that require very high math ability and this might be a way that some employers think they can get at it."
Really, do all bureaucrats undertake complex number crunching? No.

This apart, the GRE system has been criticised for being a measure of cognitive skills, which are judged through writing, verbal and quantitative reasoning. For instance, William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park, thinks GRE-type standardized tests “do not appear to measure” experiential or creative intelligence, nor a person’s ability to “adapt to a changing environment; the ability to handle and negotiate the system.” Sedlacek would want the employers to focus on the candidate’s resilience, creativity, and the ability to work in a team.

Similarly, Robert J. Sternberg, provost of Oklahoma State University, dripped with sarcasm when he told the Chronicle, “I hire people all the time. If someone included his or her GRE scores on a job application, I would find the information highly useful. I definitely would not hire the individual.”
Again, Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun, academicians both, found in their survey that American universities relying heavily on GRE scores don’t have a high rate of success at selecting students who eventually become high achievers.

In fact, some universities prefer to depend more on interviews with candidates than on GRE scores to judge their commitment to their subjects before enrolling them for PhD courses. Millar and Stassum found such universities had a better rate of students completing their PhD.

Danger to social sciences

Prof YK Alagh, who chaired the committee which recommended the CSAT, wrote in the Indian Express claiming that the protests against UPSC have been orchestrated by IAS teaching shops. He says the CSAT threatens to shutter down coaching institutes as their method of teaching by rote wouldn’t now help the prospective civil service aspirant. This is because the CSAT judges innate intelligence, which can’t be enhanced through tuition. The concept of innate intelligence, as shown above, has a limited role in determining a person’s life chances.

He, obviously, assumes questions in history or sociology or political science papers can’t be framed to circumvent the method of learning by rote. Perhaps Alagh’s critique reflects his own bias – as an economist, accustomed to working with numbers, he can’t fathom the fear of social science students in competing with those from science or engineering or commerce-economics streams.

Our country, post-liberalisation, has been emphasising on technical and managerial skills. For instance, reflect on the concerted attempt to expand the chain of IITs and IIMs. To provide, willy-nilly, an unfair advantage to the sciences and mathematics even in the civil services would perhaps prompt many, particularly in north India, to not enroll for the humanities. It is crazy we should de-incentivize the study of subjects such as history even though we are so busy fighting over our past.

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Updated Date: Aug 08, 2014 15:59:27 IST