The Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC), Islamabad, is obligated to recruit candidates every year from all over Pakistan on grade 17 posts through a competitive examination called the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination. In November 2013, the FPSC announced the result of the written examination held in February 2013. Out of the 11,406 candidates that appeared in the written examination, only 238 passed. The pass percentage remained at 2.09 percent.
The result is considered the first one in the history of the FPSC declaring such a low number of candidates qualified. With that the FPSC has come under lots of criticism. Some critics say that the pathetic result has damaged the credibility of the FPSC. Some critics even say that the dismal result has the potential for undermining national cohesion — because candidates from many areas of Pakistan could not pass the examination — in the future.
One wonders why the FPSC should announce a better result when the candidates failed to perform. How come there exists a relationship between the low pass percentage of the candidates and the credibility of the FPSC? By the way, what about the credibility of the educational institutions churning out graduates and postgraduates who later on appear as candidates for the competitive examination? What about the mental abilities and potential of the candidates who appeared in the examination? Should the FPSC lower its quality bar?
As per an estimate, most candidates failed in the paper for English essay and English General (précis and composition). One should ask (most of) them a question: who suggested for them to attempt the essay, ‘The meaning and purpose of education’? They attempted this one just because the topic was easy to attempt. The second reason might be that the topic was descriptive in nature. Here lies another point. In the English essay paper, in the ‘note’ section, it is written that the candidates should “use different forms of discourses, e.g., exposition, argumentation, description and narration” (one can assume that the meaning of the word “argumentation” also means an ‘analysis’). Pakistani students in general are fond of descriptive and narrative writing styles but not argumentative or analytical writing. This is because in educational institutions, argumentation or analysis is either not taught or not encouraged. Hence, (most of) the candidates might have pounced upon a descriptive essay and overlooked the importance of argumentation or analysis, and consequently shrank their chances of passing in the essay.
Generally speaking, the essay topics, which were 10 in number, were not difficult. However, the problem with them was that the candidates had to think on most of them first and write on them later. Here lies another catch: to write 2,500 to 3,000 words in the given three hours is demanding more than what is required from the candidates. The problem in front of (most of) the candidates must have been when to stop thinking and when to start writing. Objectively speaking, the essay topics (and the manner in which they were presented) were perfect but the word limit was challenging in the given timeframe. For such thinking topics, the word limit should have been from 1,500 to 2,000 to write within three hours.
There are three other reasons for the mass failure in the essay paper. First of all, CSS candidates rely on rote learning. This is again because in the educational institutions they come from, they are trained to do just that, instead of creating original and new ideas to write an answer. Secondly, CSS candidates rely on guess work. For instance, if not all, most candidates will prepare essays on the topics of corruption, terrorism, energy crisis, women, education, poverty and democracy. It was a routine that an essay on women would appear every year and all female candidates used to prepare and attempt the topic to pass the essay paper. Though this time an essay on gender equality appeared, it was unexpected, causing mass failure. Thirdly, except for two topics (out of 10), all topics needed expansion of underlying ideas. That is, CSS candidates had to expand them, develop arguments, write a matching outline and then finish writing at least 2,500 words in three hours. This is the area where they failed collectively. The failed CSS candidates should have practised English essay writing.
English General (précis and composition) was the next paper to cause the rest of the damage — though the paper of Islamiat might have taken a toll that is not being discussed here. Objectively speaking, the paper was perfect. CSS candidates might have been deceived by the apparent simplicity of the language expressed in the given précis, which constituted 22 marks out of the total of 100. Many might have considered it a simple précis taken from the area of sociology. In fact, there was a lot of crisscross of thoughts in the précis, which might have been overlooked by the candidates. Another question was to write a comprehensive note of 250 to 300 words (constituting 20 marks) on any one of the five given topics. One can bet that, if not all, most of the candidates might have written on the fifth option: ‘Is democracy an ideal form of government?’ The rest of the topics needed expansion of ideas, which most Pakistani students abhor doing. Taken together, both questions (précis and a small paragraph) constitute 42 marks out of 100. Any CSS candidate who fails these two questions should not think of passing the paper. The failed CSS candidates should have practised attempting these types of questions.
Now the question is: should the FPSC be criticised and pressurised to change its policy of quality recruitment and let the low quality candidates come into the civil services in the name of the credibility of the FPSC or national cohesion? Certainly not! Let the seats go vacant and be filled by the lot of candidates passing the examination next year. Let only brilliant minds and hardworking candidates enter the civil services.
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