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Inherent bias

Updated January 05, 2017

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THE most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterised by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about two per cent and a steep failure rate of 92pc in English, a compulsory subject.

The first statistic has attracted much attention, with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals.

On face value, the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging behind demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More than one survey has identified the low quality of teaching in the school system.


The CSS exam screens for a particular type of candidate.


However, little can be done to improve the quality of education in the short term. Critical to any education system are curricula, pedagogical ability, and room for open inquiry. All have to move together for the system to improve in any meaningful sense — changing one or two aspects is not enough. Given the balance of forces in the country, there is little hope that the right combination can be achieved to make a difference to, say, the CSS results in the near term.

The one unexplored aspect in this regard is the nature of the CSS examination itself. It is not at all obvious whether the examination is screening for competence and intelligence or for conformity and compliant behaviour. If the latter, the very low success rate may not be an accurate indicator of the quality of the applicant pool.

Part of this bias in the testing instrument is, I suspect, deliberate. The nature of questions comprising the compulsory papers and the orientation of coaching in preparatory centres lend credence to the hypothesis that the test is consciously screening for a particular type of candidate.

But there is a less obvious bias related to the 92pc failure rate in English that raises a profound question: is it possible to be competent and intelligent without an adequate command of English? If so, how many otherwise qualified applicants are being excluded by the CSS examination? Keep in mind that aside from the compulsory English paper most other papers have to be answered in English as well.

(Consider the double burden under which even the best of the students labour. On the FPSC website, the instruction accompanying the CSS English Essay paper says: “Candidates will be required to write one or more essay in English. A wide choice of topics will be given. Candidates are expected to reflect comprehensive and research-based knowledge on a selected topic. Candidate’s articulation, expression and technical treatment of the style of English essay writing will be examined.” Pity the examinee attempting to articulate a research-based reflection and expressing it in accordance with the technical treatment of the style of the English essay. English appears as elusive to the examiners as it is to the examinees.)

This is a self-inflicted problem that does have a short-term solution. It may seem radical at the outset to suggest that applicants may be allowed to answer all papers in the language in which they are most comfortable, with English being made a non-compulsory paper. But how radical is it really?

Accepting for the moment that competence in English is necessary for Pakistani civil servants, is it not possible to attain this by having the sele­cted candidates un­­der­­go intensive language in­­­­­­­­­s­­­­­­­­truction with expert tutors during their first year? How difficult is it for an intelligent adult to learn English as a foreign language? Many Pakistani students awarded scholarships for higher education in European countries are able to learn the languages sufficiently to pursue their degrees. It is by no means an impossible task.

This suggests a radically different approach to selection: pick the brightest applicants and teach them enough English rather than rejecting potentially superior students because they have been inadequately schooled in the language. The pool of qualified applicants could be expected to increase despite the admittedly poor system of education in the country.

The sceptics should consider the precedent for the selection of British civil servants in colonial India. The ablest candidates were screened for general competence and subsequently trained in Indian languages under highly qualified teachers at Fort William College in Calcutta. Imagine if they had been selected based on prior familiarity with a foreign language.

Improving the health of the ailing civil service in Pakistan is possible. As for all maladies, the first step is a credible diagnosis.

The writer moderates The South Asian Idea Weblog.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2017