CSS Strategy from PTI: Facilitating Exams or Raising Standards?

Special CSS exams for candidates from under-privileged parts of Pakistan or relaxing criteria for entry may not be the solution. What is needed is to invest in raising standards of education especially social sciences across Pakistan - argues a young analyst.

CSS strategy

It is heartening to see the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, voicing his concerns about marginalised communities at every available opportunity from cash transfer to facilitating CSS exams. What is further commendable is his willingness to translate those concerns into palpable action. One such example is the unprecedented cash transfer – under the Ehsaas banner – to the down-trodden in the light of the pandemic and the economic woes it has brought.

PTI’s New CSS Strategy?

Another is the announcement by his Special Assistant for Establishment Shahzad Arbab to come up with a new CSS strategy. Under this new CSS strategy there will be a special sitting of the CSS exam in November 2020 to fill 188 seats from Baluchistan, FATA, KPK and GB that have been sanctioned by the government – yet remain empty.

Shahzad Arbab is a respected ex-civil servant who served as Chief Secretary KPK, AJK and as Secretary Safron, was instrumental in developing blueprint of FATA merger with KP.

Read more: Future of CSS Exam: Computer based testing, clusters, screening test

According to official statistics of the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC), the autonomous body charged with recruitment for the civil services, 23,403 candidates appeared for the written part of the exam in 2019. Out of these, only 372 were able to clear the written exam and qualify for the interview – a measly 1.59% passing rate. Statistics from previous years tell the same story.

While on one hand, progressive reforms on training, remuneration and promotion have attracted a higher number of aspirants to appear in the CSS exam in recent years, on the other the structural deficiencies of the educational system that fail to equip critical thinking have culminated into an abnormally low qualifying rate for the interviews. The reforms might have succeeded in attracting a larger crowd towards CSS exams but have failed to attract talent that can successfully meet the standards.

CSS Strategy: Lowering criteria or raising standards? 

While the larger goal – of ensuring minority representation in the bureaucratic structure – is commendable, yet the specific solution presented by the Prime Minister’s aide seems to be myopic and oversimplified. Whether a re-examination is part of a larger strategy to level the playing field, or is instead the entire strategy in itself is an essential question mark.

There seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the issue the PM and his team are out to solve. The problem is not that youth in sufficient numbers, from the aforementioned areas, is not appearing in the exam. Indeed, every year, the number of applicants from these areas outstrip the number of available seats.

The second option is the only real way out of this conundrum. It might be looked down upon by the politically expedient, but the genuine cure to this ill lies in the upgradation and elevation of educational standards in the deprived areas

The problem, however, is that very few of these aspirants reach the threshold required to qualify. Therefore, the core problem is a lack of ‘successful applicants’ from these areas vis-à-vis sanctioned seats. No sound logic can explain how a re-examination can solve this problem; a re-examination can, at best, address issues of access to appear in the exam but not of talent upgradation. The structural inadequacies that caused these 188 seats to lie vacant will keep the seats vacant even after extra attempts are sanctioned to aspirants.

This leaves the policymakers with two options: either to lower the criteria to ensure seats are fulfilled or to elevate the talent from these areas by removing structural impediments.

Lowering Standards of Entry into CSS: Multiple Risks Ahead

The first option is a quick fix, but instead of furthering equity, it will breed inequity. This is because, once in the service, this cohort – which will have been inducted due to the hypothetical lowering of standards – will have to complete with those who will have come through an otherwise rigorous process.

Read more: Govt decides to take special CSS exam in 2020

This cohort (brought in through lowering of criteria) will, more often than not, be at a disadvantage with all prized postings and promotions going to those who came through the conventional route since the latter had a more stringent criteria of selection. With the conventional lot coming disproportionately from developed areas, an unintended consequence would be the further marginalization of the newer cohort in the service. Thus, the intervention will be rendered counter-productive.

The second option is the only real way out of this conundrum. It might be looked down upon by the politically expedient, but the genuine cure to this ill lies in the upgradation and elevation of educational standards in the deprived areas. Unlike ill-timed and hasty intervention at the end of the education value chain, interventions at the primary and secondary tier of education will pay the highest dividends.

This can be supplemented by targeted scholarships for youth from these areas in disciplines better aligned with the CSS syllabus like Political Science, International Relations and other social sciences. Funding for public libraries, book banks and enhanced coaching for aspirants can all help upgrade the talent to a level where they will no longer be beholden to stopgap measures. The aim must be to upgrade the talent from these areas to a level where they can get selected even against the most stringent of criteria.

Read more: Is the CSS Exam Getting Difficult? Who is to Blame?

While the concern for mainstreaming the marginalized is welcome, the PM’s team seems to be focusing on the symptom, not the cause. Merely increasing the number of attempts will not yield anything, as the structural deficiencies these youth are shackled with will not abate. The need of the hour is to upgrade educational facilities in these areas to level the proverbial field.

Rafay Ashraf recently graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) with focus in Social Policy and Public Management. He has a well-developed interest in geo-politics and strategy. He can be reached at rafayashraf111@gmail.com.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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