In one of the most hard-hitting scenes of the popular web series Aspirants, we see a key character, Sandeep Bhaiya, drenched in rain, staring into nothingness. To his utter shock, he discovers that he has failed to crack the Civil Service preliminary examination of the UPSC in his last attempt. The show portrays him as the proverbial struggler, who bets everything on the faith that one day, he will crack the coveted exam. Sandeep’s story resonates with most Civil Services Examination aspirants. Every year, hundreds of thousands of qualified young men and women spend precious hours of hard work, and free, productive time to prepare for the UPSC. Like Yudhishthira in the infamous game of dice in Mahabharata, once the aspirant goes down this journey, a comeback is but rare.
Cracking this exam has become as much a matter of luck as hard work. According to data available on the UPSC website, 10.6 lakh candidates applied for the exam in 2018, out of whom 5 lakh ultimately appeared for the prelims. And only 10,000 (2 per cent of total candidates) qualified for the second tier – the Mains. From there, only 1,992 candidates were shortlisted for the personality test, filtering away roughly another 8,000 candidates. Finally, only 759 candidates were selected for various services, the overall success ratio (selected to appeared) being impossibly low at 0.15 per cent! The numbers are similar for any recent year of examination.
This ‘winner takes all’ approach is letting down many meritorious aspirants who should be getting a better deal. In the 2018 data, consider the case of those 8,000 serious aspirants who qualified the prelims but could not make it to the interview stage. Many of these aspirants will undertake 3-4 more attempts without any certainty of selection. It is important to appreciate that even a single, well-prepared attempt demands a minimum investment of a fully dedicated one year from any candidate. Failure at the mains or interview stage gets the candidate back to square one, having to start again by taking the prelims next year. In 2018, only 26 per cent successful candidates cracked the exam in their first or second attempt. This means that the majority of the successful candidates spent at least three or more years managing the exam cycle. Several successful candidates invest up to seven years in this conundrum. This period can be better utilised by gaining new skills, professional certifications or industry experience.
The current costs
The loss of the prime years of a candidate’s life is only one aspect of the problem. Preparing for the civil services is also a fairly costly affair for any middle or low-income individual. It includes coaching classes, materials/technology and study groups, as well as spending substantial sums of money on rented apartments/lodges in costly cities such as Delhi. Another aspect of this process, and perhaps the most underrated, is the personal and social costs associated with this preparation. Candidates usually maintain a limited social circle. Tight schedules between coaching classes and studying mean that there is hardly any space for healthy social interactions. As years progress and anxieties increase with every unsuccessful attempt, the pressure associated with the preparation grows almost exponentially. This takes a huge toll on the mental and physical health of many aspirants.
This is not to say that the current system exists without its needs and merits. Perhaps the riskiest stage of the examination, the dreaded preliminary exam was introduced on the recommendation of the Kothari Report (1976). The reason was simple. As the number of applications started to go up rapidly, it was considered prudent to introduce an exam that could filter out non-serious candidates. It must also be admitted that the prelim exams maintain a strong focus on merit, objectivity and transparency. However, we believe that there is an even better way to serve these purposes, while at the same time minimising some of the costs that we have outlined.
The Civil Services Foundation Exam
We propose that a new Civil Services Foundation Exam (CSF) replace the existing prelims stage in the CSE. The mandate for conducting the CSF exam can be transferred to the newly formed National Testing Agency (NTA), which may conduct it as an online test twice a year at designated NTA centres across the country.
In our proposed system, the CSF score will be similar in its utility to the GRE/GMAT scores (expressed preferably in percentile format). This score can be used as a filtering criterion, not only for CSE but also for other exams in the country that have an existing preliminary testing stage. These may include PSU/banks/SSC/university entrances. Keeping no age limit/a liberal upper age or attempt limit to sit for the proposed CSF exam so that this score can be utilised for a variety of jobs is also worth a thought.
Any candidate who takes the CSF exam in any given year shall have the option of either retaining her score for subsequent CS (Main) examinations for at least two years or reappearing in any subsequent CSF rounds (conducted bi-annually) to improve her score. In India, this system has already been tried and proven successful with the Chartered Accountancy (CA) examination system conducted by ICAI. In the private sector, Tata Consultancy Services recently started conducting a quarterly National Qualifier Test with a similar purpose and design. The score is valid for two years.
The proposed Civil Service Examination
The UPSC should begin its selection process for civil services directly with the written CS (Main) examination, with a valid CSF score (achieved in past two years) as the basic criterion for application. The Commission may announce a cut-off CSF score and a list of candidates eligible for appearing in the Civil Service (Mains) exam, to be conducted annually, followed by the annual interview. We are not proposing any change in the pattern of conducting the written Main examination and the interview.
This new, proposed pattern can improve the CSE exam system in several ways. It will greatly reduce the burden on the UPSC to conduct an all-India preliminary examination across hundreds of centres. The resources thus saved can be used to expand the number of candidates selected to write Mains and also increase examination centres for it, thereby allowing more people to sit for the exam and increase the talent pool. Moreover, since a valid score of CSF means any score from the last two years, a student will get multiple attempts to improve her score.
The new system will afford the candidates the choice to not appear for a given CS (Main) exam, in case of an emergency or lack of preparation. This will not only reduce the risk for aspirants but also improve the quality of aspirants sitting for the CS (Main) examination. It will also effectively reduce the duration of the examination cycle, as candidates will not need to re-start the entire process from prelims, in case they fail to qualify either the CS (Main) or the interview stage.
It will allow candidates to adjust the exam cycle according to their needs, in case they are pursuing a degree or job, and not force them to drop out due to the extensive nature of the examination process. The new system will offer the possibility to make the CSF score valid for applying to other examinations of various other government jobs/exams, freeing up valuable time and saving financial expense.
India is a young nation with the gift of demographic dividend. The culture of “preparing” for government job exams has meant that a large part of this dividend or “youth capital” remains invested in a risky and unproductive venture. The obsession with the ‘sarkari naukri’ is becoming a sort of addiction with high socio-economic costs, and it’s high time we addressed it. This proposal has the potential to reduce the overall cost associated with not just the Indian Civil Service examinations, but with the competitive examination system as a whole. It merits serious consideration.
Priyank Mishra is an IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre. Vinayak Kishore is a research scholar at IIM Ahmedabad. They tweet @priyank_mshr and @VinayakKishore. Views are personal.