Why UPSC standards have fallen low

The irresistible inference one draws is that the commission's attitude towards setting the paper has been casual.

 |  6-minute read |   02-08-2017
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“King can do no wrong” is a common law principle which has almost lost its “sheen” in a pragmatic sense. However, the same doesn’t seem to be the case with the Union Public Service Commission (“UPSC”) wherein the norm seems to be “UPSC can do no wrong” in its absolute sense.

This article intends to draw attention to certain crucial aspects that touch upon the very credibility of the examination process.

UPSC civil services examination scheme

UPSC conducts the prestigious examination in three stages; first being the prelims, the second being the mains and third being the interview. While the preliminary examination is objective in nature, the mains examination is subjective.

The prelims consist of two papers (200 marks each) - Paper I being a general studies paper covers inter alia current events, history, geography, economic and social development and environmental issues; and Paper II being an aptitude paper covers inter alia comprehension, logical reasoning and numerical ability.

The preliminary exam was conducted on June 18. The answer key of the examination is published the next year after the announcement of final results. Apparently, UPSC apprehends that the immediate release of the answer key will lead to litigation and filing of writ petitions which may throw out of gear the entire selection process. I intend to critique this assumption here.

Further, I shall deal with the falling standards of questions in two articles. This article shall deal with pre-2016 question papers and the subsequent article shall deal with 2016 and 2017 question papers.

Falling standards of questions

A quality question should convey the same meaning to all reasonable candidates without ambiguity and without leading to divergent interpretations. Some of the questions in the civil services examination have been found to be wholly lacking this essential quality. For instance, consider the question stated below:

Question 87 in general studies paper I (2013), booklet series A:

Consider the following fauna of India:

1) Gharial

2) Leatherback Turtle

3) Swamp Deer

Which of the above is/are endangered?

- 1 and 2 only

- 3 only

- 1, 2 and 3

- None

According to the answer key uploaded on the UPSC website, option C, that is, all the mentioned fauna, Gharial, Leatherback Turtle and Swamp Deer, are endangered. This is dubious for the following reasons:

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation monitoring the decline in biodiversity worldwide, classifies all organisms into nine categories based on their risk perceptions.

This classification is generally accepted all over the world. According to their categorisation, “critically endangered”, “endangered” and “vulnerable” form three distinct categories. An organism falling under the “critically endangered” category is at greater risk when compared to an organism falling under the “endangered” category, which in turn is at greater risk when compared to an organism falling under “vulnerable” category.

According to the IUCN categorisation, the Gharial is critically endangered and the Leatherback Turtle and Swamp Deer are vulnerable.

In March 2011, the ministry of environment and forests published a booklet titled “Critically endangered animal species of India”. This official document recognises the IUCN categorisation. According to this booklet, both Gharial and Leatherback Turtle are listed as critically endangered. The Swamp Deer is referred to as endangered.

Going by either of these records, the UPSC answer that all three mentioned fauna are endangered is evidently wrong. Note that the risk categories are distinct and one does not form a subset of the other. If the examiner used the word “endangered” in a generic sense, does the question actually convey that meaning to a reasonable, well-informed candidate?

Can a reasonable, well-informed candidate be blamed for understanding the question in its technical sense? Note that the aforesaid terms like critically endangered and endangered are used in their technical sense in serious academic discussions on risk perception of a particular species.

Further, questions such as the feature which “best describes nirvana in Buddhism” (UPSC prelims, 2013) and “places associated with life of Buddha’ (UPSC prelims, 2014) were equally ambiguous. The answers of the aforesaid questions are highly subjective.

There were also some ambiguous comprehension-based questions in Paper II, 2014. I would place these questions in the “lottery zone”. The answers to the aforesaid questions furnished by the answer keys of well-known coaching institutions also differ; eminent academicians also differ. Then nay to speak about the confusion of a candidate. The irresistible inference one draws is that the UPSC’s attitude towards setting questions has been casual, if not downright flippant and irresponsible.

Transparency and credibility

upsc_073117030415.jpgTransparency will go a long way in ensuring the credibility and quality of the examination process.

Transparency will go a long way in ensuring the credibility and quality of the process. The UPSC is at liberty to make the examination process very demanding; but it has no right to ask ambiguous questions.

The so-called reason for the delay in releasing the answer key is not convincing. Let the answer key be released immediately after the exam and a window period of at least 2-3 days be given for receiving complaints. An expert panel can peruse the complaints, review the answers and release the revised answer key.

Quite a few entrance examinations are conducted in the above manner. Even if a writ is filed against the revised key, the UPSC will not have to worry unless the impugned answer is patently erroneous.

Generally, the judiciary will not interfere with the discretion of a constitutional body especially when it has a robust internal review and grievance redressal mechanism (unless the manner of exercise of discretion is perverse or the result of discretion is patently erroneous).

In this regard, an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Constitution can lay to rest all the apprehensions. It is quite evident that the release of answer key after the announcement of final results effectively negates any kind of grievance redressal mechanism.

It is akin to the idea of judicial review after the imposition and implementation of capital punishment!

Is the preliminary examination incongruous with the mains examination?

It is also pertinent to take a closer look at the present scheme of the prelims introduced in 2011. The present scheme comprising the general studies Paper I and aptitude Paper II replaced the earlier scheme which had two papers: general studies Paper I and optional Paper II.

The earlier scheme, in spite of some just criticisms, had a certain degree of logical continuity. The mains examination was the “advanced” stage of preliminary examination. This logical continuity is absent now. Further, aptitude paper II has become only a qualifying paper now. The entire selection is now based only on general studies Paper I and therefore, even the presence of one or two ambiguous questions is a serious blow to the genuine aspirants.

This whole scheme is counter-intuitive. As the marks obtained in prelims are not counted for the computation of final marks for determination of ranks, it is clearly of a “filtering” nature. If the preliminary exam doesn’t enjoy logical continuity with the rest of the processes, and further, asks ambiguous questions, isn't the subjectivity element in this objective examination too high to be termed a just and fair examination process?

The UPSC may consider asking more analytical (but unambiguous and non-subjective) questions in general studies Paper I. It seems UPSC has forgotten that the preliminary examination is an objective and not subjective examination. 

The UPSC has indeed asked some excellent questions which demand firm understanding of concepts. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for all the questions. The time has come for us to ponder over whether “UPSC can do no wrong”. After all, there is no “holy cow” in a nation governed by the principle of constitutionalism.

Also read: UPSC aspirant answers some 'wrong' questions about 2017 Civil Services Prelims


George KM George KM

The writer is a retired professor of economics, mentor to civil service aspirants and a practising lawyer at High Court of Kerala.

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