The Narendra Modi government has come under unexpected pressure from protesting students who have taken to the streets in Delhi, railing against the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The aspirants claim that the second paper of the CSAT, which tests, among other things, logical reasoning, analytical ability, basic numeracy and English language comprehension puts rural students and those from non-English medium school backgrounds at a disadvantage. The protestors want the CSAT format scrapped and the civil services exam, due next month, postponed. The Centre is waiting for the report of an expert panel before deciding its course of action.
While one may argue with the students’ contention that the exam should be postponed because of the time they lost owing to protests, the agitation does point to two troubling issues. One is the sheer lack of English proficiency among millions of youth, even among those who have been to English-medium schools. That English-comprehension, which accounts for no more than 22 marks in a 200 mark paper, should exercise the youth is a grim reminder of the quality of English teaching across the country.
It is of course not fair to punish students for poor transmission of English — and the UPSC must calibrate suitably in the current format — but both the Centre and states must reflect on the political effects of having unfulfilled millions who seek to get ahead in the English-dominated globalised workplace, but cannot because their schools have failed them.
The civil service aspirants also argue that the analytical and quantitative questions in the CSAT favour science students, disadvantaging those from humanities and social sciences. There is a good deal of heartburn among students that doctors and engineers, who complete full professional degrees, smoothly sail into the civil services through an exam tailor-made for them.
Governments have shied away from discouraging this practice, both to seek talent and avoid taking on a powerful constituency. But severe competition in a tight job-market makes that status quo untenable. The UPSC must fix the imbalance in the current format to tide over the unrest.