A Critical Appraisal of the CE-2019 Examination

A Critical Appraisal of the CE-2019 Examination

Aims and Objectives

The purpose of this White Paper is to analyze as objectively and dispassionately as possible, the papers set by the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) for Competitive Examination 2019, in the light of the syllabus published by the FPSC on its website. The basic assumptions in this regard are:

1. that the purpose of the syllabus is to give guidelines to the candidates from across Pakistan taking the examination for the prestigious Central Superior Services (CSS);
2. that it is a reasonable expectation on the part of the candidates that these guidelines be followed;
3. that the examinations aim to test, within the bounds set by the above two assumptions, the analytical and comprehension skills of the candidates instead of their memory though the two cannot be assumed to be absolutely mutually exclusive; and
4. that the brunt of any immoral behaviour or any conduct in violation of the spirit of the competitive examination shall be borne by only the real culprits, and not all the candidates.

The end goal of this document is to ascertain whether or not the aforementioned assumptions, which are based on the principles of fairness, and rules, were upheld this year, i.e. 2019. In order to do so, each one of the compulsory papers will be analyzed first and then a select few optional subjects will be discussed.

Compulsory Subjects

English Essay (14 February 2019)

English Essay Paper for CE 2019 was of moderate difficulty, and cannot be termed too unconventional. As stated on page 4 of the syllabus for CSS, the range of topics given was vast as it included topics pertaining to political, economic, social and religious issues of contemporary importance. In addition, a few literary and reflective topics were also there. This allowed serious candidates of all backgrounds to select at least one topic to write a comprehensive essay. Although the range of issues was not unconventional, almost all the topics were phrased in a way so as to promote on-the-spot thinking, and call upon the candidates to draw on a broad knowledge base instead of encouraging the reproduction of memorized material. The overall impression of this paper was positive. Even those who found it a bit difficult did not find it imbalanced or too extraordinary.

Précis and Composition (15 February 2019)

This paper was also easily doable and candidates were largely satisfied with their attempt. The passages for précis, comprehension and translation required a moderate understanding of the English language – as should be the case given the prevalent education system in Pakistan. Nonetheless, it deviated from scheme of marks given in the syllabus. Idioms, for example, carried 10 marks instead of 5 while the section “pairs of words” was completely omitted even though it has a 10-mark weight as mentioned on page 5 of the syllabus. Moreover, sections of “grammar and vocabulary” and “groupings of words” should carry, according to page 5 of the syllabus, a total of 30 marks yet they actually constituted 40 marks (including the MCQs). Questions on change of narration (direct to indirect or vice versa), and change of voice (active to passive or vice versa) were not there in the question paper, a case for their omission can, however, be made as the syllabus does not mention them specifically. Although the candidates were satisfied with the paper, it did not follow the pattern outlined by the FPSC itself.

General Knowledge I: General Science and Ability (16 February 2019)

All in all, this was a well-balanced paper and the syllabus guidelines were duly followed. It was interesting to note that the examiner(s) tried to segregate those who had opted for selective study from those who made comprehensive preparation. All four parts of the questions were from different parts of the syllabus – it was surprising, though, to find a question repeated from the GSA paper in CE-2016. Apart from this observation, there were generally no surprises, or deviations from the guidelines. Such papers should be highly appreciated as they promote comprehensive preparation and discourage the so-called “trend” mentality among candidates while adhering to the rules.

General Knowledge II: Current Affairs (17 February 2019)

This year’s Current Affairs paper was criticized the most, and rightly so. Firstly, MCQs were asked from history as well as from current issues. While the latter makes sense, the former does not, especially because this paper despite being a part of “General Knowledge” is essentially titled ‘Current Affairs’. In spite of that, such MCQs are not entirely unjustified as the first line of syllabus for Current Affairs paper says that candidates are required to have such knowledge of history as deemed necessary to understand current affairs. How MCQs on Jinnah’s salary or about the founder of the Republican Party of the United States help in understanding current issues is still questionable, though.

Equally perplexing is the fact that the syllabus has been almost completely ignored in the subjective part as well. The syllabus breaks down the exam into three portions: 20 marks for Pakistan’s domestic affairs, 40 marks for Pakistan’s external affairs and 40 marks for international affairs. The exam, on the contrary, was dominated by Pakistan’s domestic affairs which made up 3 out of 7 questions – the syllabus limits it to 20 marks. Even more so, in the international scenario where there was a lot that could have been asked about, relatively old and peripheral issues, e.g. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement 2015 which was a hot topic in 2016-17, were asked about. Another question that calls attention in two respects is Question 2 which asked about China’s strategic vision behind OBOR/BRI: while not detrimental to the understanding of the question, the statement used “China” rather than “China’s” and secondly, the question was repeated from past papers in spite of the fact that so many other topics could have been asked about and even OBOR could have been asked about in various other ways.

Moving on, the nature of the questions was so general that the distinction between those who have a grip on current issues and who do not will be difficult to gauge from this exam. However, this paper should have been either set by someone who knew about the syllabus requirements or it should have been rechecked and edited properly. This paper too broke away from the so-called “trend,” but the same could have been achieved by sticking to the guidelines.

Lastly, the Current Affairs paper was, reportedly, leaked, and a backup question paper was given to the candidates. It, thus, goes to FPSC’s credit that the leak was caught in time and appropriate action was taken. The administrative difficulties, which there must have been numerous, seemed to have been overcome quite smoothly by the Commission.

General Knowledge III: Pakistan Affairs (18 February 2019)

Like the Current Affairs paper, this one, too, invited criticism, though not to too great an extent. The first observation is again regarding the objective portion of the exam. The purpose of such MCQs which test not just some basic information but exact dates (years make sense but a few MCQs asked for even the day and month) of historic events is not easily understandable. It can be said, however, that to balance the overall difficulty of the paper, the objective portion was consciously made difficult after the subjective portion had been gauged to be relatively easier. The second observation, again, is about not following the syllabus. Question 2 in the paper was about the Rule of Congress Ministries (1937-39) and its impacts. Students generally found this question easy to tackle but principles demand a comment on it. While the syllabus before 2016 specifically mentioned Pakistan Movement as a part of the paper, the Syllabus for Competitive Examinations from 2016 onward does not mention that. It will be better if either the examiners follow the new syllabus or if FPSC changes the syllabus to make it open (which essentially means making Pakistan Affairs equivalent to “everything about Pakistan including but not limited to its history, geography, politics, constitution, institutions, policies, economy, society and foreign policy). Thirdly, the questions, despite being easy, were very broad in their scope so much so that questions 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 looked less like questions and more like essay topics which required from the candidates not their analysis or opinion but a reproduction of all the causes, impacts and solutions of an issue. This means that the students must have fallen victim to either skipping a lot of points due to time constraints or writing too little about each one of their points making the whole answer appear to be structured as a detailed outline rather than an answer to a 20-mark question of a discipline categorized within the social sciences. Despite these flaws, Pakistan Affairs paper warrants praise as well. It was a paper that targeted all the currently relevant issues pertaining to Pakistan and those with a thorough understanding of Pakistan’s problems (with their historic and current development and analysis) and with even the slightest of knowledge about how to deal with such problems must have found the paper easy to attempt provided that they were able to manage their time.

Islamic Studies (19 February 2019)

After a few surprising and unexpected papers, candidates finally found some relief on the last compulsory subject. They found the objective part of the paper quite doable. The subjective part was balanced as it covered almost all portions of the syllabus. 3 out of 7 questions demanded some thinking on the candidates’ part – a welcome move – though 4 questions demanded the reproduction of what candidates had memorized.

Optional Subjects

Accountancy & Auditing (20 February 2019)

Accountancy & Auditing did not surprise the candidates. Both of its papers followed the guidelines provided on pages 21 to 23 of the syllabus. A few mistakes need to be pointed out though. Firstly, in Question 3 part (c) in paper 1, data was given but no question was asked. When the candidates inquired about it, the invigilation staff was non-cooperative and they responded with irritation. Any instructions on how to attempt that question were provided to the candidates after 45 minutes. Secondly, in Question 4 of Paper 1, the balance sheet given mentioned creditors under both heads (liabilities and assets) whereas under the head of assets, the word “debtors” should have been used instead of “creditors.” Paper 2 had no such mistakes but its questions on taxation were unexpected as they deviated from the past trend, though not from the syllabus guidelines, due to which any complaint on the part of the candidates was, and remains, unjustified. While the paper was fine overall, FPSC should probe why such mistakes are made in the papers and have a protocol communicated to its staff so that no time is wasted during the exam.

Political Science (20 February 2019)

Once again, the main grievance of the candidates was – and justifiably so – deviation of the paper from the syllabus. According to page 120, in Political Science Paper 1, Part A (Western Political Thought and Muslim Political Thought) shall constitute 50 marks. However, in CE-2019 paper, there was only one question from this section (from Hegelian thought) worth 20 marks. Even if one assumes (perhaps correctly) that all the MCQs were from this section too, the total marks become 40, still 10 marks short of what the syllabus delineates. Furthermore, questions 3 and 5 in Section A and question 6 in Section B of Paper 1 were from topics mentioned in the syllabus for Paper 2, on page 121 of the syllabus. However, Paper 2 of Political Science did not have any such issues as it followed the syllabus guidelines.

International Relations (20 February 2019)

Both papers were such that they followed the syllabus guidelines. In Paper 1, however, the questions were too broad in their scope, thus making the management of content and time the main issue. This is not a criticism as such but an observation of how the paper was. Phrasing of question 6 in Paper 1 could have been better so as to eliminate language mistakes. While a case can be made for Question 7 (asking about MTCR) of Paper 2 being from a topic not explicitly mentioned in the syllabus, it was not wrong of the examiner to expect that candidates should know about it. Despite the general complaint that Paper 2 was tough, the overall impression was positive. Both papers largely followed the guidelines as laid down in the syllabus and presented relevant and balanced questions.

Psychology (21 February 2019)

The paper did not deviate from the syllabus but the issue was again that of the questions being too broad in scope. Every question appeared to require the reproduction of whole sections from the syllabus instead of testing the candidates’ understanding of the subject matter. Instead of testing rote learning through questions which, for example, ask for the description of the structures and functions of the CNS (question 4) or for a discussion of classical and operant conditioning (question 6), the exams should try to award in-depth reading and understanding of the subject.

Sociology (21 February 2019)

Like many other papers, this one also broke away from the so-called “trend,” and it must be appreciated. While it is always expected that questions from theories of sociology will be asked, this year, they were quite specific in nature. Durkheim’s four types of suicides asked about in Question 3 and Marx’s concept of alienation asked about in Question 7 should suffice as examples. Another deviation from the norm was the fact that 3 questions were asked on a single topic, i.e. culture. While this is not to say that the paper was out of syllabus, it did restrict the element of choice, and thus tried to distinguish between those who had given a mere superficial reading to the subject and those who had prepared it in depth. The overall impression of this paper was positive.

Punjabi (21 February 2019)

Traditionally, this paper has been a safe bet for most CSS aspirants. But, the 2019 paper surprised many. It was not the case that questions were asked from topics not covered by the syllabus as delineated on pages 137 and 138. Rather, most candidates complained that the examiner did not ask about as many classical Punjabi poets and writers as (s)he usually did – teachers of Punjabi as well as the candidates usually opt for preparing selectively for this paper with preference for the classical writers and poets even though the syllabus clearly specifies 15 marks for this section. That, however, brings to the fore the main criticism of the Punjabi paper. The syllabus divides 100 marks of this paper into multiple sections, each of maximum 15 marks and one on “Islami Adab” for 10 marks. The pattern introduced this year, however, was different as one question was asked from each section for 16 marks in addition to the MCQs. Additionally, in 2019, two questions each of 16 marks were from topics in Section 5 of the syllabus titled “Takhleeqi Nasar,” given on page 137, while no question from any topic in Section 1 of the syllabus was given. Either the syllabus needs to be revised so as to introduce in it the lack of specificity that will bring it in line with the exam pattern, or the pattern of the exam should be changed. That being said, it will be unfair to not praise this year’s examiner for making a paper that reflects the syllabus better and expects that candidates have gone through the whole syllabus rather than having prepared for only handpicked sections.

Constitutional Law (21 February 2019)

The paper stuck to the guidelines as provided on page 60 of the syllabus. Like other papers, the one of Constitutional Law also carried some surprises. For instance, questions 6 and 7 were about the Russian constitution. Although not out of syllabus, it has traditionally been left out by the aspirants. Those who left this topic would have still been able to attempt 4 questions out of 7 as is the requirement, but it highlights the fact that the FPSC is moving away from the traditional paper patterns, which as always is welcome.

International Law (21 February 2019)

Those who are in the profession of teaching and practicing law will defend this year’s International Law paper set by the FPSC. While they correctly assert that the paper did not contain anything out of syllabus, they will be wrong if they say that the paper was a fair one. It appears that the examiner of International Law has a strong grip over the subject, is amply aware of the contemporary debates in this field and has exposure to good literature on the subject. But, the fact remains that the phrasing of the questions was exceptionally difficult for most candidates. Had the Pakistani education system exposed candidates to such linguistic expertise, inculcated in them the ability to use the English language (or for that matter, even Urdu) expertly, and developed among them the habit of going through quality literature, the paper would have been considered just and doable for all. Keeping in view the short time the candidates have at their disposal to prepare for the CSS exam, instead of trying to build such an in-depth understanding of the legal jargon and linguistic expertise, they resort to consulting locally written literature that imparts all the concepts in an easy-to-understand manner. Because of this, most of the candidates got confused due to the open-ended nature of the questions and multiple interpretations that seemed possible especially in questions 4, 5 and 6. Nevertheless, the paper was not such that it could not have been attempted to score at least passing marks. For the future though, the FPSC should consider setting the paper in a manner that is just. On the other hand, if the paper is going to match the language and the manner in which the literature on the subject is published internationally instead of matching the relatively lower standards of the local education system, only those candidates having a good grip on the subject matter, as well as necessary and sufficient exposure to quality readings on it, should opt for this subject.

Criminology (21 February 2019)

The paper for Criminology was well designed and was a balanced one overall. Every section of the paper had one question that focused on too specific an issue and one question that was quite broad in its scope; therefore, limiting the choice that most of the candidates had – most of them went for the latter. The first section, however, limited even that choice for the candidates as both questions were from the same subtopic (sociological theories of crime) though, of course, they both asked about different theories. The difficulty level was low for this year’s paper as well and most of the candidates should be able to score well. However, it does seem that the FPSC is trying to gradually encourage the candidates to prepare the subject in depth without leaving out anything which is always a positive trend.

Gender Studies (22 February 2019)

The most important aspect of the 2019 paper was that it eliminated the element of generalization of Gender Studies as a subject. The previous papers had been too generic and, thus, had allowed even those with a basic notion of what rights women demand and how they are justified to secure good marks. But, in this year’s paper, questions that required detailed knowledge and understanding of theories as well as the ability to apply those on contemporary issues have, virtually, done away with this trend. This is true especially of questions 4, 5, 6 and 7. However, one issue needs to be pointed out here as well: instead of the word “special,” the word “especial” had been used in questions 2 and 6. This serves as a reminder that FPSC needs to get the papers properly proofread.

Environmental Sciences (22 February 2019)

Questions asked in 2019 paper for Environmental Science were such that most of the candidates should have been able to answer at least 3 out of 7. Questions 3, 4, 5 and 6 were quite specific in nature and scope as they focused on particular issues that candidates either prepare for a short note or leave the option. That fourth question probably makes the distinction between those who were well-prepared and those who were not, though that will not cause many to fail the exam. This is a better way to create that distinction and encourage candidates to develop a proper understanding of the subject.

History of Pakistan and India (22 February 2019)

The 2019 paper of History of Pakistan and India was an unexpected one though it was not out of syllabus. Traditional questions were avoided. The first three questions were well phrased and offered a gust of fresh air. The subsequent four questions too offered the same but were all from the post-partition era, which made the paper a bit imbalanced, not to mention that each of these 4 questions focused on very specific issues such as the Basic Democracies or LFO or Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s ministry, which, though doable, were a deviation from the norm. All other portions from which the questions could have been made were ignored such as the era from 1707 to 1947 (240 years of history) and from the foreign policy of Pakistan. The areas mentioned cover as many as 5 out of the 10 sections of the syllabus given on page 87. Even if one thinks from the perspective of the proportion in terms of years this era covers, it comes up to be around 26 percent of the total period from 700 to 2000 AD. Thus, from these sections at least one question, if not more, should have been asked in order for the paper to cover the whole syllabus in a balanced and comprehensive manner.

European History (22 February 2019)

The European History paper was evenly spread across all the eras within the syllabus. It is commendable that the examiner set the paper covering such a vast course so well balanced. But, this paper too was replete with problems, especially those related to of English language as grammatical mistakes can be found at numerous places, e.g. questions 2, 3 and 8. It does not invite any criticism specific to the syllabus or the questions or the overall balance within the paper, save phrasing of the questions though it must also be stated that the occasionally poor phrasing of the questions did not impede the understanding of what was being asked for. Nonetheless, proofreading of question papers needs to be improved with respect to both, technicalities of the subjects and grammar plus phrasing.

History of USA (22 February 2019)

After last year’s devastating result wherein most of the candidates unexpectedly failed, this year’s paper was quite low in its level of difficulty. Candidates who had gone through the syllabus were able to attempt more than 15 MCQs. The subjective portion did not present anyone with significant problems though only a few candidates who had prepared thoroughly for the subject went for question 3. While the candidates were happy with their attempt, fears loomed due to the memories of CE-2018. Although the result is not out yet, it needs to be said that a better policy will be to set papers of moderate difficulty which also distinguish between candidates who are well prepared and those who are not.

Public Administration (23 February 2019)

This was like a typical Public Administration paper in Competitive Examinations. It was a well-balanced, moderately difficult paper. However, two questions invited some criticism which can be argued against but it is not entirely unjustified. Questions 3 and 4 asked about specific theories such as those of John Rawls, Hersey and Blanchard, and of House, none of which are specifically mentioned anywhere in the syllabus. While an argument can be made that candidates are expected to know about a few theories, the fact of the matter remains that without the syllabus limiting them to a few theorists, the task effectively becomes a never-ending one. Should the candidates prepare the mainstream theories or should they be expected to know about the theories given by any Melanesian or African theorists also? Despite this issue, the paper was not unfair to the candidates and was such that with even the basic preparation, candidates should have been able to attempt the required 4 questions.

Concluding Remarks

The analysis made above suggests that the FPSC has tried to discourage path dependencies in the methods of preparation for, and the selection of subjects in, Competitive Examination. The methodologies used for the stated end are far from perfect but the change in FPSC’s thinking is a long-awaited one. However, an approach which mixes good intentions and welcome changes in thinking patterns – albeit with partially flawed implementation – runs the risk of eliminating from the competition the candidates who otherwise could prove a valuable asset to the Central Superior Services as they might not be able to distinguish themselves from those who do not have analytical and problem-solving bent. Checks and balances with regard to whether the given guidelines are followed or not, and with regard to the level of linguistic difficulty that the CSS papers should exhibit keeping in mind the country’s education system need to be improved. Checking of exams – an area that remains shrouded in mystery – should also be made more transparent and standardized so as to ensure that the candidates who present quality content and specific arguments on the answer sheet do not have to suffer the injustice of nondiscrimination. In the end, it should suffice to say that the FPSC should streamline and standardize its process from the setting to the evaluation of papers, and it should recheck everything to ensure that rules and regulations are followed in letter and spirit. CSS candidates, too, need to rethink their strategy and rely not on experiences of others and herd mentality but chart out their own paths to success according to their own individual sensibilities and capabilities.

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