The steel frame needs some training reform - Hindustan Times
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The steel frame needs some training reform

Jul 03, 2023 10:14 PM IST

The English-speaking, engineering graduate is the face of the IAS today. This calls for training on social norms, public purpose and structural inequalities

In 2022, 1.1 million young Indians applied for the civil services examination; 573,735 aspirants appeared for it; and a mere 933 candidates made it through. This frenetic quest for permanent government jobs is today the primary occupation for millions of India’s educated young. According to the department of personnel and training, 220 million hopeful candidates applied for central government jobs between 2014 and 2021. Of these around 720,000 qualified. The tyranny of coaching centres that now fuel the economies of several Indian cities, from Kota to Patna; the emotional and psychological costs of desperately seeking a job with a staggeringly low chance of success; and the loss to national productivity, when the bulk of the country’s educated young spend up to 10 years of their lives preparing for an examination, are a deep malaise. But this social churn is also seeding shifts in the profiles of successful candidates over the decades, a reality that has serious implications for the civil services and its everyday function.

 220 million hopeful candidates applied for central government jobs between 2014 and 2021. Of these around 720,000 qualified. PREMIUM
220 million hopeful candidates applied for central government jobs between 2014 and 2021. Of these around 720,000 qualified.

Last month, this newspaper published some fascinating data that reflects this changing profile. Three aspects stood out. First, the rising number of successful candidates with a bachelor’s degree and the corresponding decline in candidates with postgraduate or higher degrees — a sign of how many Indians drop out of the education or skilling ladder in this elusive quest for a government job. Second, the phenomenal rise of candidates taking the examination in English medium and third, the increasing number of engineers making it to the merit list, coupled with the declining success rate of humanities candidates. This third trend is a nearly two-decade-long phenomenon. Data on IAS profiles from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data highlights the number of recruits from STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) rose from 18% in the 1980s to nearly 80% by 2022.

This visible presence of English language and STEM graduates are, in part, an artefact of the design of the examination itself. But they are also an inevitable selection effect of a skewed education system that sorts the best students. Proficiency in English, and engineering as the logical next step, are the markers of what succeeds in the Indian education system and, therefore, attracts the most “meritorious” students. Over the decades, the social base of successful recruits has become more representative and reflective of Indian realities. A survey conducted by scholar Anirudh Krishna on the 2009 cohort of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) revealed that 85% hailed from small towns and villages. A total of 24% were educated in government schools and 23% completed their education in rural settings. But a high stakes entrance exam, built on the foundations of a skewed education system, has arguably created a new elite within this broadened social base — the English-speaking engineer, who is the new IAS.

Why does this matter in how the country is administered? The diversity of the social base of the IAS is effectively undercut by a homogeneity in academic orientation. All disciplines come with their own particular norms and approaches on how complex problems should be solved. Some focus on the plumbing (nuts and bolts) and others on the structures (social behaviours and contracts) that underlie inequality. The prevalence of any one set of norms thus limits understanding and approaches to complex social, and structural problems, while also risking the privileging of solutions that the dominant professional group is most comfortable with. The preference for technology, apps and algorithms over deliberation in India’s administration is an illustration of this. Here is the reality. Who gets recruited is unlikely to change, and, in fact, the share of engineering graduates is only going to rise, given existing trends. Moving forward, the approach to civil service training and internal human resource management will need to change in ways that allow the services to leverage these changes to India’s advantage.

First, the in-service training system must now do what our examination and education system failed to do. Rather than being about administrative competency and skilling, it must also shift its pedagogy to focus on core aspects of social norms, public purpose and structural inequalities. In our experience at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) with teaching in administrative training institutes at the state-cadre level, we have observed fundamental shifts in how civil servants perceive poverty, the norms of hierarchy and teamwork, and an appreciation for time-consuming processes of deliberation and consultation with citizens through such exposure, regardless of their educational background.

Second, career progression. Career progression within government needs to become more flexible so that employees are able to chart out their careers in line with their realised skill-sets, domain knowledge gained on the job, and the self-development pathways they have invested in for themselves. The current system of mainly seniority-based promotion within strictly defined services and rules does not adequately incentivise employees for self-development. The limited scope for job rotation and the siloed nature of government work means that government employees rarely get to learn from each other. Therefore, they inevitably base their administrative approach on what they know, rather than what is necessary for achieving the desired outcome.

The shifting profile of the IAS underscores the urgent need to reform civil service training and human resource management, away from its current hierarchical emphasis on systems to one that focuses on placing the right people in the right jobs, while also making space for cross-sectoral learning so that no single set of professional norms dominates our approach to development.

Yamini Aiyar is president, CPR. Rahul K Sharma is fellow, CPR. The views expressed are personal

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