In the month of October, the preliminary examinations of the UPSC for the Civil Services will be conducted. Candidates appearing in CSE conducted by the UPSC this time will have a different kind of experience of preparing for this examination during the pandemic, the first and the second Covid waves.
As we all know, UPSC is considered to be the biggest and toughest competition in India. The nature of the competition demands certain norms, strategy, focus and consistency and above all, competitive environment and peace of mind. The first question that may come to mind: Are students completely prepared for the competition? How has the pandemic impacted their preparation and how it has impacted the overall competitive environment?
According to D. P. Agarwal, former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission of India (UPSC), “Pandemic has not only impacted competitive exams but the complete teaching and learning process in the country. When it comes to competitive examination, one requires planned study and a clear and time bound road map of study. This requires the exact dates of examination.
The first casualty was the change of dates of various components of CSE due to Pandemic in past two years. This uncertainty coupled with the fact that the candidates were forced to prepare at their homes lacking proper connectivity facilities, competitive environment and group learning atmosphere on account of only online learning. Learning at home needs a different level of concentration and commitment which most of the time was absent.”
He added, “Preparing for competitive exams require a lot of quality learning material prepared for self-learning regularly. The same was not available as the most of the coaching institute could not prepare them and used the offline material online only. Most of the candidates come from rural and remote areas. The problems of on learning by such candidates are well documented. They were impacted more due to pandemic. Pandemic also curtailed the peer learning by the candidates. This caused stress and diminished the affected the moral of the candidates in an uncertain atmosphere.”
“A lot of online tests and assignments were done by the candidates. But a proper Feedback on their learning by the candidates was either missing or not up to the mark. This means that the impact of the pandemic has been on the availability of quality material, availability peer learning, and competitive environment, uncertainty of the examination calendar and lack of support for de-stressing. Unavailability of somebody whom one can talk during stress and uncertainty about when the exam would take place. These three have been the major impact on the competitive examinations. The pandemic has impacted preparation of students for competitive examination from social, psychological as well as technically preparation angle,” said the former Chairman of UPSC.
On examination schedule and the code of conduct, he said, “Schedule of many competitive examinations has been disrupted badly due to pandemic and lack of integrity of examinations conducted online. There has also been lot of litigation about the conduct of many of the examinations in the country. UPSC faces a great challenge to conduct the prelims of CSE at large number of places throughout the country without compromising the integrity. One advantage UPSC has that the candidates are mature and understands the value of unbiased and fair examination and are keen to complete the selection processes with pandemic protocols. UPSC may announce a code of conduct and do’s and don’ts for everyone involved with this examination in public domain. This will create a moral pressure.”
On the impact of the pandemic on the UPSC results, the former chairman said, “UPSC decided quite in advance and did not keep candidate in dark about the date of personality test schedule. So, candidates are able to plan their preparation well. This extra time available has enabled candidates to prepare vigorously. This may result in a close competition amongst candidates. This will help the cause of UPSC to get better prepared candidates.
Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood, former civil servant, member Sachar Committee who is president of Zakat Foundation of India. He runs Sir Syed Coaching and Guidance Centre for UPSC aspirants from where 26 students qualified UPSC exams in 2020.
He said, “In respect of the in-person classroom coaching schedule for the competitive examinations of UPSC the pandemic came down as a bolt from the blue. Abruptly, large number of the candidates got dislocated and had to confine themselves mostly at home and began studying solo. That, however, is a vital component of the preparation. So, to that extent, the pandemic may be treated as a blessing in disguise. Coaching should not be the mainstay of the preparation; it can give only a well directed push. The really pivotal part of the preparation has to be done in isolation at the candidate’s own study table at home or in the hostel room.”
He added, “Those institutions which provide a combination of hostel facility as well as an annual coaching timetable had to take a step back because of the pandemic. This happened monumentally during the lockdown but even spread-over beyond that because the candidates and their families as well as the institutional organizers have rightly been in a Covid related paradoxical situation of ‘be or not to be’. Dishearteningly, the predicament continues even now and may last till the end of 2021 if not longer way off.”
Mohd Nabeel from Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh who is preparing for Civil Services said, “There was lot of anxiety and mental disturbance. There was no peace of mind to concentrate. Coaching was disrupted many times and there was no proper guidance which impacted our preparation to a great extent. Many students went home due to lockdown and had to face some kind of disturbance. We require peaceful external and internal environment for preparation which was not there due to the pandemic.”
Another Civil Services aspirant, Ayan Shah from Indore, Madhya Pradesh said, “Online study was there but the basic requirement for this competition is environment which we lacked during the pandemic. Physical presence of teacher is important because there was inconsistency with the online teaching. The second wave of Covid was very harmful, full of stress and anxiety. Sad news every now and then distracted our focus, attention and consistency. We were worried of our friends and families. No one was certain what was going to happen next. This uncertainty disrupted our preparation to a great extent.”
“Initially I was highly motivated but then I got depressed for various reasons during Covid and it hampered my preparation to a great extent. I personally faced problems like availability of materials, hard copies, newspapers and so on,” said Mohd Shamshuddin of West Bengal.
Dr Musharrat from West Champaran, Bihar while sharing her experience of preparation for UPSC during Covid said, “I am a fresher and we had a schedule that we will finish syllabus by a given point of time but we could not complete because classes were postponed due to lockdown. Only two, three subjects have been completed. We were unable to clear our doubts because of unavailability of teachers, we lacked proper guidance. Today we have pressure to complete our syllabus on time.
Tasneem Haider, Managing Director, The Thought IAS Academy, New Delhi said, “There was no regular class during pandemic. We are trying to prepare students online and offline and provide guidance so that they can appear in prelims in October and can be successful. In IAS exams, physical classes and guidance is very important. In offline classes, students remain active, they interact with the teachers, there are question answer sessions but in online they remain inactive and missed the kind of rapport they require with the teachers for preparation.”
He added, “During lockdown our academy was completely closed therefore students prepared at their homes, rented flats and they felt confined to the four walls where they lived and it had some kind of impact ton them. There is going to be difference when preparing in close confined areas and in an open environment.”
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