How about reforming the viva system next?

There aren't many moments in my life as an ordinary writer where my writings on banning the quota system have gone in vain. I had come to my workplace in the morning and finished the piece in three hours. Just before sending it, I clicked on an online news portal and found that the prime minister had just announced the demise of the quota system. A strange confluence of disappointment and pleasure set in my mind and I immediately shared the now "useless" article with the editor. 

Last time when I wrote about reforming the quota system in October, there was no trace of any movement looming on the horizon. I still received multiple emails from young people who requested me to write more on the issue. I couldn't comply with their expectations, but I realised that the employment sector has long been neglected by the government. The prime minister perhaps was ill-advised by her political advisers on the grave condition of youth unemployment. Even the intelligence did a poor job of gauging students' sentiments. Topkhana bureaucrats, who rarely can think out of the box, remained as tardy as possible in coming up with a solution.

While the students struggled to revive the Darwinian theory on the survival of the fittest, some senior politicians began to peddle the theory of "conspiracy," failing to see that the whole country was flaring up. But the prime minister saved the nation from a volcano that was about to erupt, thanks to her judicious and prompt intervention. Congratulations to her for her farsightedness as she foresaw the possibility of increased anger and frustration fomenting among the youth if the faulty quota system still remained in place. No point keeping a typewriter in the age of the computer. Rather abolishing all quotas and thus ensuring the meritocratic selection criteria for all government jobs will set the nation one step forward towards better productivity in the public sector and a fairer knowledge economy. 

But we still need to go another step forward by reforming or totally dismantling the viva system which is a big source of discrimination, nepotism, and corruption. Now that a decision seems to have been taken on the quota system, it is perhaps time to set our eyes on reforming the viva system which will pave the way for ensuring fairness and justice in all public service recruitment. The prime minister's real objective of ensuring fairness in recruitment for public jobs will greatly be reversed as long as the nepotism-based viva system remains in place. Undue influences can never be eliminated from this corrupt system. 

Standardising all public tests and making them transparent is imperative. All public tests and viva should be weighted on a scale of 100. Most importantly, the viva exam should never get weights more than 10 percent of the total. The minimum score in viva should be 5, and the interviewer has to give an explanation if he/she gives less than 5 to any candidate. The distribution of the grades can be such: 10 percent for qualifications, 70 percent for written tests, 10 percent for psychological tests, and the remaining 10 percent for the viva. The viva shouldn't have the determining power of giving the final "yes" or "no" for a candidate. It is just a score. The whole board has to reach a consensus to cancel the candidacy.

Say, in all pre-viva items, Candidate A scored 90 percent (90*90%=81) and Candidate B got 80 percent (90*80%=72). Due to B's personal connections, perhaps a relative, he "somehow" gets 10 out of 10 in the viva whereas A gets only 5 out of 10. The injustice can still be offset because A's total (81+5=86) is larger than B's (72+10=82). But if the viva-taker has no accountability, he can give zero to A, rendering him unqualified for the post, because now A's score (81+0 =81) is less than B's (72+10 = 82) and B gets hired. Thus, the whole purpose of fairness, which our PM wanted to ensure by eliminating the quota system, is doomed again unless we limit the power of the viva system or, even better, we entirely expunge it. It is also possible to think about a no-grade-attached viva system which will simply check whether the candidate is a sensible human being. As long as the system allows for nepotism and corruption to override merit, and preferences based on race, class, district, religion, and politics are allowed to dictate the outcome, it would be no less unfair than the quota system.

Our interviewers fail to understand that the viva session is not a place to ask interviewees about the time when dinosaurs went extinct or the weight of the moon or about the invasions of a 15th-century empire. What is the point of asking these things and what is their use in the jobs that the candidates are vying for? The questions should mostly be focused on the motivational aspect of the candidates. When I was a search committee member for my department, I had to ask the same set of questions to all 20 candidates. I noted down what they said and ranked them with the help of other members. Since the same set of board members is not interviewing all candidates, there should be a post-interview adjustment across all boards using the same method of the multiplier. Say Board X's average score is 9 out of 10 and Board Y's average is 6 out of 10, then Board Y's grades must be pushed up by using a multiplier of 1.5 (= 9/6). If the government is sincere about improving the degree of fairness, there are many ways that can be devised through consultation and research.

In April 2018, Bangladesh made history by coming together and standing up for reform in the quota system. But history would remain incomplete if the viva system—an important source of corruption and discrimination—is not reformed.

Biru Paksha Paul is an associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland. Email: [email protected]

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