What Explains the High Demand for Low Paying Government Jobs?

We are increasingly seeing the phenomenon where there are an enormous amount of applicants for a few government postings. Take this story where a million people applied for 700 clerical postings in Telengana. Or where there were 302 applicants for each posting of railway gangman:

On 17 September, 1.9 crore applicants will appear for the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) examination to fill 62,907 vacancies at ‘Level 1’, earlier called ‘Group D’.

That is, 302 applicants for every job — jobs that are at the lowest level in the railways, including posts such as gangman (those who maintain tracks), gateman, pointsman, helper in electrical/mechanical/engineering/ signal/telecommunications, porter etc.

A majority of applicants for these jobs are graduates, post-graduates and even engineers, according to RRB sources.

Or take this case:

3,700 PHDs, 50,000 graduates, and 28,000 PGs have applied to fill 62 messenger posts in UP Police; position like this requires the minimum skills and has the lowest bar of eligibility.

Stories such as these have become all too common and are perhaps the most accurate reflection of India’s ongoing jobs crisis.

The big obvious question here is regarding the inexplicably high demand for low paying government jobs by apparently overqualified job seekers. My hypothesis is that this can be explained by three factors:

  1. The number of private jobs available are obviously too few. Job creation has stagnated and even receded in the private sector. Thus, industry does not have the capacity to absorb the large number of graduates and post-graduates who are passing out of the system. Since supply of labour far outstrips the demand for labour, employees have increasingly stringent qualification requirements. Only the best of the lot get a good, high paying job in the private sector.
  2. There is also an obvious skills mismatch. A lot of the students who pass through the Indian education system are not as qualified as their degrees tend to signal. A typical Post-Graduate often has the skills of a person who has passed the 12th grade and thus, cannot obtain or at least retain a high paying job which would require the skills of a Post-Graduate (One report, for instance, finds that nearly 80% of the engineering graduates in India are unemployable as their skills set do not match the requirement of the industry). What further complicates this issue and turns it into a vicious cycle is the fact that a lot of individuals end up studying due to the lack of job opportunities. These are students who enter into an educational programme solely due to the signalling value and to differentiate themselves from the nearest competitors. However, while the degree gained has some signalling value, the skills gained are inadequate for industry standards.
  1. A person who has gained a degree but not the appropriate skills cannot get a job in the private sector which will assure a reasonably high salary and job security. The private sector option is typically a low paying job, which can be lost at any time and with no benefits. Given this scenario, a government job that is assured of job security, even at the cost of lower salary seems attractive.


No Sympathy for Exam Stress

As Indian high schoolers received board examination marks last week, their Chinese counterparts are appearing for their annual gaokao exams this week. The gaokao system, like the Indian board exams, receives a lot of flak for its many flaws. The gaokao examination in China usually determines where these students can pursue their college-level education. However, the main problem is that colleges require high gaokao scores for students who do not originate from that province. This is linked to the hukou system or the household registration scheme (almost an internal passport) which determines where you can work depending on your parent’s origin. As this Atlantic Times article puts it,

China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui,  and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.

This has led to a wave of ‘gaokao migrants’- people who move to other provinces or purchase land there so that their children will be able to take the exam in a province that has better universities. So authorities in provinces are now cracking down on those who are hoping to circumvent this system. According to this article in Sixth Tone, the province of Fujian, which has been seeing an increase in such gaokao migration, has cracked down on it:

To stem gaokao migration, Fujian education and police departments issued a joint notice on Monday clarifying the policies for students from elsewhere: Students must have had Fujian household registration for at least one year, and studied at a high school in the province for at least one year, before they qualify to take the exam in Fujian. In addition, their parents must have residency, stable employment, and records of social security payments in the province for at least one year.

Going forward, regulations will become even stricter: For students sitting the gaokao in 2019, the requirements will increase to two years, and three years for those taking the exams in 2020.

What this will mean is that migrants and people from low-income household will lose out either way. This is particularly disheartening, for a system that prides itself on its being a meritocracy.

India’s plagiarism policy is facepalm

I could’nt believe my eyes when I read in this week’s Science magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Pallava Bagla’s report on UGC’s new plagiarism policy:

The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students.[Science]

This is not lenient. It’s breathtaking. By failing to seriously penalise persons who copy as much as 40% of their work, the UGC is effectively condoning massive levels of plagiarism. Whether or not universities are able to catch and act against those who plagiarise, the signal this sends to students and the academic community is perverse. It’s telling them — “it’s okay to copy!”

Now, plagiarism is rampant in Indian academia, a manifestation of the rot that has set in our education system and intellectual life. Instead of attempting to stem that rot and turn things around, the UGC seems to have decided that it might as well legitimise the copying culture. This, to put it mildly, is not expected of the regulator of higher education.

Plagiarism is theft. Condoning theft perverts the settings of the moral compass of young minds. The cascading effects of this will be disastrous for Indian society.

What should the UGC have done? Set the plagiarism threshold very low. The tiniest plagiarism fetches a warning. At 10% you get kicked out. Then announce a transition window of two years to allow everyone to understand and adjust to a new, stringent regime.

As it stands, the proposed plagiarism policy is not, as V S Ramamurthy asks, merely “a joke”. It’s a license to copy.