Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oral exams for mariners – are they anymore relevant?


Column by KRA Narasiah

Of the many obnoxious colonial hangovers, oral examination of mariners is one that needs to be discarded. While this method is sine qua non for medical profession due to continuous changes in treating and diagnosing methods, it is not so in marine profession. Validities and reliabilities of such examinations need to be assessed for the Marine profession.

The case for discarding this mode is discussed here.


There are three types of validities: content, criterion and construct. If we analyse in today’s context, it can be seen that for mariners the oral tests are no more valid. Because they are examined continuously by different tests during the various courses they undergo. The content is always updated in written tests. Regarding criterion, it is to do with the national level and a particular university or college level, while in mariners’ examinations they are all at a centralised level. Construct similarly is to do with the other variables – for instance the language differences in learning a science like medicine, where only oral examination can bring about the desired value levels.

For medical professional the oral examination is eminently suitable as experts feel. Even here the experts differ on the methodology.


How reliable is the oral examination? After having passed a written test if a participant has failed in oral examination in a marine subject does that mean the written examination was not properly conducted? It often is complained that the oral examiners in marine profession tend to harass the examinee or even go according to their own whims and pleasures.

I am not making a general accusation, but only reflecting the examinee’s reaction to certain examiners. There are several examiners, quite large in number who are fair and really test the knowledge after scrutinizing the written answer. However, even a single bad examiner can spoil the entire lot. Thus the question of reliability needs to be looked into.


Why a mariner was orally examined? In the early days it was necessary as often the mariners came from a background that could not boast of a high level of education. That was the scenario in Britain and the cadets after initial training had to be tested orally to assess their capability. As the steamship came into existence more theoretical knowledge was required and training establishments started functioning. But during the written test it was felt that while the candidate had visceral knowledge his cerebral knowledge was lacking.

Therefore he had to be tested by an oral examination to know the level of competency.

It was not so in India. From the beginning cadets had formal school education and the oral tests were needed only to test their communicating ability.

But the British thought that an Indian was not educated enough to take up the position of an officer in the merchant marine. In the beginning they were against even training Indians for this profession.

During Colonial regime as late as beginning of 20th Century it was Sir P. S. Sivaswami Iyer, who was the Advocate General of Madras from 1907 to 1911 and a member of both the Executive Council of the Governor of Madras and the Council of State, took up this issue of marine training.

On Jan. 12, 1922, in its first session of the reformed Legislative Council, Iyer moved a resolution to constitute a committee to see the possibilities of forming an Indian Merchant Marine. He wanted the Indian officers and experts to be properly trained in the marine field.

After a year, on Feb. 3, 1923 the Government formed a committee, headed by Capt. E. J. Headlam, Director of the Royal Indian Marine, with five members. Two representatives of India were Lalubhai Samaldas and Jadunath Roy. With many arguments and the English members opposing, the resolution was passed in favour of establishing a training ship in Bombay harbour, but the resolution was put in the backburner.

Since no action was taken, Iyer, on March 19, 1926, moved another resolution. This resolution had four distinct points and it was supported by the non-official members of the Assembly. It demanded to recognise the need for training Indians and create an Indian Mercantile Marine and train Indians in a suitable ship in Indian waters and engage them later. It also wanted to introduce in selected institutions Marine Engineering as a subject (to start with the Engineering College at Sidpur).

Though the training ship Dufferin was commissioned in December 1927, by 1936 less than 25 of the Dufferin cadets were employed by the British companies in India. The English shipping power was beginning to discourage the Indian boys opting to be trained in Dufferin. The version of creating training facility was altered – to suit the British interest.

After much persuasion, the cadets were getting employed but they had to be tested if they can work with English officers and therefore an oral test was necessary. It was more on the principle of communicating, behaviour on board and generally a test for developing Officer-Like-Quality, (OLQ) a much used (or abused) term of the British.

We have come a long way from those days. The cadets are trained in well researched methods and tested in similar means. The syllabi are drawn by experts and training materials in an international level. The institutions pride themselves in quality training by employing suitable specialists. I know some institutes that go an extra mile to see that no stone is left unturned in training efforts.

It is strongly felt that the oral examination is more an impediment in the mariner’s life and there should be concern raised about it as even now I have heard people say how the examiners approach this particular method.

With all the conviction under my command I oppose this method of testing. Once the cadet passes all the prescribed courses and secures pass marks in written tests, there should be no more tests.

I am sure many seniors will agree with me. 

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