Monday, January 27, 2014

Education for Employment: What If You Didn't Go To A 'Core School'?

In 2013, more than 1.4 million students sat the Entrance Examination for Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), competing for the 20,000 odd places up for grabs in various institutions (some in less prestigious NITs): The pressure can be intense, and the suicide rates in Kota, the town famed for its examination coaching industry, worth $50 million a year, reported to have been doubling year on year since 2012. Lady Shriram College in Delhi made news a few years ago by demanding a perfect score, yes 100%, in school leaving examination, as the cut-off for applications: It has now become commonplace in the best colleges in India. During the Gaokao, the annual college entrance examination in China, it is not unusual to divert the traffic away from near the examination centres lest the noise distract any candidate from the chance of the lifetime to enter an elite university. Because India and China (along with most other developing countries) have a 'Tiny-at-the-Top' education system, even a momentary distraction may lead to a lifetime of ruination. 

But it does not have to be that way. Education is not necessarily an Olympian sport, and extreme selectivity, particularly of this kind, may mean not just human tragedy but wastage of talent and possibility. And, this does not just stop at University admissions: Elite employers exclusively recruit from elite schools, because it would be difficult for them to go to a huge number of schools. This results in fairytale salaries for some school leavers, as Oracle and Google employed the top graduates from IIT Kharagpur this year with an excess of $150,000 a year starting salary (considering purchasing power parity, this is likely to feel like $750,000 a year in India). However, this system also works against the employers in more ways than one: A narrow recruitment funnel not just drive up the cost, but eliminate diversity and reduces, rather than enhances, possibilities of innovation.

This was the backdrop for my conversation with Daniel Garraty, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Firefly (www.project-firefly.com), a platform that seeks to democratise the access to talent for global companies. Daniel seems to see the downsides of the 'core school' system more clearly than many others: His stated aim in Project Firefly is to create a better way to find talent and to combat grade inflation, the cascading effect that such a selective system will have on the whole education community. Indeed, after it became acceptable for colleges to stipulate cut-off marks at 100%, 100% marks have also become more common in school boards in India, setting in motion an absurd spiral which may lead to meaninglessness.

The concept of Project Firefly is simple: Students, no matter which school they are from, can enter various competitions they run throughout the year, by submitting their essays and developing a portfolio of work.  Working with its Co-founder, Professor Simon Evenett of University of St. Gallen, and Credit Suisse, one of those blue chip employers who has mostly worked with the 'core school' system, the Project Firefly team has set up an Academic Review board which includes names such as Professor Eric Maskin of Harvard, Professor Barry Eichengreen of UC Berkley, Professor Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins, Professor Deepak Nayyar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth and Professor Raghavendra Rau of Cambridge, among others. The students' work is then graded by this Academic Review Board, and the top students are then rewarded in various ways, including the top three from the annual global 'Emerging Leaders' competition being taken to an expenses-paid trip to the Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong.

One can see how this could potentially change the recruitment dynamic of big firms. I was impressed by the story of Prateek Gupta, who went to, admittedly, no less an institution than BITS in India, who built a portfolio of Project Firefly submissions and was promoted as a elite analyst on the site. Prateek built his career path as an intern in JP Morgan, eventually settling for an Analyst role in Bain and Company. Prateek contends Project Firefly played a critical role in his career development by providing a challenging environment to compete with some of the best students in the world and making him think creatively about global issues. Similarly, Sam Chao of Singapore Management University, who wrote the winning essay on whether Renminbi would become world's next reserve currency for last year's Emerging Leaders competition, acknowledges the role Project Firefly played in building his career (Chao works for HSBC in Singapore). Success stories such as these highlight the possibilities how very accomplished students, who may or may not be in the extreme end of the institutional hierarchy (though BITS, SMU and other institutions these students are coming from are all at the top end and very selective themselves), may be able to showcase their work and get international validation - and indeed, be noticed by top employers.

Indeed, this is an experiment worth talking about. If MOOCs democratised access to knowledge, this is one attempt to create an open, democratic and global platform for competition and validation, useful for the students who, for whatever reason, didn't end up in 'core schools', for employers who would love to recruit from a bigger talent pool and for institutions who would want to expose their students to the very best of global talent and stimulate their creativity and imagination. Indeed, a project such as this, which challenges the inherent closed system thinking in Higher Education, is bound to make some people uncomfortable: Even if an institution is not in the top league, it may still feel threatened by the reality of an external, secular validation of its students' abilities. And, this is exactly where Higher Education's fault lines lie: If the institutions don't embrace the possibilities of Project Firefly (or similar endeavours), the students still might, opening up possibilities of credentialing outside institutional boundaries without the institutions being part of the conversation.

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