Sunday, February 19, 2017

CFE post : How SMU can fit into the future economy.

Yay ! Mid-terms are over.

Today, I wanted to combine several posts into one.

Of recent note, SMU has been on the radar of social media as of late. Exchange student Kerry Dwyer has written very candid comments about her SMU and Singapore experience here. In a mid-term party which was conducted by my JD pals yesterday,  my foreign classmates felt more inclined to agree with Kerry. There are clearly some issues with SMU.

Now I tried to get as much information on the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) study and, like everybody else, I was unable to find anything unique or special about this report. What I did detect is the overwhelming use of the word "innovation".

Right now, based on my three years spent in SMU as a law student in the JD program, I do not think that SMU is fully aligned with the CFE's innovation drive. We obviously have the physical infrastructure to make it happen, but one of the biggest impediments to make it happen is our lack of software.

SMU students, and this includes myself, simply cannot shake away the Tyranny of the GPA.

The need for high GPAs are real. A cum laude is more valuable by $500 a month than a normal pass degree. Higher GPAs also grant access to objectively better companies and this is natural - HR departments don't want to waste their time interviewing so many students so find ways to keep their selection pool to those with better grades which immensely unfair to students with more average grades but an interesting CCA record.

Instead of whining about the problem, I can think of several really immediate and actionable solutions to make the SMU experience better for folks like Kerry Dwyer and align SMU towards the future economy.

a) Make GPAs invisible

This is not a suggestion to eliminate the GPA. GPAs which are invisible still allow students to be sorted according with their performance. Having visible GPAs have the effect of making our industries apply for shortcuts in their hiring practices. If GPAs are invisible, companies will have to make a decision by visual inspection of grades followed by an evaluation of CCAs. This way students are not reduced to a single number.

Elites may hate this idea but 20 years ago, we never a GPA and the industry did fine.

b) Have only two degree classifications Pass and Merit Scholar.

After making GPAs invisible, it is better to simply identify the top 10% cohort and give them some sort of Merit rating. Students can spend their time pursuing what interests them instead of trying to get a better honors classification.

This is definitely better than just treating us like grades of Kobe beef. The Harvard Business School MBA gives out a pass or a Baker Scholar designation, so once again this is not something new.

c) Give students the option of converting subjects to a pass/fail grade.

This is a pet peeve of mine because I think I just ruined my degree classification picking subjects which add value to my investing skills.

Students, when choosing electives, we are faced with a difficult choice when deciding which electives to pursue. Many students are forced to choose subjects which promise a fair grade or less work to maintain good GPA. This creates a perverse incentive to focus on their strengths. An economics H3 student will feel pressured to take an economics and law module because he gets to stick to his comfort zone. Conversely, if you choose subjects which are taught by great lecturer who have a rigorous approach to their curriculum, you can be penalised even though objectively you would have learnt more during the semester. Lecturers who wish to remain popular may also start to inflate the grades they give out or make the curriculum lighter to maintain their course's relevance.

One good workaround is to always allow students the option to waive away grading requirements for perhaps just two electives in their degree program. This way, students are safe to take up subjects like "Quantum mechanics, general relativity and the Law" without impacting their GPA. The beneficiaries of this approach is very likely the Computer Science courses where there are high-risk classes on writing new apps which could mean an A+ or an F grade.

d) Allow groups of any size in group work.

Group work is a bugbear for many of us because they have a serious impact on grades.

Local students do not discriminate or hate foreign students. They avoid them because foreign students do not come from a perverse culture where GPA determines the fate of your entire life and will not put in what local students perceive as a fair share in group presentations. The other issue is that there are students who are so objectively bad that no one will form a group with them.

It is manifestly unfair to force students to take them in because it penalises their grades as well.

One solution is to simply allow groups of variable sizes with a limit of perhaps 8 students. Students know how to sort themselves out and form groups which optimise their capabilities and that grades should account for the number of people chosen in a team.

This way, the untouchable student can work alone and be graded fairly.

Collectively, my suggestions will not make students innovative overnight, but it certainly removes the impediments which allow students to take a chance and expand their horizons. It would also certainly reduce the odds of the University experience scarring exchange students so badly, they put up a B grade essay in condemnation to our approach which has so far, made us one of the largest GDP per capita nations in the world.

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