The world is changing. Some years ago, it was sufficient for a person to be educated in order to distinguish himself/herself from his/her peers. As the world evolved, basic education was no longer sufficient. Among educated people, differentiation occurred at the level of the prestige of the institution, the subject of study and the class of degree conferred. Today, a new school seems to be evolving; a school which downplays the relevance of academic merit, and at its extreme, the place of formal education itself.
Presenting the thesis of this school is a particularly arduous task. The arguments given by its proponents sit on a spectrum which range from the genuinely helpful to the spectacularly sordid. The difficulty in fairly presenting its core thesis does not take away the ease in recognising its arguments. Perhaps the most recognizable version of the argument is the version that holds up a person who either had no formal education, who had poor academic grades or who dropped out of school, but who became extremely wealthy, as a testament to the futility of strong academic performance or formal education in its totality.
Recently, these arguments took over social media, with the announcement, by Forbes Magazine, that popular American artiste Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) had become a billionaire. Domestically, it is common to see some of the great sages of the Nigerian legal profession (like the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN) or politicians (like Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu) held up as such examples. The argument also comes in subtler, less repulsive, and sometimes sensible variants. Sometimes, the argument is made that grades alone are insufficient to guarantee success in the outside world. At other times, the argument is made that students with strong grades often do not have the skills to perform optimally in the real world. Or, we are told that it is not intellectual ability, but the capacity to add value that stands a person apart and leads to a successful career in the particular life path.
Personally, I have been the object of these arguments far more times than I should be comfortable with. Having had the (mis)fortune of graduating with a first class on three occasions from three different institutions, I am often the poster-boy of these arguments. In many instances, details of my academic performances are carried on social media blogs and I tune into the comments section to amuse myself. I get intrigued by many of them.
In truly Nigerian fashion, many retort, ‘Who first class epp [help]?’ ‘Does he have thirty billion in his account’? ‘I am sure he is earning peanuts in one law firm in Lagos’ etc. I often ponder at the shallowness of intellectual well that produces these comments, and ultimately have a good laugh and move on.
But not everyone is able to move on so quickly. As fate will have it, I happen to mentor a lot of young Nigerians many of whom are still in different stages of their academic life. For many of them, it is not so easy to discountenance these arguments. This is particularly the case when they hear the arguments from so-called ‘life coaches’ and career/recruitment specialists. These mentees interpret these confusing signals and often come seeking guidance. My message to them is usually consistent: pursue your grades. I have typically explained this to them on an individual, ad-hoc basis.
Now, I fully articulate my views in defense of strong grades. For people who do not have the patience for a long read, my thesis is that strong grades are good in and of themselves, and the pursuit of academic rigour gives a student many life skills that are all too often unappreciated. I argue that many of the arguments to the contrary conflate skills with organisational culture and personality fit, with the unfortunate result of unfairly demonising academic performance. I argue further that Nigerian students must be particularly cautious with the ‘grades do not really matter’ thesis given the far from ideal situation in Nigeria both in terms of the availability of jobs paying a living wage and the unique challenges in owning a business in Nigeria, and that if academic examinations are not a true test of ability, neither will recruitment tests. As usual, I share a number of my own personal experiences in the course of presenting my thesis. For the brave of heart, a quick warning: this is a long read!
Success has many faces
It was a fairly warm October morning in Oxford. At least one of those days you do not go on a tirade on how bad the weather in England can be. I was making my way from the Wadham College graduate accommodation in Summertown to the college grounds in the city centre. On the way, I met up with a gentleman (I refer to him here as Ethan). Ethan was from a Scandinavian country. I first met Ethan a few days prior to this: he had just resumed in Oxford and was struggling, somewhat unsuccessfully, to take his suitcases up the stairway of our flat. I helped him up but did not get the chance to strike a long conversation with him.
On this warm morning, however, two graduate freshmen with grandiose dreams of a fantastic time in Oxford got talking. Somewhere in the conversation, I mentioned to Ethan that I was commencing my doctorate in law and thereafter, was hoping for a good career that could fetch me a couple hundred thousand pounds per annum. Ethan seemed confused at the idea. ‘I do not want to earn that much’, he explained to me. ‘I live a very simple life; here, I will show you’, he said, as he put his hand in the pocket of his jacket and brought out a piece of bread and ate it cheerfully. Ethan was in Oxford for a Masters Degree in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics. Ethan did not need to tell me he was genius-level intelligent; I always looked at theoretical physicists with godlike admiration, and knew all too well how difficult it must be to secure a place on the program in Oxford. But there he was, a simple fellow, who with that level of intellect, did not see the point in earning £100,000 in a year.
Ethan, of course, is not alone in the love of a simple life. At some point in his undergraduate studies, my immediate elder brother had a CGPA of about 4.9 in the Department of Economics, Obafemi Awolowo University. Doubtless, he finished with a sound first class degree. Today, he is training to be a Jesuit priest. As is required by the order, he has already taken his oath of perpetual poverty, which, should he remain true to it, will preclude him from owning property for the rest of his life.
The message here is simple: success has many faces, only one of which is material possession and wealth. It is therefore foolhardy to expect the people with the strongest grades to be the wealthiest.
In many instances, they may not consider wealth and material possession to be virtues worth pursuing, and even where they do, wealth creation is a completely separate thing from intellectual rigour. Thus, it is a fundamentally poor argument to demonise good grades or downplay the relevance of formal education by reference to material possessions held by people who are not as well educated. It assumes a definition of ‘success’ which is simply not universally held.
There is another way the argument that puts down academic merit on the basis of the material success of people without it is often framed. A more personalised way. It is normal to hear, for instance: ‘I graduated with a third class, but I employ people who graduated with first-class’ or ‘I have rejected many applications from people with first-class’. One question, I typically ask people who make this argument (and to which I have still not received a satisfactory answer) is: ‘Would you have been any less successful in your business if you made strong grades in school’? Of course, however many of them try to confuse the question, the simple answer is a resounding no.
Arguably, for every person who has attained business or career success without strong grades, there are many more who have done so and have either achieved top grades or studied in the world’s best institutions. Thus, for every such person making this argument, there is a Jeff Bezos of Princeton, a Barack Obama of Harvard, a Bill Clinton of Yale, a Lee Kuan Yew of Cambridge, a Nana Akufo-Addo of Oxford to name a few. Doubtless, at some point in their careers, some of these people (and many like them) may have applied to or worked under people who performed worse than them in school. Their lives are however testament to the weakness of an argument that demonises strong academic performance on the basis of the successes achieved by people who are not as educated: for every uneducated but successful person, there is arguably a better-educated, more successful person. Uneducated success is therefore not a virtue that should be preached at the expense of educated success.
This argument on success, however, runs into yet a further complication. In recent times, I have noticed an uptick in the number of already ‘successful’ people seeking further education. Mark Zuckerberg returning to Harvard to pick up an honorary degree, Gerard Pique, the F.C. Barcelona defender pursuing an MBA at the Harvard Business School, and Arunma Oteh, the former Director-General of the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission and Vice-President and Treasurer of the World Bank returning to Oxford as an academic scholar are just few examples of this trend. In my personal experience, I have seen (and shared experiences with) heads of departments of large corporations and Partners in top law firms both in Nigeria and internationally, who have either received, are studying for, or applying to top universities for further education. Unfortunately, something intriguing often happens in these situations.
Whilst the leaders of these organisations are actively seeking or studying for further education, their Human Resource managers are often actively preaching that what they are looking for in applicants are skills and not education. We therefore live in a world where people in the top echelons of society recognise the value of academic merit, whilst those lower on the rung continue to debate it.
Academic Merit and Life Skills
Perhaps the most common argument of the ‘grades do not really matter’ school is that what is more important are the skills a person possesses rather than the class of degree conferred or the prestige of the institution the person studied in. When framed properly, there is often some merit to this argument. Indeed, education is intended to pass on skills which can then be applied in the advancement of human society. I am prepared to recognise that often times, extremely skilled people simply are not able to turn out strong performances in academic examinations for various reasons. I know a number of such people personally. To these people, my advice usually is that they relentlessly continue developing themselves, whilst developing strategies to improve their academic grades. For many of them, I have little doubt that they would ultimately reach the pinnacles of their chosen lifepath, even though they may lose the immediate advantages which strong grades confer.
But there is a much poorer version of this argument. This version seems to suggest two distinct but inter-related things. The first is that strong academic grades are something separate from life skills and for a student, the pursuit of one usually requires the abandonment of the other. This variant typically requires the student to choose which of strong grades and life skills the student wishes to pursue and creates a rebuttable presumption that a first-class graduate has not spent sufficient time developing other life skills that would be useful in the work environment. At the heart of this first point is a problem perhaps peculiar to the educational system in Nigeria.
I have often had cause to criticise the difficulty in achieving top grades in many Nigerian educational institutions. I have, for instance, publicly complained of a system in which I was the only first-class graduate of the Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University in four years, and in which two of my very good friends were the first ever first-class graduates of the Faculties of Law of the University of Benin and the Adekunle Ajasin University, even though these faculties had been in existence for decades. I publicly criticised the Nigerian Law School in the year it produced only four first-class graduates out of thousands who sat the Bar Examinations.
This difficulty in achieving top grades leads some people to imagine that the people who do attain them are social recluses who do not associate well with other people, cannot work effectively in teams, only study to achieve good grades without being able to properly apply their learning, and potentially lack creativity and intuition outside the scope of their fields of study. Indeed, one of my very good friends who currently holds the record as the student who graduated with the best CGPA in the history of the Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan had an interesting experience with this argument. At a stage in her undergraduate studies, she contested to be President of the Law Students Society. One of the arguments against her candidacy was that with such a high CGPA she would not give sufficient time to the running of the society, hence, the Presidency was not suited for people like her!
As should be obvious by now, there is usually something intriguing about this argument: it is usually made by people who themselves did not make top grades. Often times, it is therefore a cryptic apologia on their own academic performance: they did not make top grades because they were busy acquiring other life skills. The evidence from many people with top grades however tells a different story. Many top academic performers (in Law Faculties at least) perfect leadership, debate, mooting and client advisory skills whilst in university which lead them to be in extremely high demand in the job market. Given their reputation for intellectual rigour, they are more likely to represent their universities in competitions which gives them opportunities to boost their research, advocacy and communication skills. Even as students, they are likely to have strong CVs to land them competitive internships in prestigious organisations, boosting their familiarity with diverse work environments and their network of contacts.
The combination of grades and reputation often means they are popular enough to contest and win political elections in student societies which boosts their leadership skills (two of my close friends have graduated with first-class law degrees as Presidents of their Law Societies, one as the only first-class graduate in his cohort in OAU, and the other, as alluded to in the last paragraph, with the highest CGPA in the history of her Faculty). Consequently, as a starting position, they are already better poised to have better careers in a fiercely competitive world than most of their peers. Indeed, each of the people I referred to in the previous paragraph ended up taking a master’s degree (on scholarship) from Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. One is in a top law firm in Lagos, one is in an American law firm in London and the other is a recipient of the prestigious Vanier scholarship for a doctorate in Canada. They are joined on this list by a long list of similarly top performing students from several disciplines whose lives bear testament to what should be a simple truth: academic performance and life skills can and do co-exist and both can and should be pursued simultaneously. Therefore, when young students ask me to advise them on which one to prioritise, I ask them to prioritise both.
The second thing the argument seems to suggest is that the pursuit of academic merit in itself does not confer strong life skills that can stand the excellent student apart when fully developed. Again, this is also a bad argument, and is often pursued by people who themselves did not achieve top grades. Below, I share three key life skills my pursuit of academic merit has taught me. I strongly believe these skills are shared by many people with top grades.
Research, Preparation and Planning
There were about 300 students in my undergraduate cohort. To be the top performer, I had to distinguish myself and do so on a consistent basis. But there were two complications. First, given the number of students, I knew lecturers were likely to be stretched thin when grading scripts (lecturers often taught many modules and could potentially have as many as 300 scripts to grade in each of these modules). My working assumption was therefore that they would not always have the time to read through my entire script. Second, there were different examiners with different styles. Some preferred research and independent thought, others preferred a strong plagiarism of their class notes and they all had different expectations of the length of an ideal answer. I therefore had to synthesise these requirements to match the individual preferences of each of my examiners. Examination preparation for me therefore transcended studying notes, textbooks and law reports. I often went as far as researching the examiners themselves.
What were the most recent papers they authored? What positions have they taken in the past? Who have they co-authored with? How do they themselves write? What conferences did they last attend and what papers did they present? Having put myself in the shoes of each examiner, I was often one step ahead in delivering the killer blow that picked up the only A in the class. To do this I spent a precious amount of time studying Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (absolute masters at the art of presenting and defending their viewpoint). This enabled me create what I called ‘opinion-forming answers’ in examinations i.e. an answer, the sole purpose of which was to project to the examiner a strong sense that the script he/she is marking is different. Perfected over a period of time, the individualised nature of my preparations meant I was able to skim read questions, and given my knowledge of the examiner, in a moment, analyse the issues at hand, understand what the examiner required, and get a feel for how he/she is likely to weight the marks. This enabled me focus attention on the parts that the examiner was likely to see as most important and present it precisely how he/she wanted it. In some instances, this meant me literally dedicating examination booklets to individual examiners, each with its own writing style. I learnt the art of communicating, as quickly as possible, the core message I intend to pass in case the examiner did not have the time to read every line of my script.
You would be mistaken to assume that this is simply an academic skill. In a world where businessmen are likely to read legal opinions on their phones or iPads at airport lounges, or judges are stretched thin with the volume of processes they have to consider, advocacy and legal advice is taking a new art form. Today’s result-oriented lawyer must understand very quickly what lies at the heart of an issue, understand the way his/her client (or the judge) prefers advice to be provided or submissions made, and provide that advice or present the piece of advocacy precisely the way it is required. Nothing could prepare me better for this than the rigour of academic study.
Innovation, Creativity and Communication
As the previous point would have revealed, deep preparation births innovation and creativity. Indeed, one of the key skills taught by all formal education is the importance of independent, original thought and the malleability to communicate these thoughts concisely and confidently. This, at the minimum, is the requirement of every long essay submitted in partial fulfilment for the conferment of a degree. What many of my classmates who might have seen me studying the complete works of Shakespeare during term time did not realise was how these pieces of literature shaped my perspectives on issues and assisted me in communicating my ideas to different audiences.
As alluded to above, my opinion-forming answers were specifically designed to stand out. The simple test I set out for myself on these answers was for my script to form the basis of my examiner’s next journal article. This often required novel ways of viewing issues, and communicating them in such a way that even examiners who preferred a repetition of their class notes (I typically avoided these examiners like a plague) saw them as logical extensions of their class notes rather than radical reformulations of their entrenched positions.
Resilience and Ambition
Given the difficulty in achieving top grades in Nigerian universities, ambition and grit are two key factors that are likely to set top students in Nigeria apart. For many of the people I have used as examples in this piece, they were quite clear in their minds from the onset that they wanted to attain top grades and attend the top universities in the world. To attain this, they had to develop the mental grit to grind out top performances consistently. Occasional setbacks are inevitable along the way. But the consistent story often is that they had their eyes on the task and were prepared to do what needed to be done to perform excellently.
Again, neither ambition nor resilience is an academic skill. In today’s competitive world, every organization (and indeed, governments) require fiercely ambitious people who are prepared to do what needs to be done in pursuit of their goals. This is a skill which top academic performers must develop and which they can quickly apply in their career paths. The skills required to churn out consistently sound academic performances usually makes me tell my mentees and younger students: ‘To be a first-class student, you must be more than a first-class student’.
Academic Merit and Organizational Culture/Personality Fit
What then do we say of high performing students who struggle to perform optimally in work environments? Often times, I am presented with the argument that good grades do not really matter because there is a long list of people who achieved top grades but struggle to perform optimally in work environments. Proponents of this argument seldom run out of examples. They are quick to point fingers, for instance, at top law graduates who are struggling with law practice or top economists or accountants who are struggling in the world of finance, consulting or investment banking. The conclusion which is then reached is that academic performance did not train such people for the rigours of the work environment.
These arguments are typically flawed for one simple reason: as seen above, they often confuse the organisational culture and personality fit required in specific organisations with skills required to be successful in the real world. It is easy to trace this source of this confusion. Take as an example, a first-class economics graduate working as an analyst in an investment bank or in one of the Big 4 accounting firms. Several factors can account for such a person’s inability to perform optimally in that environment. He/she may be used to individual effort and as such may not be a very good team player.
In addition, the person may simply not be able to cope with the gruesome hours required in a top-tier investment bank, or may not get along well with a boss or a colleague. The problem, however, is that these issues ought to be recognised as personality challenges that have nothing to do with the person’s class of degree. It is a particularly hasty and unjustified conclusion to use such examples as a basis for denigrating top academic performers more generally. There is nothing in the nature of a first-class degree (or in any class of degree for that matter) that makes a person a good fit into a particular organisational culture. It may so happen that given the personal constitution of that graduate, he/she is better of working at the Central Bank or at the Ministry of Finance, rather than in an investment bank. What we should therefore be doing is seeing how we can create more inclusive work environments where the unique contributions of each member of the team can be appreciated and valued. If Ethan can design the space shuttle that will take courageous people to the Moon, we must not denigrate his extreme intelligence (or the intelligence of anyone) on the basis that Ethan himself does not have the courage to launch out of earth’s orbit. Ethan did not gain admission into Oxford to study courage!
Academic Merit and the Political Economy of Nigeria
There are particularly strong reasons why young Nigerians must interpret the ‘grades do not really matter' argument with extreme circumspection. First, Nigeria is far from an ideal country. In ideal societies, uneducated people are often caught in social security nets and can secure jobs, which can, in time, improve their economic conditions. In addition, the job markets are often robust enough to capture a good proportion of unemployed young people and economic policy is business friendly which supports entrepreneurship for people who would rather start up their businesses. Unfortunately, the Nigerian situation is different. Tens of thousands of young graduates pour into an extremely thin labour market choked by persistently depressed wages. This creates a reinforcing equilibrium in which employers justify poor pay on the grounds that pay in the labour market is persistently poor. Young people thus struggle for the very few jobs able to pay a living wage. This struggle breeds extreme competition to distinguish oneself as a top candidate for a handful of good roles. Participants in this competition range from graduates with all classes of degrees, including graduates who studied in infinitely better institutions abroad. In this universe, recruitment professionals are inundated with CVs and applicants are incentivised to use all sorts of gimmicks to, at the minimum, secure interviews. Thus, CVs are laden with buzzwords and catch-phrases on skills which applicants do not actually have, but which are designed to appeal to the needs of the organisation.
How should recruiters approach this problem. Of course, having opened the application window, they could run tests for the applicants to directly check their skills and level of ability and the extent to which they fit nicely with the requirements of the organisation. Often times, this is simply impossible. A recruitment opening in a reasonably reputable law firm in Lagos will lead to hundreds of applications; an opening in the Central Bank, the NNPC or an international oil company will lead to thousands. It quickly becomes expensive, inefficient and unwieldy to run tests on all these individuals. In this universe, a simple signalling tool is often used: academic grades. Of course, this is not to say that the person with the best grades is always the person selected for the job (later on in the process, a recruiter may directly test for personality fit and job-specific skills which may knock the best student out of contention). But strong academic performances do at least two things in this universe: they significantly increase the chances for the person to be called to the table to discuss, and they significantly improve the options available to the graduate.
But what of entrepreneurship? Of course, good grades are not required to be a successful entrepreneur. But as mentioned above, Nigeria is not an ideal situation. Governmental policy and political and macroeconomic issues often have very severe consequences on business continuity. In this universe, and in the absence of effective social security safety nets, prudent entrepreneurs must pursue business effectively, whilst keeping other options open. This is particularly true for young students. Whilst they may very well graduate from school and run successful businesses thereafter, there is very little wisdom in performing poorly academically in the face of the mammoth uncertainty surrounding business in Nigeria. In addition, as mentioned previously, successful businessmen today are returning to university to acquire additional education and achieving top grades will not make the graduate a worse entrepreneur. It is therefore particularly ill-advised to denigrate strong academic performance in Nigeria.
Examinations are not the true test of ability
I can deal with this point fairly quickly. It is often argued that academic performance is typically assessed by examinations, which are not a true test of ability. But then, what is? Even if I am prepared to accept examinations as an imperfect proxy for knowledge, I am not aware that a perfect proxy has now been found. But the argument runs into a further conundrum. Unlike a recruitment test, a class of degree is not granted over a singular examination. To achieve a first-class in my undergraduate studies, I sat a total of 48 examinations and submitted a long essay over a period of five years. The CGPA system tests for consistency. For all its flaws, used over a period of time, it is able to provide a fairly representative idea of academic ability. But recruitment tests, which ostensibly assess a person’s fit and skills are usually one-off tests which are less likely to present a representative assessment of skills and ability. It is therefore illogical to justify these one-off recruitment tests but criticise academic examinations. This fallacy is not cured even by arguing that recruitment tests examine different things from academic examinations. One-time snapshots of a phenomenon are unlikely to provide better results than an examination over a period of time. As alluded to above, given the volume of applications continually received, it is practically impossible to administer recruitment tests over a period of time without at the minimum pre-screening candidates with benchmark criteria. Thus, if examinations are imperfect proxies for ability, neither are recruitment exercises.
Good grades are important. So too are skills. Top performing students should not be made to believe that they must pursue one at the expense of the other, that the pursuit of intellectual rigour does not itself confer transferrable life skills or feel guilty for achieving strong grades.
Reginald Aziza is a Doctoral Student of Law in the University of Oxford.