Opinionista Xhanti Payi 13 June 2013

What education did Mr Khohlokoane get for the money he didn’t pay?

When the story surfaced that a man who had completed his degree at UCT did not graduate owing to a financial dispute with the university, and consequently spent his life as a petrol attendant, there was an outpouring of concern in the media. But the biggest failing of the university was not simply in failing to give him a certificate.

Two years ago, my colleague Jacques Rousseau wrote a column entitled, “The conundrum of university-level remedial education – where do we start?” In it, he made the important point that a university education should equip a student with the ability to see beyond the obvious.

As he put it, “If universities are to encourage critical and creative thinking, of the sort that intellectuals rather than those with technical skills (equally valuable, but in entirely different ways) excel at, students need to develop certain skills.

“These are difficult to summarise, but they include being able to see beyond the given or surface level, to understand the basics of critical thinking and to have a sense of how knowledge claims are developed and justified.”

I would further add that when students leave institutions of higher learning, and in particular universities, they should be well equipped to go into society not only empowered to overcome their own immediate challenges, using creative and critical thinking, but those of society as a whole.

It is for this reason that the case of Mr Joseph Khohlokoane, reported and debated in mainstream and social media, is so curious. Although some of the facts and amounts are contested, what is clear is that Khohlokoane met his degree requirements 17 years ago for a Bachelor’s degree in social sciences. However, he owed the university money, and therefore was not allowed to graduate as is standard policy at the University of Cape Town. Khohlokoane, having failed in his bid to pay his debt over a longer period, walked out of the university environment, joining the unemployed of his time. He later worked as a petrol attendant until his story was heard by “a good Samaritan” this year.

While many have accused UCT of being heartless and irresponsible, and UCT has attempted to defend themselves against this charge, perhaps they ought also to explain another one. The pressing question for me relates to how it happened that an educated man, with a bachelor’s degree from one of our leading universities, could have been condemned to a job as a petrol attendant, living a life of poverty for seventeen years. How did it happen that Mr Khohlokoane hadn’t the resources in networks and in thinking to find a way to use his knowledge to uplift himself? Thus regarded, the University of Cape Town didn’t condemn Mr Khohlokoane to a life of poverty by refusing him a degree certificate. The university failed him in that they did not equip and empower him, while he was still paying them, with the mind to meet the challenges of his time. It is unthinkable that the point of a university education is to acquire a piece of paper that says you are member of such university’s convocation.

Perhaps as we debate financial policies of universities, we also ought to discuss their output. Almost two decades has passed, and in that time the university may be doing better with regards to what they teach and how students employ such an education after they graduate. But the debate is worth the time, particularly given all sorts of debates about how universities are not absorbing enough of our matriculants, and that the country has a dearth of skills and intellectuals.

Khohlokoane left the university, having completed all degree requirements, at the break of our democracy – at a time when we were celebrating freedom and excited about its fruits. But was Khohlokoane free and educated?

Maybe as we debate the issue, we could use a quote by the English writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, when she said, “Education doesn’t make you happy. Nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free – if we are. Or because we’ve been educated – if we have. But because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears, tells us where delights are lurking, convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever, that of the mind, and gives us the assurance – the confidence – to walk the path our mind, our educated mind, offers.”

Mr Khohlokoane did not get the sort of education Murdoch talks about, which is about the confidence to walk the path of our educated mind. He also did not get Rousseau’s ideal of education, which means to “encourage critical and creative thinking” and “to see beyond the given or surface level.” That, I would argue, should be much more concerning than the idea that he didn’t get a certificate proving he finished a degree. DM

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