UCT vs the Twitterati

This post represents my personal views. Any factual claims made herein are not approved or endorsed by the University, and I speak as a member of the UCT community, broadly speaking, rather than as a member or representative of any structures at the University.

KhohlokoaneSo, with that out the way, I told some folk on Twitter yesterday that I’d blog about Joseph Khohlokoane, who graduated yesterday – after completing his social sciences degree 17 years ago. As is sadly typical in South Africa media, a South African Press Association (SAPA) release was uncritically reproduced by nearly all the other media outlets, with none of them bothering to check any of the relevant facts with UCT first.

What the SAPA story told us was that:

  1. Khohlokoane finished his degree with around R30 000 of study debt in 1996
  2. he worked as a petrol attendant to try and pay his debt
  3. he would not be formally awarded his degree until he had settled his account.
  4. he was not allowed to pay his debt off at R100 per month, because UCT said that wasn’t enough
  5. accumulated interest had swelled the debt to R100 000

The Twitter outrage was immediate, and mostly focused on how shameful it was that this man was refused graduation for 17 years, and that UCT had allowed his debt to inflate to such a frightening figure. When UCT initially responded to say that students with outstanding debt don’t graduate, and that UCT has a comprehensive financial aid system in place, this sort of response resulted:

Various popular tweeters, including the account of the very well-trafficked Africa is a Country blog united in expressing their shame at UCT, with some asserting that the Vice Chancellor should apologise. Before getting to the later UCT response, which included further details regarding Mr. Khohlokoane’s debt, let’s pause and ask what UCT might need to apologise for.

Zama Ndlovu is right. It is a shame that affordability serves as an obstacle to South African’s getting a university education. It would be tremendous if university study could be government funded, but I’m sure you’d agree with me that it’s not UCT’s fault that it isn’t. UCT can only be held to account for doing less than other universities do (or, less than you reasonably think they should).

But UCT has a very generous financial aid system. In fact, as things stand in 2013, the University has committed to the proposition that no otherwise qualified student will be denied entrance on financial grounds. Not that this could have helped Mr. Khohlokoane in 1996, of course. He did however receive plenty of financial aid, as I’ll get to in a moment. The pool of money is not bottomless, however, and any funding to one student comes at the expense of something else. The level at which one sets support can of course be debated, but wherever you set it has implications for something else.

We cannot protest that one student could have – or should have – been bailed out of a debt of X Rands because their story happens to be sympathetic, or in the news. Because that student is potentially 1000 students, or more, all of whom might be in similar circumstances. We have no principled way of further assisting a Mr. Khohlokoane, and can’t assist everyone, because doing so would mean trading off on something else. Perhaps transport, housing or food, or perhaps building maintenance or salaries. Even though the budget is huge, managing it responsibly involves doing so on principle, and the principle can’t be “forgive student debt” – because student fees make up roughly half of UCT’s income.

And UCT’s only way of ensuring that they receive that income is to use the only bargaining chip they have – to deny graduation until the debt is paid, as they did in Mr. Khohlokoane’s case. But even though they do that, they still attempt to make it possible for students to exploit the potential value of that degree, by informing prospective employers that a student has completed the degree (even though they have not been awarded it). So, if Mr. Khohlokoane had found a job for which his social sciences degree was an advantage, UCT would have attested to his qualifications.

Some have suggested that UCT should somehow find other sources of income to fund cases like this. But that’s too simplistic a response. First, because UCT already finds all the money it can, whether through donations, fees or government subsidy. A huge proportion of that is allocated to assisting students already, but it would be nonsensical to ring-fence some portion for cases like Mr. Khohlokoane’s, because there’s no objective reason why they – and not other cases – deserve that sort of ring-fencing. And you can’t ring-fence them all, because the money supply isn’t infinite.

What students often don’t get – and what many of the Twitterati aren’t getting – is that it’s sometimes contrary to justice and fairness to make policy based on exceptional cases. Fairness involves having a clear set of rules, and applying them consistently, to try to maximise the welfare or interests of all stakeholders. Bailing out Mr. Khohlokoane would have come at the expense of some other interest – in other words, someone else would perhaps have been wronged (although, an aggregate interest would probably have been wronged, so we would not have noticed it).

The financial aid policies and packages are designed to help as many students as possible. Top-slicing some money from that pool to help a Mr. Khohlokoane, or someone else, means that another student doesn’t get that money. Yes, it’s sad that Mr. Khohlokoane had to wait 17 years to graduate. But assuming SAPA’s figures are correct, if UCT had forgiven the R30 000 student debt that he left UCT with, that would be R30 000 that was not allocated to students who have attended classes (and hopefully graduated) from UCT since then. Or do their interests count less than Mr. Khohlokoane’s?

And finally, one reason you might want to be a little more cautious about unbridled sympathy for Mr. Khohlokoane’s case is that the details of the case seem partly fabricated, in crucial aspects. Let’s reprise my list from above, but using the details from UCT’s second response, once they had time to check the facts:

What UCT later told us was that:

  1. Khohlokoane finished his degree with around R5 196 of study debt in 1996 (not R30 000)
  2. he worked as a petrol attendant to try and pay his debt (as above – left to maintain symmetry)
  3. he would not be formally awarded his degree until he had settled his account (as per policy, and as argued for above)
  4. he was not allowed to pay his debt off at R100 per month, because UCT said that wasn’t enough (in fact, UCT accepted small amounts like this from him, but he stopped paying them. UCT then spend two years trying to contact him with no success).
  5. accumulated interest and debt collection charges had swelled the debt to R8 342 (not R100 000)

To this, some Twitterati responded with a “yeah, so the total owing was somewhat exaggerated by SAPA. Still, shame on UCT”. But no – it’s the initial debt, the fact that he was paying (then stopped), the fact that he could have pursued a higher-paying job than he did (on the strength of his “qualification”), and the final debt that are inaccurately reported (and we of course don’t know whether Mr. Khohlokoane is responsible for this, or not).

In short, someone left UCT with a debt of R5 196, after receiving around R69 000 in financial assistance from UCT over his four years here. Seventeen years later, a generous donor settled the R8 342 now owing, and the student graduated. Thanks to poor information, poor reporting and the pitchfork-wielding mob on Twitter, UCT is made to look like it’s betrayed some sort of social justice imperative.

But given that a) educations can’t be free; b) the money supply isn’t infinite; and c) every Rand spent comes at the expense of something else, please tell me what makes you certain that Mr. Khohlokoane was uniquely hard done-by, or that UCT has committed evil here?

Edit: For posterity, here’s one of the things the self-described left have to say in response -

  • Michelle Solomon

    Thanks for writing this. I missed the issue, but I think it important that you pointed out that he stopped paying the debt and disappeared for two years. That’s a crucial point. Khohlokoane essentially ran away from his debt, making him responsible for the inflation. If he had paid off R100 a month, he would have paid off the debt in 4 years.

    Another question I’d like to pose though – what was the debt for, or is that information private? If he had financial aid for 4 years, then why was there this relatively large debt on his account?

    • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

      The UCT response, linked above the second list, breaks the debt down.

      • Michelle Solomon

        Thanks, sorry I missed that. It seems fair to me.

  • Sean Crookson

    There is also the question of why he worked in a lowly job when he could have used his degree? Perhaps UCT didn’t make it known to him (or others) that this was possible.

  • Charlene

    This is a good piece but I still think 17 years is too long not to get your degree. I can’t imagine many employers hiring someone who doesn’t actually have their degree. Also, do we know why he disappeared for two years? Do we know if he was supporting a family, possibly more than one family? Do we know if UCT couldn’t contact him because he moved/didn’t have enough money to pay for a phone, etc? Yes, I absolutely agree that UCT can’t be making exceptions for all people who can’t pay debt and that other students need to benefit from financial aid but surely debt is written off after some years?

  • Kevin Charleston

    Thanks for the factual response Jacques. It’s saddening that the story has become so twisted. What’s lacking is sense of Mr Khohlokoane’s own responsibility here. I would have hoped that someone who has made his way through at least 3 years, of the kind of study that UCT offers, would be empowered to make sure he crosses the finish line himself?

  • Herman Lategan

    My sympathy lies with Joseph Khohlokoane.

  • T.O. Molefe

    Thanks for this, Jacques. You’ve cleared up the details but it remains that Khohlokoane did not graduate because of student debt. There are could haves:
    - he could have kept on paying
    - he could have gotten that letter from UCT confirming he’d earned the degree
    - he could have used that to get a higher-paying job to settle the debt sooner
    - he could have negotiated with UCT over the payments.

    I do not know of his personal circumstances, but his needing financial aid to attend university gives me, someone who was in the same boat, an inkling. That he was unable to pay R5,196 to graduate also tells me something too.

    UCT in this case is part of a brutal system that assigns responsibility (the above list of “could haves”) to individuals without giving them the same rights (in substance, not on paper) or the same starting place. Many of us cope, and I use that word intentionally. Cope, n, to contend with difficulties and act to overcome them. But as we are not all the same and the contexts of those difficulties vary in magnitude, frequency and over time, there are those among us who do not cope. Within this context, what proportion of people who do not cope within this system do we take to be acceptable? Is it 0.6%? Is one person who waited 17 years to graduate?

    You know I’m going to say one person unable to cope is one person too many because if we are going to bang on about individual responsibility, then we need to link that discussion to in-substance rights and resources (and all that comes with them).

    As an aside, I’m not at all convinced it’s a given that education cannot be free to the recipient who cannot afford it. But that’s another bigger slightly tangential-slightly related discussion.

    • Troll45

      The 11 people who liked your comment may sympathise with your sentiments, but they obviously don’t grasp the basics of logical inference,

      Your argument (as much as one could decipher one) looks something like this:
      Assumption 1: Every responsibility comes with a corresponding right
      Assumption 2: If student X has the responsibility to [insert any of your examples, e.g. pay his student debt], then he has the corresponding right to graduate
      Fact: student X didn’t pay his student debt
      Conclusion: student X has the right to graduate

      That makes no sense.

      • Ami

        What I don’t get is how a person with a university education couldn’t come up with some solutions for himself. Maybe that’s what we should be asking UCT. Is the teaching good if a person with a degree level education (certified or not) does a job that a person without matric? What is gentleman’s accountability in all of this.

  • capriconza3

    I think the author should read the Race of Life and see how diffiuclt is to be from a disadvantage community in South Africa.

    All this story about if we helped Mr Khohlokoane any more would have been at the disadvantge of others is completely wrong. If you were from privledged South Africa there are numerous people to help you when you reach difficulty. The fact that nobody is there to lend R5000 to pay off the debt shows the sad state of South Africa.

    Please read the following article

    http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/readerblog/2011/11/10/the-race-of-life/

    • Troll45

      Poor argumentation and a lack reading and comprehension.

      The university as an institution is dividing its finite resources amongst many disadvantaged students in a principled manner.

      For you it may be a reflection of the sad state of the nation that there wasn’t a more privileged person to pay Mr Khohlokane’s debt, but this is quite beside the point of how one might expect the university to deal with disadvantaged students in a fair manner.

      please try again.

  • adam

    the fact that the study debt is indicated by UCT as less than previously noted in the papers implies deeper culpability in both directions (although, i only think there is one victim in this instance). it means that UCT withheld someone’s means to lift themselves out of conditions not conducive to human flourishing for 17 years, for around 1/15 of what they pay academics for publishing a single journal article. you speak of opportunity costs frequently but you only articulate the opportunity costs as between those requiring a helping hand from the university as if these were the only trade offs the university has been forced to make. for all seemingly progressive reforms, including making university open to anybody academically suitable, regardless of financial constraints, the university is a setting for reproduction of privilege amongst an elite. as an employee of the university you directly benefit from some of the other trade offs, including those instituted by Ramphele when she chose to ‘underpay at the bottom in order to overpay at the top’. there are a number of things the university could do to eradicate instances like Khohlokoane’s. they could ramp up fees for those with higher capability to pay, they could pressure government into providing more funding, they could cut the pay of those at the top, they could spend less money on a new state of the art economics department. these are the real trade offs i would argue and furthermore i believe its uncritical to be dismissive of the internal biases of an institution like a university, particularly when one is part of the privilege that it systematically favours.

    • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

      Just on one factual point – UCT pays nothing to academics for publishing articles.

      • sickofsanctimony

        Mr Rousseau UCT does pay academics for publications -check with their research office. Secondly the silence on structural inequalities and the readiness to place the blame on the individual such as Khohlokoane for the loss of 17 years of pay off from academic work just speaks to the smug lack of moral willingness to address the moral issue here and the culpability of UCT in the waste of human resources.

        • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

          Sickofsanctimony – you don’t seem to be aware that I am an academic member of staff at UCT, so I’m well aware of what they do (and in this case, don’t) pay for. One can apply for research funding, yes – but they don’t pay you per publication.

  • Rob

    Great to see the story being probed from another angle. Objectivity is a rare quality. However, I do feel that the author has made a fundamental error in his analysis of the situation. It may be true that UCT acknowledges an individuals attainment of a degree despite the fact that have not settle the amount due; this process is far more complex for the man on the ground. If Joseph had attempted to apply for a position in a governmental department; his lack of a physical degree would be a major stumbling block. The SA government like most bureaucracies are impersonal behemoths with a mind for procedure and efficiency. They require individuals to send through a photocopy of their degree certificate as a part of their application. Without said documentation, the application is almost certain to be entirely overlooked. This means an entire stream of potential employment has been removed from his reach (given that his degree was in the social sciences, it is likely that the dynamics of his degree would have likely been orientated toward a career in this field). I would even go so far as to suggest that large corporates would do much the same given the vast number of applications they receive and the nature of the time necessary to investigate the validity of his claims to have a degree despite no physical proof. Unfortunately, this is all compounded by the lack of social capital these individuals are likely to enjoy; making obtaining a decent paying job through connections rather than qualifications near impossible Put in context, it makes for a bleak picture for these individuals who fall through the financial cracks. There surely must be a better policy for UCT to ensure that they receive the outstanding fees

  • Manohman

    This story is sad because a man missed out on a better life for 17 years. You don’t have to blame UCT to have sympathy for this situation nor do you have to wave your judgemental finger at this man to defend UCT’s actions. It’s an unfortunate situation point blank and it needs to be chalked up to expression “shit happens”.

    I’m more irritated with this tid bit: “As is sadly typical in South Africa media, a South African Press Association (SAPA) release was uncritically reproduced by nearly all the other media outlets, with none of them bothering to check any of the relevant facts with UCT first.”

    1) “sadly typical in South African media” but this happens all over the world (look up Associated Press) 2) “uncritically reproduced” but that’s the whole point…newspapers pay for the right to republish SAPA articles (just like media overseas republishes Associated Press articles) and they do so in good faith

    Your problem is with SAPA.

  • Simon Magner

    Well written and accurate response to how the situation should be. Just imagine if his debt had been written off as a principle, every year there would be 1000′s saying I need to graduate and I won’t pay. The original article made people think that a clever person (degree) had to be a petrol attendant due to UCT. Not true!