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 –

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.