University: A Good Return On Investment?

Universities were founded more than 2700 years ago. The oldest, and still functioning, university in Africa is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. Older than the first European universities.

Universities have always been places of knowledge, dialogue and critical engagement since before most of us existed. Great minds have been produced.

This is not to say they have stopped, but rather to assert that stagnation and ivory-towerism has created universities that are not just far removed from the realities of South African life but rather removed from the daily struggles of students and societal progress.

In a perfect world, the story goes like this: You finish high-school, and enter an institution of higher learning in order to increase your chances of getting a well-paying job/career. The degree you obtain is supposed to increase your chances by a fairly big margin if University prospectus’ and Vice-Chancellor speeches are to be believed.

In a certain University, which I won’t mention, the advertisements claim graduates from the institution generally obtain employment within 6 months of graduation. Generally.

In a fast changing world, universities have become less about the student and more about the amount universities can siphon from students by the time they leave. Yes, universities are inherently an exchange of resources, i.e I pay a certain amount because I expect to derive value from from you what offer. This is why most universities are more businesses than learning institutions, well in this day and age anyway.

But what if I don’t derive value from it? As a millenial, do universities even cater for my needs?

A Return On Investment?

Investopedia defines a return on investnent as as follows: ROI measures the amount of return on an investment relative to the investment’s cost. To calculate ROI, the benefit (or return) of an investment is divided by the cost of the investment, and the result is expressed as a percentage or a ratio.

The money I put in must be able to provide a certain level of value in my life and progress. A degree is just that. Value. Infact, I like to refer it as intellectual capital.

I’ll get into the conversation of intellectual capital later, considering decolonisation of the curriculum is a thing in this fair country of ours.

(Picture via qcourses)

So, using the above formula, with a degree as the benefit, can we confidently say that a University degree has been worth it? Notwithstanding that university takes a toll on the body, mind and soul — is it reasonable to assume that universities generally do more harm than good nowadays? It seems like it. A study revealed that University students have the anxiety level of a 1960’s asylum patient in the USA. Maybe we just not coping. I doubt it though. There’s too many things wrong to diagnose it as “just not coping”.

Universities have generally remained unchanged from their inception. A few new faculties here, technological advancement there but generally? Nothing. Nothing that inspires a more convincing acknowledgement of progressive universities.

For most, Universities are suppose to be a game-changer in terms of breaking cycles of poverty and improving the lives of those around them. But the issue of youth unemployment in South Africa looks pretty grim. Statistics South Africa released a report in June, 2017 which that of the 433 000 people who joined the ranks of the unemployed, approximately 58% were young people aged 15-34 increasing the youth unemployment rate by 1,6 percentage points to 38,6%.

Yes. Degrees give you a fighting chance. Yes, investing in education increases the ROI more than anywhere else. But are the Universities even engaged in creating more entrepreneurial or impactfuful graduates to offset slow economic growth, and high youth unemployment rates? Hardly.

Universities have proven themselves to be quite reactive. Whether that be related to mental health issues of students or the financial issues faced by students. For them, it’s business as usual. Never questioning.

Now then, what’s the solution? It’s definitely not Universities creating online learning platforms. That hurts Universities more to be honest because they generally trade on brand and prestige. Education could be the same somewhere else but because University of Cape Town is a world-renowned institution I’ll go there for law, although University of Kwa-Zulu Natal is actually better in that department. That’s not just example, UKZN actually is better in law than UCT.

The internet has bridgeded the education gap in a big way too. It would be a mistake to limit the accumulation of knowledge to institutions. We’re not in 1859 anymore, remember?

I think the solution is simple: Universities need a re-education. “How best do we help students?” should be a leading question. From there a breakdown of the needs, wants and expectations of students. If Universities are to be treated like a company, it must be treated like a successful company. Facebook, Google, and Uber listen to their customers. Universities don’t.

Universities are quite important in South Africa too. Lest we forget, it’s been 23 years of democracy. People still need to be educated.

My views on education really are based on the view of universities held by one of my favourite modern philosophers/theories, Henry Giroux, who once wrote:

Universities are some of the few places left where a struggle for the commons, for public life, if not democracy itself, can be made visible through the medium of collective voices and social movements energized by the need for a politics and way of life counter to authoritarian capitalism.”

I find this important. Universities create more knowledgeable citizens.

Anyway, till next time!

I write mini-stories about life.