Degrees: a poor indicator of ability

At the end of November, the Twitter feed of South Africans interested in local politics was briefly overrun by the fracas between EFF and DA members of Parliament over DA chief whip John Steenhuisen’s lack of university qualifications.

Degrees: a poor indicator of ability
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Floyd Shivambu, deputy president of the EFF, and other EFF members and MPs, ridiculed Steenhuisen after a Sunday newspaper reported that Steenhuisen’s highest academic qualification was matric.

Former president Jacob Zuma had, at times, also faced similar ridicule for his lack of schooling, and while he has been awarded a few honorary doctorates, Zuma has always acknowledged that he has had little formal education.

Now, Zuma may be many things, but he is definitely not unintelligent, and his lack of education didn’t disqualify him from becoming president.

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There are two things I believe about academic qualifications and higher learning in particular.

The first is that there is immense value in broadening your knowledge, in learning the self-discipline required to finish a degree or diploma, and in reading as widely as possible in the pursuit of attaining your qualification.

However, I have also learnt that a formal education is sometimes a poor indicator of a person’s intelligence, capacity for compassion, ethical conduct and overall capabilities. We can learn a great deal through experience, and when I evaluate candidates for a position at the magazine, years of experience often carry much more weight than education.

A keen reader without a university degree may very well be better educated than someone who attained a degree by doing the absolute minimum required to pass.

On the other hand, when someone has obtained a master’s degree or doctorate, no matter the subject, it is a good indication that the person has had to learn the discipline of completing a large, long-term project that required him/her to persevere even through times when they may have run low on inspiration.

Society may have, perhaps, become overly obsessed with the significance of tertiary diplomas and degrees as indicators of the value that people can bring to the workplace.

But it is also a serious indictment on our institutions of higher learning that they so often fail to produce graduates capable of independent thought, creative problem solving and, in some instances, even lacking the most basic skills that their degrees should guarantee.

However, what I unequivocally know is that if our politicians are going to spend time engaging in ‘debates’ about education on social media, they should instead discuss the appalling state of state primary school education.

Their actions and petty squabbles tell us much more about the type of people they are than any degree ever could.

As Prof Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and now a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, remarked on Twitter: “If you use your degree to sneer at people without one, you have learnt nothing.”

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Denene hails from a sugar cane farm in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, but after school she relocated to the Cape Winelands to study, for many years, at the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly since 2009 and in 2015 moved to Johannesburg as Deputy editor for the magazine. In 2016 she was appointed editor, and at the end of 2021, she stepped down from her position to pursue her journalism career.