A COUPLE of days ago I spent about a week in Pretoria and while there met a PhD student from Cameroon who recently enrolled for his degree programme in the field of natural sciences at the University of Pretoria.
As I always do, I felt the need to engage him on various issues concerning the average African youth leaving school going into the workplace for the first time.
I must confess that on some level I wanted to almost vainly put to test his reasoning ability and on another wanted to learn something from him.
My reverence for the PhD level started while in high school and my then history teacher and mentor was working hard on various aspects of his doctoral thesis, ironically enough his topic was something related to the state of education in Lesotho.
I was impressed by his dedication and his almost super human work ethic.
More than that, he always had nuggets of wisdom for me that did him no harm in my young eyes.
Once he told me and a friend of his daily regimen and I recall my friend and I doing some quick arithmetic which led us to conclude that he probably slept three to four hours a night.
We were both slack jawed and I remember wondering where he got the mettle and capacity for such long arduous hours, while at the same time still having a family and a professional career.
By then I think I already intuitively understood that meaningful success is only achieved through intense discipline and dedication.
I think this was the moment that my romantic infatuation with the PhD began and someday soon the plan is to get my own.
My conversation with my Cameroonian friend began on trivial matters like sport, and then I nonchalantly steered it toward education as had been my plan from the outset.
To my disappointment my friend did not have plans of grandeur and social change after completing his PhD.
I recall a few years ago when the then South African bank governor Tito Mboweni said one of the South African economy’s biggest Achilles-heel was the fact that the country was not producing enough PhD graduates entering the job market.
So I guess my disappointment was borne out of the fact that I do not believe in education for the sake thereof but rather education for the sake of greater social change.
The lack of a definitive answer from my PhD friend when it came to social change in his country and Africa at large made me question the value of education on our continent.
The fact of the matter is that black folk are amongst the most highly educated across the Diaspora and yet our continent continues to be the laughing stock of the world.
I believe we have to carry the debate of education into the mainstream and really begin to ask ourselves the really difficult questions.
A few weeks ago I remember hearing that the department of National Manpower Development Secretariat was encouraging students to come and apply for bursaries for study in South Africa due to fewer-than-expected applicants.
Apparently the government has set aside M100 million in this regard. At first glance one would be glad that our government has consistently put education expenditure in the forefront amidst all the other challenges.
But we really have to ask ourselves if those students who will come back as graduates one day are really going to make a marked difference in the destiny of our country.
The law of diminishing returns in economics predicts at the higher end of the spectrum the returns to education decrease.
I think this fact has been truly evident throughout the history of this country.
For a long time Lesotho has been known to be one of the leaders on the continent when it comes to literacy and years spent in school, as measures of development. Yet for a long time we continue to trail on many other developmental aspects.
I remember my monetary economics professor at varsity once lambasting the memory-based assessments where students are tested on their ability to memorise tons of useless concepts which mean nothing in the long-term for their success in the work place.
Every year companies complain that the education system continues to churn out graduates that are a mismatch in terms of the skill set required in the corporate world.
Hence firms almost always have to invest heavily in the training of the graduates for them to gain some credible competency and required skills that will make them useful in this dynamic world economy.
Furthermore I feel we have to ask ourselves if the system is training students to be followers or leaders.
If we want far-reaching changes in the country we need a system that churns out more creative thinkers, dreamers and entrepreneurs into the job space.
What we need more coming out of the system is people who have grander visions that supersede the norm.
More importantly we need folk who intuitively understand the responsibility to give back to the country that made them.
The fact is, historically Lesotho always has had one of the highest ratios in terms of education expenditure to GDP in the developing world but yet the country continues to struggle in many developmental areas.
The burning question here is whether or not we are getting value for investment in education.
The actuality here is no matter how much money we continue to direct towards education the benefits will not be realised if the system itself is defective.
The immortal Greek philosopher Socrates once famously proclaimed: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. Those are some words for us to ponder going forward because the beginning of change is reflection upon current affairs. More than that I believe we have to demand more from our institutions, our government and most importantly ourselves.
In words of another immortal, the old venetian renaissance man Michelangelo, ‘the greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our mark too high and falling short but in setting aim too low and aim too low and achieving mark.
Matela Lechesa is a freelance writer based in Maseru.