/ 28 April 2017

Four universities face law degree closures

The National Assembly has passed the Legal Practice Bill
The National Assembly has passed the Legal Practice Bill

Four universities may be at risk of losing their law degree accreditation after the Council on Higher Education (CHE) found “serious” weaknesses in their LLB programmes.

This would not affect students currently registered for LLBs, but if North-West University, Unisa, the University of the Free State and Walter Sisulu University fail to rectify issues within two years, they will have to close their law programmes.

The CHE, an independent statutory body established by the Higher Education Act, last year reviewed the LLB at 17 of the country’s universities. The four universities received notices of withdrawal of qualification earlier this month.

According to the CHE’s chief executive, Professor Narend Baijnath, this drastic step is taken if a programme is weak and falls short of meeting the qualification standard.

Baijnath said the law qualifications offered by the 13 other universities were granted reaccreditation, subject to meeting specified conditions. “Some conditions may be fixed within six months; others will take between six and 24 months to address.”

The CHE’s investigation at North-West University revealed that a group of mainly black students receiving tuition through lectures being translated from Afrikaans to English felt “accommodated” rather than integrated in the academic space. Black law students at the Potchefstroom campus felt alienated because of “a lack of substantive integration” among students of different races.

Other reasons for the notice of withdrawal of accreditation, according to the vice-chancellor, Professor Dan Kgwadi, included:

  • Relatively low admission requirements are not supplemented with adequate student support; and
  • Evidence of inequity between the two campuses — Potchefstroom and Mahikeng — in terms of access, curriculum delivery, teaching, learning and assessment, the profiles of staff in respect of seniority, qualifications and scholarly reputation.

Kgwadi admitted that institutional restructuring aimed at addressing these issues “has not yet manifested itself in the faculty of law”.

Baijnath said problems identified at some of the four universities included high student-staff ratios and lack of diversity in the staff and student body. He said these universities had been asked to put in place by October measures to address the concerns set out in the reviews.

“Programmes at these institutions are still accredited and this review has no implication on the current or previous students,” Baijnath said.

Baijnath said the CHE could withdraw accreditation if conditions were not adequately addressed. If this happened, the universities could not enrol new students and would have to provide the CHE with a plan on how currently registered students would be supported until they complete the qualification.

He said a national report on the LLB was being compiled.

Kgwadi said his university would study the CHE review findings and develop an appropriate improvement plan and strategy. Unisa spokesperson Martin Ramotshela said its college of law “has already started addressing the concerns”. Walter Sisulu University said the review highlighted staffing and infrastructure challenges.

Lacea Loader, spokesperson for the University of the Free State, said although the LLB met most of the standards, the CHE’s main concern was that it was “too overloaded [with credits] for a four-year programme”. She said before the CHE review was undertaken, the university’s law faculty had indicated that the current LLB was being replaced.

Meanwhile, Walid Brown and David Bekker, co-chairpersons of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), expressed concern about the CHE’s failure to include the legal profession in its review of the LLB.

They said that, aside from asking the LSSA for input during the standards-drafting process aspect of the review, the CHE had not consulted them since 2015.

“The legal profession is a material stakeholder and represents the largest group of employers of law graduates with up to 60% of law graduates joining the attorneys’ profession. It is … difficult to understand how the profession can be sidelined by the CHE at this critical juncture.”