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Council defends law school accreditation decision

The head of the Council for Higher Education (CHE), Narend Baijnath, has defended the council’s bombshell decision to withdraw the undergraduate LLB degree accreditation for Walter Sisulu University (WSU) and notify the University of Cape Town (UCT) that it could soon follow, saying the universities knew what was coming.

“Every institution has known what to expect, as well as the minimum standards that had to be met. Whatever opinions may be held on the process or reports, it is still incumbent on institutions to address the improvement imperatives identified in the process,” Baijnath said.

The report, which has yet to be publicly released, notified UCT, and also the University of Zululand and the University of Limpopo that their accreditations were about to be withdrawn.

Council of Higher Education Statement

The withdrawal of accreditation at Walter Sisulu University means it will no longer be able to offer an LLB and it may not admit new students into the current programme from 2019 onwards.

Walter Sisulu University was established in 2005, as a result of a merger between Border Technikon, Eastern Cape Technikon and the University of the Transkei. The last was known for cultivating the legal acumen of prominent legal professionals, such as president of the Supreme Court of Appeal Mandisa Maya and Constitutional Court judges Chris Jafta and Mbuyiseli Madlanga.

Baijnath said the “review process has been undertaken consistently and even-handedly, regardless of the history of a university. Every programme has been evaluated on its own merits.”

The purpose of a review is to protect the interests of students and to ensure that they become well-rounded graduates, he said.

In a statement, Walter Sisulu University said it was unable to convince the council that “its emergency remedial measures were sufficient to warrant the continuation of the current programme”.

The university’s spokesperson, Yonela Tukwayo, said one of the reasons Walter Sisulu University has failed to meet the requirements 
was its inability to attract professors and doctors of law to the faculty.

This has been difficult because top academics are not necessarily willing to move from big urban centres such as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban to live and work in a rural town like Mthatha.

Walter Sisulu University’s shortage of senior staff, as well as inadequate teaching and learning resources and throughput rates, were reportedly cited as reasons accreditation was withdrawn.

In recent years, the university has been beset by charges of corruption, student protests and disputes over the poor condition of student residences. In a 2001 article for the Mail & Guardian, Somadoda Fikeni, who was then the chairperson of the university’s council, wrote that “the historical, systematic and structural challenges of a merger that combined three severely disadvantaged institutions, each with its own history of instability” burdened the university in dealing with its interminable financial issues.

“We all saw it coming,” said Zuko Mpika, speaker of the Parliament of Students at Walter Sisulu University.

Aphelele Mafuya, the WSU’s president of the Juridical Society of Law Students, said she fears what the council’s decision means for her future in a white and male-dominated profession.

Mafuya said she thinks it is unlikely that UCT will suffer the same fate as WSU, because of its privileged position.

UCT reacted indignantly to its notice. The global top 100 law school released a statement challenging the “alarmist” report, saying UCT law graduates are “in high demand from law firms across the country, and that the findings are at odds with the performance of our graduates”.

The dean of the UCT law school, Penelope Andrews, told the M&G that the issue of transformation, specifically the faculty’s throughput rates certainly did come up in the CHE’s report. She said that, as the dean, she has been “extraordinarily committed” to transformation and decolonisation.

But law students who have tried to engage the faculty on the issue feel vindicated by the council’s decision.

A student from Decolonise UCT Law, who asked to remain anonymous, said the faculty’s “defensive” statement exemplifies its aloof attitude towards calls for a more equitable curriculum and culture.

Andrews said that despite her devotion to transformation, the process is definitely incomplete.

According to a report written by former UCT law students in 2015, the law faculty’s undergraduate body was 19% black compared with 27% for the university as a whole. The problem was “further exacerbated by the fact that the law school has historically graduated a very small cohort of black South African students”.

The member of Decolonise UCT Law said the university’s “proximity to whiteness” ultimately means the media and society care more about the UCT law faculty than that of Walter Sisulu University.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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