HE quality council defends review of law degrees

The Council on Higher Education, or CHE, has defended its quality review of the law degrees of 17 universities in South Africa in the wake of what it claims are “wanton attacks on the CHE and its quality assurance processes in instances”, following “considerable media interest” in the issue.

“If an institution’s programme is found to have shortcomings, it is as a result of a rigorous peer review system adopted by the CHE,” the council’s CEO, Professor Narend Baijnath, said in a statement released on 23 November.

Earlier this month, it was reported in local media that as part of the council’s review, the universities of Limpopo, Zululand and Cape Town were in danger of having their accreditation withdrawn. In its preliminary report in April, the council said the North West University, Walter Sisulu University, University of South Africa and the University of the Free State faced losing their Bachelor of Laws or LLB qualification. Walter Sisulu University has since been stripped of its law qualification.

The Council on Higher Education review of the law faculties is the first of its kind and was preceded by extensive deliberations between the council and the South African Law Deans' Association. The need for the review was reiterated by the legal professions represented by the Law Society of South Africa and the General Bar Council, said Baijnath.

National standard

“The next step was the development of a national qualification standard for the LLB. This was done by identifying a group of highly experienced and accomplished law academics and experts who drafted the standard for the LLB in wide consultation with the universities and the professions so that it could be used as a credible measure,” Baijnath said.

The CHE, established in 1998, is an independent statutory body with the role of developing and implementing a system of quality assurance for higher education, including programme accreditation and institutional audits. It started its review of law faculties in 2013, culminating in a set of outcomes emanating from the review during 2016, and communicated to the universities in April this year.

In his statement, Baijnath said that none of the 17 LLB programmes on offer at South African higher education institutions received full accreditation from the review process which concluded in March 2017. “Each and every one had some improvements to implement to a lesser or greater degree, and were given until 6 October 2017 to attend to them,” he said.

In a statement published on Politicsweb on 24 November, Professor Penelope Andrews, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Cape Town, said the impression created by media reports that the University of Cape Town was in peril of losing accreditation for the LLB degree were “misleading and alarmist”.

Furthermore, they overlooked “the importance of the relationship between universities and the CHE in ensuring that South African law faculties maintain high standards”, she said.

She said accreditation had not been withdrawn and was not likely to be withdrawn from the UCT faculty of law. “We have until May 2018 to address the concerns highlighted by the Council on Higher Education and we are confident we can do so well within that deadline.”

In his statement, Baijnath said all institutions generally accept the role and value of sectoral level quality assurance processes and the CHE quality assurance processes were dependent on peer expertise, mostly drawn from the universities themselves, to conduct evaluations. Peer review was an internationally entrenched mechanism for upholding quality standards in academia, he said.

Baijnath said feedback to institutions was critical in identifying weaknesses in programmes and then ensuring that action is taken to improve a programme. “In such cases, a programme is given accreditation with conditions - either short or long term. A further review is undertaken after six months."

He added: "If it is found that the institution has not addressed the improvement imperatives, the programme is put on notice of withdrawal and given a further six months to effect the required remedial action. Should the institution fail to effect such action during this period, accreditation is withdrawn.”

Issues identified by the review related, inter alia, to curriculum design and skills set and capabilities intended to be developed in the programme which did not measure up to the standard in some programmes, inadequate staffing or inexperienced lecturers, sufficient learning resources, or suitable infrastructure. Instances of bias towards rote learning were also found.

‘Transformative constitutionalism’

According to Baijnath, key to the standard against which individual programmes were evaluated was the ideal of “... ‘transformative constitutionalism’, stemming from the premise that legal education, as a public good, should be responsive to the needs of the economy, the legal profession and broader society”.

From a transformative perspective, the programme was required to demonstrate how it cultivates the capacity and accountability of the legal practitioner in shaping the legal system and promoting the social justice goals of fairness, legitimacy and equity in the legal system.

According to the CHE statement, all programmes had to effect improvements following the review process and each institution received a detailed report by the council on the shortcomings that needed attention in their improvement plans.

“Those with a few conditions to meet were re-accredited subject to those conditions being met within the specified period. Those programmes with serious shortcomings were immediately placed on notice of withdrawal and also given a specified time period within which to implement the short term remedies, failing which accreditation would be withdrawn as the next step. Longer term remedies would be monitored into the future by the HEQC [Higher Education Quality Committee].

“If an institution is now put on notice of withdrawal (after having been given conditional accreditation in the March process), it would signify that it has not demonstrably attended to the short term improvements required. The institution is now given a further six months (until May 2018) to address these.”

Failure to do so may result in the withdrawal of accreditation, he said.