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How the historically disadvantaged Walter Sisulu University lost the right to teach law

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) released its final outcomes of the national review of law programmes on 9 November, and one university has lost its LLB accreditation while three others now face the danger of a similar fate.

The CHE embarked on its first-ever nationwide LLB curriculum review of 17 law schools in 2016. The purpose of the review was to “strengthen the quality of legal education provision across South African universities,” according to the CHE. Law curricula were evaluated based on CHE’s programme accreditation criteria and the LLB qualification standard.

Walter Sisulu University (WSU), a historically black university which has its law school in rural Eastern Cape, came out worst. The CHE withdrew its LLB accreditation because WSU had failed to employ enough PhD lecturers and fix subpar learning venues and computer centres.

In April this year WSU, along with three other universities, was placed on notice by the CHE. It was given until mid-October to create a plan that would solve the shortcomings identified by the CHE. It appears that the CHE wasn’t convinced with WSU’s suggestions.

“[WSU] has now learned that the University was unable to convince the CHE that its emergency remedial measures were sufficient to warrant the continuation of the current programme,” the university said in a statement. This means it will not be accepting new LLB applicants from 2019 onwards.

The other three universities that were placed on review in April – University of the Free State, Nelson Mandela University, and Unisa – will keep their accreditation.

Due to its historical positionality and accompanying lack of resources, WSU couldn’t attract enough PhD lecturers and keep up with infrastructure renewal. According to Higher Education Transformation Network chairperson, Dr Sethole Legoabe, stripping WSU of its right to teach law only serves to entrench the inherited and continuing socio-economic disparities experienced by black people in rural South Africa. “We will not allow them to entrench poverty, to entrench disparities in a very poor university all because they have not met the criteria,” he said.

Legoabe told The Daily Vox that even though the HETN welcomes the work done by the CHE, it doesn’t support its decision to withdraw WSU’s LLB accreditation. “We thoroughly condemn the decision by the Council on Higher Education. We think that they were pressurised by the law society of South Africa,” he said. Legoabe said that WSU serves the rural community of the Eastern Cape, and by revoking its law school’s accreditation, it is excluding that community. “To withdraw accreditation to a rural province, they are effectively cutting off a rural community from accessing the law profession.”

WSU is known to be a historically disadvantaged university that is poorly resourced. Legoabe said it is known the university performs poorly because of this. “This is not the first time but the approach that was used by these other bodies has been a patient approach; give them more time. A notice period of six months or a year simply will not do,” he said.

Legoabe said the HETN will write to the CHE in an effort to get the it to reconsider its decision. If it doesn’t, Legoabe said, the HETN will pursue legal action against the CHE.

The WSU deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs and research Sechaba Mahlomaholo said in the statement that current and future LLB students’ degrees won’t be affected by the accreditation withdrawal. Mahlomaholo said WSU will be creating a new LLB curriculum which it will submit to the CHE in 2018 for consideration.

Three universities have been bumped down and given a notice of withdrawal of accreditation. The University of Limpopo was put on notice because the CHE felt that it had not adequately met its criteria for lecture halls. The university’s director of quality assurance, Dr Abbey Ngoepe, told The Daily Vox that it is working to meet the May 2018 deadline. “There is a clear plan from the university to meet those short conditions,” he said.

The University of Zululand was also put on notice. In a statement published on its website, the university said it is addressing the issues raised by the CHE. “As part of working collaboratively with the CHE it has a scheduled a stakeholder engagement session in December to ensure that the Institutional improvement plan is responsive and deals spot-on with the issues raised,” the statement said.

It was perhaps unexpected to see the University of Cape Town (UCT) in that category, given its international reputation. UCT is the only South African university to rank in the top 150 universities globally in law. The university was shocked by the CHE’s “unilateral action” by putting it on notice. The dean of UCT’s law faculty Penny Andrews reportedly said the CHE was concerned by the lack of academic support for black students and a low success rate of its black students.

Media liaison manager for the university Elijah Moholola wouldn’t elaborate on what the university thinks about the CHE’s findings, and instead directed The Daily Vox to the CHE. He did however say that UCT was were “surprised and concerned” by the final outcome.

The CHE couldn’t be reached for comment.

The HETN welcomed the CHE’s findings but felt that it should have disaccredited UCT like it did WSU. Legoabe said a university’s ability to look after students is also an important criterion. “We don’t see a difference in the weighting in the criteria used by the Council on Higher Education,” he said.

UCT has until May 2018 to respond to the council’s findings and submit an action plan. Moholola said the university busy drafting its plan. “The faculty is confident that we will be able to respond to the concerns raised, and retain our accreditation,” he said.

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