University of Pretoria: Student voices take centre stage at UP Faculty of Law’s first Teaching and Learning Forum for 2022

Student voices took centre stage at the University of Pretoria (UP) Faculty of Law’s first Teaching and Learning Forum for the year, hosted on 6 April 2022. Chaired by Professor Charles Maimela, Deputy Dean: Faculty of Law, the forum focused on academic and social challenges facing students in the current educational and economic climate. The four participating panellists were students from Law House, a student representative committee which represents the interests of students to the Faculty of Law, assists students with academic grievances, organises outreach projects, and encourages mental wellness through participation in Faculty sporting and social events.

In opening, Prof Maimela said the Faculty was kickstarting this series with students’ participation “because the voices of the students are fundamental in our teaching and learning endeavours and exercises”. He emphasised the importance of students sharing their perspective on curricula and administration, so that the University, and particularly the Faculty of Law, can assess the services rendered to students in terms of teaching and learning.

Mitchelle Baloyi, Secretary and Webmaster: Law House, presented first. She raised the issue of academic exclusions, which are increasingly common and a serious concern for students. The situation is exacerbated by students being allowed to take additional modules. Ulrich Steynberg, Vice-Chairperson: Law House, echoed this concern. Students simply do not have enough time to meet the prescribed hours for all their courses, often resulting in academic exclusion, he said. Both panellists called for stricter monitoring of the number of modules students are allowed to take. They were assured that the Exclusion Committee would consider the circumstances of students holistically, especially now with the adverse effects of the pandemic.

Baloyi also raised concerns about the online learning programme, saying it encouraged parrot learning rather than real engagement with course content. Some students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are also struggling because of poor literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, she said. Baloyi wondered if the Faculty could intervene to assist in bridging this skills gap. Several Faculty staff recognised the need for online content to be engaging and dynamic, but also emphasised that students must take responsibility for their own studies and be proactive in seeking assistance. Prof Maimela said the Faculty would investigate how it could assist with skills acquisition without overburdening the department.

Asanda Lembede, Chairperson: Law House, and Nolukhanyo Mpisane, Head of Transformation: Law House, spoke about curriculum transformation from a student’s perspective, saying it requires a paradigm shift from a Eurocentric, Western-influenced institutional culture and learning environment to one infused with African values. Furthermore, curriculum transformation needs to be tailored to both the South African and UP context, and should take cognisance of socioeconomic issues such as poverty and high unemployment, they said. Of fundamental importance is the need to produce graduates who can assume leadership roles in the corporate world and academia, they added.

Mpisane highlighted the seven elements that should inform curriculum transformation, namely: decolonising the curriculum, technology-enhanced teaching and learning, excellence and quality assurance, student support, student retention, student access, and reinventing assessment through alternative assessment systems. Faculty agreed on the importance of student involvement in the drive for a transformed law curriculum. In 2022 they will be focusing on transforming the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) curriculum in line with the recommendations made by the Council of Higher Education in its last review of the LLB.

Mpisane also argued for the inclusion of more practical skills within the LLB, such as the drafting of basic legal documents. Professor Loretta Feris agreed with this need, saying that, increasingly, employers want graduates who can hit the road running. Professor Elsabe Schoeman, Dean: Faculty of Law, mentioned that the law interns project at UP’s Centre for the Future of Work is one way the Faculty was working towards building practical skills. They are hoping to increase the number of students involved, she said. Prof Maimela agreed that this area needed further development, although there needs to be a balance between theory and practice.

Baloyi also spoke of how many students are anxious about a physical return to campus. There are also socio-economic challenges that make a return to campus difficult for many, especially financial, accommodation, and transport constraints. She argued for a staggered return. Prof Maimela assured her that a staggered return was planned to ensure that both staff and students are not overwhelmed during the re-integration. He also reminded them that UP is a contact university and the emergency measures under which the University has been operating will end at the end of 2022. Faculty would soon be sharing plans concerning the return of students to campus.

Responding to Mpisane, who spoke of the need to prioritise the social, mental, and physical well-being of students during this transitional period, Prof Maimela thanked her “for conscientising us again that we need to prioritise a balance between the social as well as academic activities of students in order for us to graduate the well-grounded graduate in line with THE UP WAY”. Faculty made an undertaking to speak with the relevant officials from the Department of Student Affairs and to seek assistance from Professor Themba Mosia, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Life. Students were again encouraged to seek assistance from the Faculty Student Advisors.

A further area of concern highlighted by Vice-Chairperson: Law House Steynberg was the accessibility of lecture and course materials for students living with disabilities, particularly hearing and sight impairment. Although the Faculty strives to be inclusive, more could be done to ensure the success of these students, he said. Prof Maimela agreed, saying that the Faculty would make every effort to assist law students living with disabilities, as well as extending its collaboration with UP’s Disability Unit. There will also be a Faculty campaign on disability awareness later in the year in collaboration with the Centre for Human Rights.

In closing, Prof Maimela praised the panellists for their impressive presentations. Prof Schoeman concluded, “In terms of going forward, we have a huge responsibility as we come out of a pandemic. What we’ve learnt from this pandemic and how we now reimagine our future, and also for legal education, is we have a huge responsibility on our shoulders because we are creating something now for staff and students that will follow in our footsteps. And that responsibility rests on all our shoulders – students and staff alike. So we have to work together, and we have to create something that will also serve those who follow well.”

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