Helping them get in and get on: Perspectives on student access and success in legal training in South Africa

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Equity of success or outcome is as important as equity of access and redress. Equity considers the effects of discrimination and aims for an equal outcome. Equity in the context of this paper will be regarded as providing students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, ability, socio-economic status, or intersectional background, an equal opportunity to succeed. While equality means offering every student the same opportunities, equity means offering opportunities that acknowledge and address some students’ disadvantages. Equality means everyone gets the same treatment, while equity means giving people what they need based on their “starting” point.

Due to the legacy of Apartheid in South Africa, a higher education qualification is seen as a means to escape poverty for most black and previously disadvantaged students. In obtaining such a qualification, they will obtain the skills needed to participate in a globalised economy. Despite significant improvements in access to higher education in South Africa, student achievement, represented by student success, has yet to display similar progress. Not graduating these students has a negative impact on economic development and can exacerbate inequality. In addition, understanding students’ social context often has a far greater influence on students’ success than the lecturer’s teaching method. Therefore, the conceptualisation of access to higher education needs to be situated within the relevant historical, political, and economic context. Access and subsequent success cannot be analysed without considering the relevant political and social issues. Access is often measured in terms of increasing participation by previously disadvantaged students but seldom through a social justice lens where equity of access is closely linked to equity of success.

The deep-rooted legacy that Apartheid left in South African higher education must be considered before discussing what these social justice concepts of access and equity entail. Before the democratic election of 1994, Apartheid ideologies significantly impacted the structure of the South African higher education system. These ideologies advocated for the segregation of the education system based on racial and ethnic divisions. During Apartheid, all public higher education institutions in South Africa were exclusively reserved for white students. Admission of students from other races was only permitted if they obtained special permits from the government department responsible for administering that institution. This classification based on race also differentiated governance and funding arrangements. The fragmentation of institutional types was reflected in the unevenness of governance arrangements and variances in the relationship between individual public institutions and the state. The universities designated exclusively for white students had a significant level of autonomy. They received block grants allocated on a formula basis that considered factors such as retrospective student enrolments, research outputs, and several other criteria. In contrast, there was strict control over the appointment of teaching staff and the curriculum design of the universities in the then-called Bantustans and self-governing territories. Their budgets were also extensions of administration budgets.

One way to address past injustices in South African higher education was widening access to higher education. While access to higher education is not a problem unique to South Africa, the country faces challenging socio-political and economic circumstances that make access to higher education a complex issue. In 2005, the University of the Free State introduced an extended LLB (Bachelor of Law) programme to address the need for widening access. This paper will investigate the concept of access in higher education, specifically in the context of the extended LLB programme.

Higher education in South Africa is still riddled with inequalities, not only in terms of physical access but also in terms of epistemological access. Many students meet the minimum requirements of the LLB programme, but often these students fail to graduate for various reasons. Access is closely linked to equity, and achieving equity in higher education entails developing solutions that address the barriers faced by students from marginalised backgrounds. Barriers include a lack of academic support, funding, resources, and consideration of the circumstances that hinder students from accessing success in higher education. To achieve equity in higher education, universities must ensure that all students receive the support they need to succeed. The diversity in student intake, particularly with respect to inequalities in educational background, challenges the validity of traditional, unitary educational processes and, therefore, furthers the past inequalities. Universities often make admission decisions based on personal conversion factors such as academic preparation. Still, less often are the social and environmental conversion factors understood and actively tackled by higher education institutions, which can be seen in the poor success rates of students admitted based on their personal conversion factors.

Widening access has been addressed in mainly two ways in higher education institutions. One method is to provide financial aid to students from low-income families, and the second is to change the admission policies and selection criteria to be sensitive to students’ socio-economic backgrounds. Access is often measured in terms of increasing participation by previously disadvantaged students, but seldom through a social justice lens where equity of access is closely linked to equity of success.

The focus of access to higher education should shift from formal access to epistemological access and consequently show commitment to supporting access for success. It could be argued that higher education institutions that grant students access without giving them reasonable chances to succeed contribute to equity problems in South African higher education.

The priority for granting access to higher education institutions should be ensuring success. This entails deploying scarce resources in higher education effectively and efficiently and establishing access criteria that directly correlate with what is necessary for success in higher education. Furthermore, it involves freeing higher education from the burden of being the sole feasible path for economic participation and escaping poverty.

The paper makes several key findings. When higher education institutions focus on the principle that equity of access is closely linked to equity of success, they should reconsider their admission requirements. When higher education institutions shift their focus from formal access to epistemological access, they automatically remove the sole burden on themselves to ensure students’ success since epistemological access also places a responsibility on students to ensure their own success. Once students have gained formal access, they must engage in self-reflection regarding the privileges and opportunities they have obtained by being granted formal access, and equip themselves with the knowledge and skills required to actively contribute and excel within the higher education institution they have gained access to. Access is as much a responsibility as it is a right.

Keywords: epistemological access; equity in success; extended LLB programme; foundation modules; physical access; student access and success


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Help hulle inkom én deurkom: Sienings oor studentetoegang en -sukses in regsopleiding in Suid-Afrika

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