Parents livid about ‘wasted’ law studies – and the law is to blame
Antiquated law means the Varsity College's LLB offering is invalid - for now, at least
The four-year LLB degree, which was offered for the first time by Varsity College this year, is under threat – and some parents are fuming.
At least 10 parents of students doing the degree at its three campuses in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) have threatened legal action. One has already served summons demanding a repayment of fees because of “misrepresentations and negligence”.
Attorney Sunil Singh, whose daughter started a BCom at Varsity College in 2017 with the intention of doing the LLB, is claiming back fees of R73,000 plus R140,000 in damages for a “wasted year”.
“My daughter is now at UKZN. I know of two other parents who have pulled their kids out,” he told Times Select.
But Varsity College – the trade name of the Independent Institute of Education (Pty) Ltd (IIE) – is defending the action.
It says it has done nothing wrong, it has all the proper accreditation and is a victim of antiquated legislation that dictates that only those with a relevant degree from a “university”, as opposed to a registered private higher education institution, can enter the profession.
It is this legislation, the Attorneys Act of 1979, that the KZN law society insists precludes it from recognising the Varsity College degree, meaning graduates will not be able to register with the professional body, do their articles and practise as attorneys.
Late last year IIE obtained the required SA Qualifications Authority accreditation and Council of Higher Education and Training registrations to offer the degree, which is the same as that offered by public universities.
The dispute began earlier this year when a parent approached the law society to establish the status of the degree and was told it would not be recognised.
IIE wrote to the other provincial law societies, but there was little response. The silence caused jitters that the KZN stance that “the law is the law” might still be adopted by the nationwide.
With 200 registered LLB students in the KZN and 300 doing commercial law that could progress to LLB degrees, IIE launched an urgent high court application before Judge Piet Koen in the Pietermaritzburg High court, saying the matter had to be clarified by the end of September to allow affected students an opportunity to register at public universities for next year if there is space.
Armed with a host of affidavits from “horrified and alarmed” students and parents – and a letter from the Law Society of South Africa in which it admits the situation is a “travesty of justice” – group academic director Felicity Coughton said the old act had simply not kept pace with the Constitution, the Higher Education Act and changes in SA’s education landscape.
“Parliament could not have intended to sideline private higher education institutions and deny the constitutional right of those institutions to offer higher education for this one profession only, when they are permitted to offer everything else that public universities offer,” she said.
“Degrees obtained from duly registered private higher education institutions have been recognised without qualification by other professional bodies such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Engineering Council of South Africa, the South African Nursing Council and the Psychology Board of the Health Professions Council of South Africa.”
The Attorneys Act is due to be replaced with the Legal Practice Act, which has a similar “university-only” stipulation.
But the office of minister of Justice and Constitutional Development admitted that this was a mistake – a “cut and paste” – and said an amendment was in the pipeline to recognise LLB degrees offered by private institutions, although there was no timeline for this.
Judge Koen, in his ruling on Tuesday, said IIE had presented a “persuasive case”, noting there was no dispute that the degree was properly registered.
But because the case raised constitutional issues, notice had to be published to give any interested party an opportunity to intervene, such as the other law societies or the public universities.
“I am alive to the prejudice to the IIE and the students. It is regrettably unavoidable.”
IIE attorney Nic Kinsley said: “We are in a much better position than we were in before we launched this application. The judgment records that the minister intends to amend the Legal Practice Act, and it confirms that our LLB degree is identical to those at public universities. The judge has recorded that the Law Society does not dispute the lawfulness and due accreditation and registration of our degree.
“We now need to supplement our papers. It is unlikely this will attract any opposition.”
The LSSA did not respond to a request for comment. But in an e-mail attached to the court papers, financial director Tony Pillay says it would support an amendment.
“This is clearly a travesty ... especially in light of the critical shortages of university places.”