Seven years ago, Makerere University adopted a new admission criteria for students who wanted to pursue the bachelor of laws. The interested students have to sit the pre-entry law exam in order to determine their competence to pursue the degree, which is considered a comprehensive and hectic programme.
Dr Christopher Mbazira, the principal School of Law at Makerere University, explains that the university adopted this criteria after observing that as much the school was receiving the best performers in the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) exams, the quality of students was not good.
“You would get students with good grades, but they were facing challenges with comprehending the content of bachelor of laws programme,” he says.
Why pre-entry exams?
Mbazira explains that the argument was that the system was not testing certain aspects important for a lawyer. For example, a lawyer must have very good command of the English language and the legal profession requires a person with a certain level of aptitude such that they are able to quickly find solutions.
It also requires a person who is able to multi-task such that they digest information quickly.
The other observation is that the programme was becoming a preserve of a small number of schools around Kampala and Wakiso. It is not that it was only these particular schools with the best students, but their counterparts from upcountry schools could not compete at national exams.
The introduction of the pre-entry exam, therefore, was an effort to level the ground.
“One thing I can confidently say is that since we started the pre-entry exams, the mix of our students has changed dramatically. We have had good students from places like Arua and Tororo,” Mbazira says.
“Our students in the past did not only come from specific schools, but also from a particular social class. We now have students from a class that had for long been excluded from the programme,” he adds.
Mbazira also observes that the quality of students has improved.
“As a teacher who taught before the pre-entry exam and is teaching after the pre-entry exam, I have noticed that I no longer have to babysit my students, they are now intellectually and academically mature,” Mbazira says.
At the Law Development Centre(LDC), the pre-entry law exam was introduced in 2010. It requires a graduate of law to sit and pass an exam in order to qualify for the bar course. This was resolved due to the outcry of the poor quality of lawyers LDC was producing.
“LDC was of the view that some universities were admitting students who perhaps did not have the right qualities to handle the challenges of the bar course. They thought that the pre-entry exam would weed out those who are weak,” Frank Nigel Othembi, the LDC director, narrates.
Over the seven years, Othembi says students are getting better at the exams.
“Last year, we had only about 38% passing the exam, but this year, out of the 1,800 who sat the exam, about 45% of them passed, which is 814 students,” he says.
Othembi explains that this is partly attributed to the fact that some institutions such as Makerere University and the Uganda Christian University (UCU) also introduced the pre-entry exam.
Indeed, this is reflected in the fact that these universities produce the best performing students in the LDC pre-entry examinations.
“About 70% of the students that passed the pre-entry exams came from Makerere University, while Uganda Christian University produced over 50%,” Othembi says.
However, in terms of actual performance at LDC, Othembi confesses that it is difficult to ascertain whether the pre-entry examinations actually have helped because the pass rate at LDC keeps fluctuating.
“In some years, students perform well with 70% of them passing, then in other years, this has gone down to only 45% and all these are students that sat pre-entry examinations,” he says.
Recently, LDC released the results of first and second term and there were about 85% of the students passing, making it the highest pass rate the centre has had in a long time.
“However, I do not know how much of that that can be attributed to the pre-entry examinations,” he states.
Notably, despite the arguments for the pre-entry exams, Othembi says there is need for a real evaluation to establish the effects of the pre-entry examinations on legal education over the years. The results could possibly also lead to changes and improvements in legal education.
“We might find that universities that have a pre-entry exam for their law programme are exempted from doing the LDC pre-entry exam. This will leave the universities with the responsibility of finding the best students and this can be justified by the performance from these universities,” Othembi argues.
From the experience with Makerere, where 70% of their students passed the pre-entry exam, Othembi argues that it is clear that the universities that require the exam have graduates that are ready for LDC.
After an evaluation, there might also be need to cross-check the questions asked to ascertain whether they test the practical skills needed for a student joining LDC.
“While universities teach the theory, LDC focuses on practical application of the law, such as documentation. The pre-entry exam first ensures that the student has basic knowledge of the law before joining LDC, which requires critical thinking,” Othembi says.
This year’s pre-entry exam featured an excel table with rows and columns showing the income and expenditure of a student at the university. The first question was how many rows were in the table and law graduates did not know the difference between a row and column.
The pre-entry exams have been criticised for having a high failure rate. The other issue raised is that if students pass the UNEB examinations, then there is no reason as to why they should be subjected to another exam.
People have also bashed the exam itself and the quality of questions asked, but Mbazira says they are acting within the law.
“According to the Universities and other Tertiaries Act, universities have the right to determine their admission criteria and ours is the pre-entry exam,” he says.
Mbazira goes on to say that it is international standard for students who want to study law to be subjected to aptitude exams.
“We are the teachers, so we know what the problem was and we are seeing the difference after the introduction of the pre-entry exams, but at the same time just as everything that is just beginning, even in the exam itself, we have seen shortcomings,” Mbazira says.
As a result, changes are being made to the exams every year, for example, two years ago, a new section, termed as aptitude and logical reasons, was introduced.
“This year, there were also shortcomings in the exam that we shall work on next year, so it has been a learning process for us, but the ultimate objective is to improve the exam and ensure that it is serving the purpose it was intended for,” Mbazira states.
Othembi also acknowledge the poor performance in the LDC pre-entry examinations.
“The argument has been that LDC cannot take up so many students and that is why we try to restrict the number of students with the pre-entry exam, so we are planning to open up three more regional centres, which will increase our capacity,” he says.
This year, LDC will receive sh240m from the Justice Law and Order Sector to move around the country to identify facilities and districts where they will set up these centres.
Currently, the centre can only take 1,000 students, but with new centres, the capacity will increase to over 2,000.
UCU Produces Globally Competitive Lawyers
Uganda Christian University (UCU) is a not-for-profi t University established by the Church of Uganda (COU) in 1997 in response to a call for quality university education. In 2004, UCU became the first private University to be chartered by the Government of Uganda.
UCU offers over 70 diploma, degree, masters and PhD programmes, which are designed to develop a cadre of professionals with integrity, power of critical inquiry, logical thought and independent judgment with a Christian perspective.
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