by Samuel Osho
For every prestigious institution of higher learning, it is a commendable feat to exude uniqueness in the execution of plans but not all signs of distinction connote outstanding excellence. In institutions where policies are implemented to frustrate the efforts of students, there is a threat to the dimensions of intellectual engagement possible in such climes.
I was shocked and unduly flustered when the grading system of the Nigerian Law School was explained to me by a close friend, Joseph Onele, a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as well as a First-Class graduate of Law from the University of Ibadan. This is an attempt to lend my voice to a cause that is seeking a change in the present grading system used in the Nigerian Law School (NLS).
Barely 14 years after the establishment of Nigeria’s premier university, University of Ibadan, there was a need to provide a judicious legal education within the precincts of the Nigerian Law to foreign-trained lawyers and aspiring legal practitioners in Nigeria, hence the creation of the NLS. The curriculum of the educational institution is geared towards delivering a robust practical experience to the potential members of the Nigerian Body of Benchers. In 1963, the operations of NLS started on an excellent note.
However, over the years, there has been a torrent of accusations and complaints concerning the marking scheme and grading system of the NLS. Often times, these complaints gain a measure of attention as a result of the mass failures that are usually recorded in the NLS Bar final examinations. During the course of their stay in NLS, students are exposed to best practices and a curriculum of high standard which comprises of five courses: Criminal litigation, Civil litigation, Property law, Corporate law and Professional Ethics. To the students, facing the Bar examinations is dreadful and it is like passing through fire.
It is a common knowledge that grades are of great essence in any educational adventure. The marking scheme and the grading system of any educational institution are the two basic elements that define the grades of students. In a system that has a strong predilection for grades over competence, getting a poor grade is a bad omen for career pursuits. The distinctive grading system employed by the Council of Legal Education in NLS is amusing and sadistic.
In the NLS, the final grades of students are based on their lowest grades. For instance, if a student amasses 4 As and 1 C, his final grade will be a Pass solely based on the “C.” The student is graded based on his lowest grade, 1 C, which is a vicious scale for the assessment of competency in students. If a student has 4 As and 1 B, it implies that his final grade will be a Second Class lower (2:2). This is arrant nonsense and an absolute manifestation of cruelty in a place that is dedicated to upholding the tenets of fairness and justice.
One of the victims of the flawed grading system had a chat with Mr. Joseph Onele and he expressed his frustration in the system.
“I am one of the victims of this horrid system so I could personally relate with the views you expressed. Having graduated at the top of my class in my LLB program I ended up with an inexplicable pass! I still remember clearly the feeling of disillusionment and humiliation when I couldn’t even get into a proper law firm for youth service. Thankfully, this prompted me to look towards a career path in international trade and development mainly to avoid the pain of constant rejection by law firms. I did eventually graduate at the top of my LLM class and presently on my second opportunity within the UN system – (where they do not ask for your Nigerian Law School grade),” he said.
If the Council of Legal Education continues to use this grading system in a bid to pride itself in an eerie form of revered rarity, it should be reminded that this caustic system has no regard for the future of students. It is simply illogical. A student studies hard enough to get distinctions in Criminal litigation, Civil litigation, Professional Ethics and Property Law but managed to record a B-grade in Corporate Law and ends up with a 2:2 final grade, how can the understanding of the four subjects be based on the performance recorded in the fifth subject? It is synonymous to grading students enrolled in a five-year course based only on their final year results – discard the first four years and focus on the final year to determine their graduating Cumulative Grade Point Average. This basis for judging competencies is flawed, harsh and retrogressive; it negates the creeds of common-sense.
I can completely relate with the tension that grips the six Law School campuses when students are preparing for Bar Finals, it is a reflection of a community that is under intense stress to deliver grades that must not be less than a distinction. There is anxiety over marks and less focus is given to intellectual engagement, transmission of ideas, interactive discourses and rigorous digestion of course modules because all that matters, in the end, is the ultimate grade. For many students with excellent grades from their respective universities, this is the time to prove their worth and strengthen the life of their dreams. It is a call that has a plethora of demands and just one careless grade in one of the five subjects can decimate assiduous efforts sown in studying and preparation.
In the eyes of reasoning, the brutal grading system can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and insecurity on the part of the NLS. It purportedly projects silent skepticism in the standards of the intellectual property that is administered to the students. Unexpectedly, asides the final grade, students are not privy to a detailed breakdown of their results. Suddenly, results have morphed into the clandestine assets of the institution; some students only get to see the details when their employers demand their transcripts from NLS. It is believed that the NLS is averse to narratives embellished with success stories of students in Bar Final exams. Every year turns out to give endless tales of an ego battle that ends up with the system triumphing over the students. There are beliefs that the sacred institution for upcoming Nigerian legal practitioners is wired to bring intellectual giants to their knees and make students know that the expedition to the Nigerian Bar is a tempestuous one.
Earlier in 2017, Mr. Onele started gathering signatures for a petition to review the NLS grading system and he got a comment from a respected Professor of Law and leading authority in constitutional law, Prof. R.A.C.E. Achara.
“I’ve just confirmed that this policy has been in place for some 25 years. Indeed, that initially, it was not even disclosed to candidates. I have responded by indicating a distinction between internal and external unfairness of rules. Granted that candidates are pre-informed of this grading policy at the point of admission to the school, only the external fairness of the rule has thus been addressed. It is little comfort to Jews gassed by the Nazis, for example, to say that Hitler followed due process in line with the then existing rules,” he said.
“This grading system appears to me to suffer from internal lack of fairness and ought to go. It is inherently unfair to put up a class system in an environment shaped by well known university standards only to relegate or promote people on standards entirely different from it. Prospective employers and the general public ought first to be apprised of the change. The law school authorities could alternatively abolish the now misleading class distinction by simply lumping every examinee into the pass or fail dualism. Mr. Onele, I’m signing up to your petition now!”
It is worthy to note that before the establishment of the NLS, practicing lawyers in Nigeria received legal training in England and were called to the English Bar. It will be laudable to draw comparisons from the grading systems used in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Most of the prominent law schools in the United States use the pass/fail system and this includes Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale and much more. Other universities like the University of Kentucky’s Faculty of Law use the GPA and class rank distribution system. This grading system assists the students in reducing the stress and anxiety on marks while there is focus on fostering qualitative education and productive learning. In the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, grades are assigned to students based on their cumulative grade point average with the possibility of falling into one of the five available categories: High Honours, Honours, Pass with Merit, Low Pass, and Fail. These are reputable educational institutions with a proven record of churning out highly competent Barristers and Solicitors. And yet no one sheds a tear about their grading system.
While signing the petition asking for a review of the NLS grading system, a Professor of Law at the University of Lagos and a former member of the Council of Legal Education (CLE) in Nigeria, Prof. Chioma Kanu Agomo.
“I am signing because I do not believe it reflects candidate’s true standing. I was not convinced of its fairness when I was a member of the Council of Legal education over ten years ago; I still do not see any reason to change my mind in 2017,” Agomo stated.
In the midst of criticisms of the grading system, it is safe to pontificate the principles of fairness, justice, and equity. In a sane environment, making an overhaul or a review of the existing grading system will yield bountiful results both for the students and lecturers. That’s assuming that these are lecturers who smile with glee when they see their students succeed and not sadists who are interested in seeing more students fail. Above all, this only reinforces the strength of a philosophical notion which opines that marks and grades are deficient evaluators of quality, competence and excellence.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Samuel Osho is a writer, a public speaker and mechanical engineer writes from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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