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Tips on reforming higher legal education in Ukraine

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For many years in Ukraine there has been a tremendous crisis of public confidence in state institutions which are to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, to protect the rule of law.

Thus, as of March 2019, 75% of Ukrainian citizens did not trust the whole judicial system, 67% did not trust the Supreme Court and local courts, 65% did not trust the Constitutional Court.

In addition, the prosecutor’s office was not trusted by 71%, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine – by 68%.

Certainly, the reason behind such low confidence is the lack of genuine reforms of the above bodies, corruption of their representatives, and inadequate system for the selection of candidates for the positions.

However, no less important is overt and shocking (even for ordinary citizens) unprofessionalism of many judges, prosecutors, investigators and lawyers.

Where does it stem from?

Why do thousands of lawyers who annually graduate from national higher education institutions subsequently fail to turn into the best legally intelligent judges, investigators and prosecutors, but rather become mediocre professionals, who in their socially important positions being paid fairly well at the expense of taxpayers, cannot cope with simple tasks?

Why do they make grave mistakes in interpreting the rules of law, incorrectly qualify apparently simple situations, and cannot properly justify their decisions?

There is one answer to all these questions: after going through the current model of higher legal education, a student receives insufficient knowledge and practical skills, which has a very negative impact on further career as a lawyer.

Therefore, this model should be substantially changed.

This statement is agreed by both representatives of law firms and representatives of public authorities.

Thus, a mere 17% of surveyed private sector employers and a mere 34% of public sector employers are satisfied with the level of knowledge of law department graduates.

According to another 2017 USAID survey, priority areas for legal education reform should be the development of applied professional legal skills (91%), development of critical thinking (84%), and increased training in professional legal ethics (83%).

In response to this situation, the Ministry of Education and Science in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice have developed two concepts of legal education reform in the last five years, but none of them has been approved.

A cursory analysis of the content of both documents demonstrates that, in our view, they somewhat distract attention either to matters that do not directly address the causes that have led to an inadequate level of quality in higher legal education, or to issues that appear to be an attempt to “further regulate” access to legal professions.

At present, it is difficult to find a public or private university in Ukraine that does not offer law faculty.

According to the latest data from the Ministry of Justice, there are 193 higher education institutions offering bachelor’s degree in law, 120 higher education institutions offering master’s degree in law, as well as 215 higher education institutions offering junior specialist and specialist degree in law.

As of January 1, 2019, more than one hundred thousand (!!!) prospective lawyers have been studying simultaneously in all these higher education institutions.

In 2018 alone, 39 thousand (!!!) people received a law degree, including 12255 master’s degree holders, 2591 specialist degree holders, 18913 bachelor’s degree holders and 5319 junior specialist degree holders.

At the same time, there are a mere 25 universities in Poland in the field of higher legal education (10 of which are private), in Germany – 42, in the UK – 97.

And even in the US, which is almost 8 times larger than Ukraine in terms of population, the number of higher legal education institutions does not exceed 200.

So why does such a huge number of universities with law faculty, as well as a huge number of students who have received a degree in law in the last 10-15 years fail to translate into quality?

Having analyzed the available reports, analytical and sociological research, two concepts of reforming legal education and other materials, we believe that the following factors are the main reasons behind the problem described.

Here, the first two factors, in our view, are fundamental, because after solving them, other factors will automatically gradually also lose their negative impact.

Note that the above factors do not make an exhaustive list. But it should be understood that the identification of an excessive number of secondary factors leads to a significant dispersion of the reform measures themselves, the misallocation of efforts and emphasis in the transformations, which does not solve the main problem that has caused the need for reform.

The following steps can be used to solve the problems described:

  1. The reform of higher legal education should provide for a significant strengthening of educational programs, curricula, models of teaching in the following areas of training lawyers in higher education institutions:
  1. In order to comply with clause 1, it is necessary to introduce a Single State Standard for higher legal education.

It should not encroach on the autonomy of higher education institutions, but at the same time it should establish the above clear set of general and specific competences which the graduate must have, in accordance with the requirements of the law practice, and correspond to the modern European legal values.

  1. Introduce a Unified State Qualification Exam (USQE) in Law for the bachelors and masters, which is conducted and checked independently from higher education, and includes anonymous testing and problem-solving.

At the same time, the development and administration of USQE should be provided for all relevant higher education institutions by a single independent commission formed by the Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Justice with the participation of representatives of the academic and professional communities.

Successful completion of the relevant educational program, as well as (in the case of a master’s degree) preparation and defense of written research should serve as a prerequisite to qualify for the USQE.

The USQE will result in the elimination of the state examination committees formed by the higher education institutions themselves.

  1. Successful completion of the USQE must be the only prerequisite for obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in law.

In addition, the annual cumulative USQE result in Law of a particular university should directly influence the higher education rankings in the field, as well as be a criterion for determining the amount of budget financing allocated for the institution.

  1. Lawyer training in Ukraine should be undertaken by higher education institutions within the competence of the Ministry of Education and Science, and private institutions licensed by the Ministry of Education and Science.

Thus, the negative practice of large-scale training of lawyers by the departmental higher education of the security ministries (first of all, the Ministry of Internal Affairs) will be stopped.

  1. Increase the licensing and accreditation conditions for higher education institutions established by the state for the institution to receive the right to issue a diploma of higher legal education.

Higher legal education cannot be obtained through a correspondence course.

  1. Revise the requirements for teaching staff of higher education institutions to take into account the availability of practical experience and specialization (including interdisciplinary), as well as the availability of publications (not just scientific ones) the results of which are directly used in the educational process and contribute to the development of competences defined by the Unified State Standard.

At the same time, take measures to increase the level of salaries of the teaching staff, the resources of universities, provide opportunities for teachers to undertake internships and professional development, in particular abroad.

  1. Apply a model whereby, in addition to higher education teachers, reputable and well-known practicing lawyers (judges, attorneys, human rights activists, prosecutors, notaries, legal advisers, etc.) will be involved in teaching comprehensive holistic training courses that meet the Unified State Standard.

Borys Malyshev, DEJURE Foundation expert, for the UP.Zhyttia

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