Med students take on Wits

Students at the University of the Witwatersrand gather at the Great Hall steps. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla
Students at the University of the Witwatersrand gather at the Great Hall steps. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

Critics say university faculty’s new assessment method is unfair and discriminatory to students coming from poor schools because it does not take into account their historical challenges.

She failed once, but her appeal to be re-admitted was rejected outright.

This was the submission made by Noxolo Siqwephu*, a former medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), to the SA Human Rights Commission in May, as part of calls for a probe to be conducted into an alleged discriminatory assessment system – known as Cohen 60 – used by the university.

A distraught mother, whose name is known to City Press, has also lodged a complaint with the commission and the Public Protector’s office, after her son was allegedly excluded from Wits because he failed, according to the Cohen method of assessment applied by the university.

A senior academic and some students have also questioned the Cohen method, calling it “controversial”.

According to the complainants, the Cohen method is discriminatory as it calculates the pass mark based on the average score obtained by students.

But Professor Martin Veller, dean of the faculty of health sciences at Wits, has denied this allegation and defended the method.

He told City Press on Friday that it was based on testing levels of student competency, adding that this method was an internationally acceptable norm for medical students.

“What we really want out of our students is that they perform well above the level of competence,” Veller said.

“So, the first thing that all our students are told is that to be a professional, being okay is not good enough. Being outstanding is what we want.

“There is no such thing as being okay if I have just passed as a doctor,” he said.

However, another Wits academic, Dr Thifheli Luvhengo, who serves on the transformation committee, has also questioned the method. He has written an academic paper claiming that the Cohen method, in its current form, is unfair to students coming from poor schools because it does not take into account their historical challenges.

In the paper, which City Press has seen, Luvhengo says it does not make sense that “anyone would advocate the use of the Cohen method for a high-stakes examination, such as a progress or certification examination, in any institution in the country”.

“The sole purpose of introducing it in South Africa appears to have been to control the pass rate, which is known to dramatically improve if the quality of examination is enhanced, such as the introduction of a good SBA [single-based answer], multiple choice questions and the equalisation of training platforms and teaching exposure,” he writes in the paper.

“It has, however, led to apprehension and persistent allegations that improvement of the pass rate of black candidates at basic and higher education levels equates to lowering of academic standards, which puts communities at risk.”

Documents seen by City Press, which include inquiries that were conducted by Wits into the matter, showed that a number of students failed between 2016 and 2017 allegedly because of the Cohen method.

Siqwephu claimed in her submission that her appeal to be readmitted for the second year was not entertained by Wits despite the fact that other students, who had failed more than once, continued with their studies.

Failing too many terms, she said, was used as a reason for her exclusion.

“That tells me that there was no justification for my appeal being rejected. Had I not failed too many modules, like some of the students I know who were not required to appeal, I would also not have been excluded. I strongly feel that Wits wanted to cut down the number of students. That is why some of the appeals were rejected.

“It is unfair as the appeals are rejected based on what Wits’ readmission committee and the health science hierarchy feel, not on the academic merits or competency of an individual.

“Wits does what it likes, when it likes, and that affects students from poor backgrounds the most. This can be backed by the new Cohen 60 marking system, which states that the pass mark fluctuates with the average of the class, and this system does nothing to bridge the IQ gap caused by the knowledge difference between the students from the different quintile levels,” Siqwephu said.

She said she studied hard to reach the same levels as other students from well-off or rich schools.

“I feel it is unfair for Wits to introduce a system that widens the knowledge gap by unfairly excluding students who were already unfairly prejudiced against the system.”

Veller said that those members of the transformation committee who felt that the method was unfair were in the minority.

“The transformation committee [members] have indicated that they are comfortable with the current method and that what they are interested in, is that students understand it. We have spent an enormous amount of time explaining to students who are affected by this about the Cohen method, and the science behind the Cohen method, to ensure that they are aware of the mechanism and the background to it,” he said.

While Wits obviously respected the human rights commission and the Public Protector’s office, he added, the university’s legal representative has asked whether chapter 9 institutions had the authority to question academic standards and how they were being applied.

“We need clarity on that,” he said.

He said Wits would not exclude a student “unless they have, over many years, consistently performed below the level of what we expect of them”.

The human rights commission did not respond to questions sent to it.

* Not her real name


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