law school

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Photo taken by Dan

Photo taken by Dan

Lipstick on a pig?

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The ads at the uni bus stop are hard to miss: UNSW now offers Juris Doctor for graduates instead of LLB. What’s the difference? From what I can see, postgraduates will be taught separately from undergraduates, JD students can take Masters-level courses as electives, and some of the courses might be taught at their new city campus. Intriguing.

Speaking of which, I only just found out that UNSW had opened a city campus on O’Connell Street, right in the heart of the financial and legal district in Sydney. If you look at the photos, a Sydney Uni law graduate intimately familiar with the bowels of the old law school might be left just somewhat envious. Sydney Uni had better do something soon, because UNSW has just taken away a point of competitive advantage, our city location.

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If you happen to chance by the men’s bathroom on level 1 of the law school, you’ll notice that the taps spew forth boiling water that’s pretty much unusable. Perhaps it’s the university’s latest attempt to combat swine flu: after all, cooked pork poses no threat of transmission.

24 Aug 2009 | No comments

If you’ve ever been to the old law school building in the city at St James, you’ll probably agree that while it may have had great location, location, location, it was most definitely a renovator’s choice find. Cockroaches, temperature variations never thought possible on planet Earth and utterly-frustrating swivel chairs will thankfully be a thing of the past (mostly anyway – some classes will still be taught at St James). So rejoice, and explore the new law building with me.

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There are few things that law students at Sydney University and at UNSW will defend more passionately: the quality of their respective institutions – just which law school is better?

I don’t profess to have the answer to this question, because it is unfair for me to answer this question when I have only attended one of them (Sydney). However, surely, a recourse to statistics would provide us with an objective answer?

And with statistics, UNSW has proclaimed themselves the King of Law Schools in Australia. They claim:

The Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney leads all Australian universities for the quality of learning and teaching law. This is the second consecutive year the Faculty of Law, together with UNSW Australian School of Business, has achieved the top ranking in the business, law and economics cluster.

This claim is followed by a bunch of graphs that show that UNSW scores higher on a number of metrics, including “overall satisfaction”, “generic skills” and “good teaching” as measured by the Group of Eight. So far, this is all very convincing evidence that UNSW is better, right?

As Daniel pointed out when we were perusing these graphs together, there is a fundamental flaw with the statistics as presented. Where would they obtain measurements for metrics such “overall satisfaction” from? From their graduates of course. Unless they performed some kind of normalisation between the different universities, the outcome is liable to be affected by, for example, the difference between what Sydney and UNSW law students expect from their courses (maybe Sydney students just demand more?) or bias arising from the pride that students have in their own institution.

Clearly, statistics are one factor to consider in your choice of law school or university. However, it would be a mistake to base your decision merely on these statistics, or other statistics such as the proportion of graduates in full-time employment after a year (maybe more students from a particular university went into post-graduate study?). There is more to university than that. You need to consider the experience outside the classroom, in the form of clubs and societies and extracurricular activities. There is also a difference in culture that you need to consider. This was best highlighted for me when I watched the UNSW Law Revue last year; their jokes weren’t funny to me for the most part, yet all the UNSW-ers seemed to enjoy it; I put it down to a difference in culture.

So what do I think? I certainly don’t regret choosing Sydney University (for both my science and law degrees). I enjoy the intellectualism that pervades the place, although law students at Sydney tend to be more competitive than I find optimal.

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The University of Sydney Faculty of Law recently passed a series of changes to the teaching of undergraduate courses. The changes are outlined in SULS’ email (reposted on their web site), and the SMH published an article about it together with comments from student representatives. Personally, I don’t place too much weight on the comments in the article, because it’s the kind of kerfuffle student politicians love to stir up.

In summary, the contentious changes are:

  • A reduction in teaching load of academics by 25%
  • An increase in average class size from 40 to 70

I must admit that my initial response to the news of the changes was that of astonishment and disbelief – disbelief that my return to law school next year will be potentially made even more unpalatable. From the response so far, I think I can say with some confidence that a large proportion of the law student population, on hearing of the changes, had similar thoughts. Indeed, this had me thinking about whether I should continue on to law school after honours after all; a transfer to UNSW does already have its attractions, such as its pretty new law building.

A key attraction of the Sydney Law School has been its claim of “small group teaching”, which was pioneered by UNSW Law School (which has had this mode of teaching from its the very beginning). Indeed, with current average class sizes of 40, this is comparable to the average UNSW class size.

The supposed attraction of small group teaching is that it allows for greater interaction between the lecturer and the students, where the lesson becomes interactive, a two-way street. However, from experience, the beneficiaries of this system are a minority (unfortunately). Even with the incentive provided by class participation marks, the proportion of students who actively interact with the discussion at hand is typically small. Furthermore, there is no getting away from basic lecturing – sure, a large part of the material is delivered via the readings, but a good lecturer will reinforce the readings by covering them in class as well; repeated over a number of small classes, this is inefficient.

The increase in average class sizes does not necessarily mean a significant loss of “air time” for students. No sane lecturer would bother holding discussions in a room with 70 people. The increase in efficiency of delivery of lecture-type material possibly even counteracts the reduction in total class time. As the experience with the revamped second-year contracts course demonstrates, an average class size of 70 does not mean that all classes will have 70 students in them (the average law student has a poor grasp of statistics principles, I fear). In contracts, as I was told today, they have lectures of over 100 students (filling a Carslaw lecture theatre) and seminars of 10 students, where they work through problems. This is precisely the enactment of what I discussed above – by removing the inefficiency of repeating lecture material, the small group teaching component is allowed to flourish.

As another friend pointed out, the declaration by the faculty would not mean an immediate change – because there are only a few rooms at the law building that can facilitate lectures of 70 students. The resolution probably had the move to main campus in mind, where finding such teaching space is less of a problem.

Just keep in mind that I’m not saying that I agree in full, or even in part, with the changes. All I’m arguing is that the changes do not necessarily mean hell on earth for law students at the university, or at least a reduction in teaching quality. There may be well-founded reasons, and even if there aren’t well-founded reasons, the changes do not necessarily have an effect on learning either. I don’t claim to know more about the situation than anyone else, and as the Dean wrote in his terse letter back to SULS, don’t make such a big fuss out of it if you don’t know the full story – speaking of which, perhaps SULS could learn from their own handbook about how to do well in negotiations.

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