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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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