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Sydney Uni’s law stu­dents had their annual she­bang last night — and what bet­ter way of show­ing off extra­vag­ance than to have it at the Sydney Town Hall. Com­plete with eleg­ant red car­pet, a seem­ingly end­less sup­ply of alco­hol, and more staged poses and cam­era flashes than the paparazzi could muster, Sydney’s future legal fra­tern­ity, includ­ing the who’s who of the Sydney Uni­ver­sity Law Soci­ety, partied the night away to loud music, obli­vi­ous to the poten­tial dam­age to their hear­ing and hence the poten­tial for con­sequent multi-​​million dol­lar law­suits. The atmo­sphere was indeed well-​​staged; the night’s enter­tain­ment, star­ted off by a per­form­ance on the Town Hall’s famed organs and quar­tet pieces — evid­ently a nod at high cul­ture — com­ple­men­ted the them­atic light­ing dis­played on the ceil­ing, a com­bin­a­tion as sat­is­fact­ory as the cham­pagne that accom­pan­ied the fine din­ing on offer. In the end, noth­ing was alto­gether sur­pris­ing, noth­ing out of the ordin­ary to make the con­ser­vat­ives present cringe — there were the Asi­ans who hung back chat­ting and play­ing with their cam­era phones, the adven­tur­ous and the drunk who removed art­icles of their cloth­ing, and the eco­nomic misers among us who eagerly awaited the present­a­tion of desert, going around to deser­ted tables and eat­ing theirs too. A few Cinder­el­las would have lost their glass shoes by the end of the even­ing. And hence fun was had by all; of course, when dawn breaks and the alco­hol wears off, it’s back to the books and the clerk­ship applications.

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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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