Duncan Wallace continues his discussion of student political engagement in the context of a ‘corporatised’ tertiary sector.
In part one of this article I discussed the transition of the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Law School from democratic institutions to authoritarian ones run along corporate lines, a transition imposed upon them by the government. I will now discuss the role of students in all this, and particularly how it has affected the LSS.
As was stated in part one, student and staff activism in the 1970s created opportunities for popular participation in decision-making at all levels in the University. In the “village democracy” of the Law School, students had won full membership for two elected student representatives in law faculty meetings, with the LSS president becoming a third student member.
This changed when the faculty itself lost influence over the Law School, with the University, at the direction of the federal government, instituting more authoritarian political structures in the late 1980s.
The role of the LSS changed with the changing circumstances of law students. In the late 1990s the University made the radical proposal to create an offshoot – Melbourne University Private - the idea being to relieve itself of “over-dependence on public funding” and to create a “more entrepreneurial operating environment”. The new private university was to be situated around University Square, and was to have a graduate law school as part of its rapporteur.
At that point in time the University decided to offer to relocate the Law School from its home on the main campus to a new building at the southern end of University Square. The Law School buildings were badly in need of an upgrade, and the University had so far refused to provide the $6 million it needed to do so. For that reason the Law School Dean, Michael Crommelin, jumped at the opportunity of a new $17 million building.
Not everyone was pleased, however. The LSS organised a campaign against the move, and alerted Ron Castan QC. In a letter to the vice-chancellor he asked why the upgrades couldn’t be funded, but a new building could. He went on,
There is some fakery going on here. You either have the money available or you don’t. If you have the money available, it is iniquitous for you to force the Law School off-campus, thereby depriving the faculty and students of the benefit of being at the heart of the University… The kind of ‘bribe’ being offered to the faculty to move off-campus is offensive.
The move nevertheless went ahead. And whilst Melbourne University Private never came to fruition, the abolition of the LLB, so that law was now taught solely as a postgraduate course, achieved something similar. Student fees are deregulated for postgraduate students, and the income received therefrom is comparable to what they would have received from any private graduate school.
Students were now to be lumbered with huge debts, creating an increase in pressure to find a job and a concomitant increase in stress levels. The move to the new building only added to this, one student commenting that “the new building makes you feel like you’re in a corporate lawyer factory”.
In this context the LSS took on a new role. This role did not involve questioning the authoritarian approach of the University or the Law School, but rather involved helping facilitate the new direction the Law School had taken.
Potential students, or else potential “customers”, as they were now thought of by marketing departments, would not be prepared to pay the steep fees required to attend the law school unless they felt there was a job which might come of it. What the Law School Dean calls the “Melbourne Brand” is useful, but in a tight job market can only go so far.
The LSS has had to step in to ensure that students get the necessary exposure to potential employers, and so now has a strong focus on careers in the events it puts on. Corporate sponsors are now an extraordinarily important part of LSS operations. Of yearly revenue of around $300 thousand, around $145 thousand comes from ticket sales for events, around $35 thousand comes from faculty, and an enormous $120 thousand comes from corporate sponsors.
This is not a criticism of the LSS. It is only to point out that this is the way things are. They were not always so, however.
The LSS has, at different times, taken on a more substantive role in the law school instead of the more facilitative role it has now. A facilitative role involves accepting the Law School as is, and providing students with services to allow them to cope with the Law School as is. A substantive role goes further: it involves advocating for students by engaging politically with the Law School. Instead of helping students cope with the Law School as is, it looks to change how the Law School is run.
For example, at times, the LSS has been involved in trying to achieve substantive changes to the curriculum.
In the late 1940s the LSS organised a Faculty Bureau Report. The report was the result of an investigation into the course curriculum, the way that subjects were taught, and how students should be assessed (should written examinations be used?). It took submissions from students and academics.
The submissions on the course curriculum were the most interesting. Academics in particular emphasised the importance of putting law in its social and historical context: it was unanimous that subjects which should be studied should include literature and history; that the “law school was not the proper place to teach essentially practical work”; and that academic subjects such as jurisprudence should be included in the curriculum. One Professor wrote that,
Lawyers must not degenerate into mere qualified professional machines… the lawyer should be a legal reformer and should not barricade themselves behind the illusion of legal isolationism.
This is consistent with the views of one of the Law School’s first and most eminent lecturers, Henry Chapman. In 1861 the now former Attorney-General wrote that, “[t]he object of these lectures is to induce students to adopt such a course of study as will elevate their views above the mere practice of the law as a trade.”
Currently, however, the Law School has turned to a technocratic curriculum, focusing more and more on the supposed practical utility of subjects rather than their social importance. As an example, Waugh writes that “the old intention that students should see law in its social and theoretical context” is currently provided for by the inclusion in the JD curriculum of Dispute Resolution. As anybody who has taken DR knows, the subject is extraordinarily dry. What’s more, this year the assignment has changed from being a classic research essay to a response to a memorandum from the Attorney-General. The idea is to give the impression this is preparation for professional life; that the student is gaining practical and technical techniques knowledge of which is transferable to a life in employment. It is a strange notion that the subject is putting law in its social and theoretical context.
The curriculum is not questioned by the current LSS though. The stated aims of the LSS include to “facilitate and improve the quality of education in law”, however the education portfolio is almost entirely restricted to facilitating education, rather than making substantive improvements to quality. The portfolio includes the Pathfinder Program, the Student Tutorial Service, and the Steeping Stones Program, but activities involving advocacy are restricted to those brought up by individuals via email. There is no dedicated advocacy program devoted to actively finding out what students want or what positive changes could be made.
Of course advocacy on behalf of students is now made very difficult by the law school. In the 1960s and 70s, when the law school was run more or less democratically, staff meetings allowed discussion of, says Waugh, “curriculum revision” and “problems raised by the LSS education committee”. Nowadays, with the Law School’s more authoritarian political structures, it would be very difficult for students to raise substantive problems.
It is for this structural reason that there is student disengagement with the LSS. The role of the LSS is to facilitate the status quo, and not to substantiate change. In this sense it is less an organisation which represents students, than an organisation which provides services to students – in that sense it acts externally of them. This is not to say that the LSS doesn’t engage in advocacy at all – last year the LSS advocated that the Law School retain the Wellbeing Officer, for example - but it is to say that this is the general tendency.
In the current environment it would be very difficult to change this situation. There is less a feeling of solidarity amongst students than a feeling of competitiveness. It is only with solidarity that change would be possible. One suggestion could be to replace the money received from corporate sponsors with money provided by students. A small fee paid by each student each year could be levied in order to try and ensure the LSS stays independent of entities other than the students it purports to represent. This would be around $200, and could be added onto the HECS debt. This could help build solidarity, and ensure that corporate sponsors and faculty aren’t in a position to make demands of the LSS which may benefit the financiers, but which would be detrimental to the student population.
The LSS has recently taken steps towards building a greater capacity for advocacy. For example this year it has introduced a feedback channel which allows students to email in their concerns (at email@example.com). But whilst this may be useful for addressing individualised complaints, it is not conducive to addressing structural issues which affect all students in common. With regard to the latter, there is still more which can be done.
Duncan Wallace is a Second-Year JD Student and 2015 Managing Editor of De Minimis
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