Issue 10, Semester 2, 2019
My recent request to Melbourne Law School to disclose some basic financial and operational data was intended to inform a De Minimis article addressing the communication gap between student body and administration. I felt that by translating from policy and structure to outcome and implication, the student body would be more engaged in the institution of Melbourne Law School and invest something other than the $120,000 fees during their time here. The walls I came up against, both by email and in person, to the release of any information whatsoever led to a startled reassessment of the relationship between administration, student body, and broader society.
Rather than continuing in the more fundamental political debate about the value of knowledge as a public good, and a university’s role in administering it, I offer an apolitical proposition to Melbourne Law School: that it could and should do more for the wellbeing of its community. Not only for the sake of the community, but for the benefit of the Law School itself.
Despite outwardly trumpeting legal diversity, innovation and wellbeing, the Juris Doctor program seems unable to escape the parochial pathways of clerkships and corporate law. The gap is to some extent bridged by the student body, which runs careers panels on community or environmental lawyering. But these panels function as little more than a salve for the starvation of legal imagination, largely because this starvation is symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem.
In short, the Law School has failed to build community. It is clear that while the Law School leadership acknowledges the central importance of community, attempts to counterbalance market pressure have largely come up short. Marketing ‘innovation’ will not spark creativity. Selling ‘diversity’ will not generate a culture of mutual respect. When catalysed authentically, community recognizes responsibility and embraces interdependence. It fosters ideological and cultural diversity. It facilitates constructive and innovative thought. But it is not built easily. Our Parkville foundations must be reinforced with social capital of the bridging kind, rather than political or legal distinction.
Community is a necessarily abstract concept, so here are three tangible steps that the Law School should take:
The student-elected president of the Law Students’ Society should sit on the Law School’s Executive Board. The conditional authority handed down to the student body is tokenistic at best, offensive at least. The lack of financial transparency by the Law School, and the exclusion of the Student President from financial oversight alongside the administration’s leadership, traces a historically familiar pattern of paternalism that has long been demonstrated as inefficient and unequal. Separate legal entity or not, the LSS should be brought in on virtually all matters pertaining to the Law School. Melbourne Law School will never be a leading institution if it fails to adopt an authentic framework for co-decision-making and partnership.
The University should not charge disproportionate costs for practical and public interest experience subjects. In 2020, students will pay $5,136 to the University to do unpaid work at a community legal organisation. The opportunity to gain practical paralegal and research experience whilst assisting resource-stretched lawyers is fundamental to legal education, and should be credited as such. But the University’s tax on this relationship not only reduces the Law School to an exploitative enterprise but discourages students from authentically engaging with the community. The cost of these subjects should not exceed the amount diverted to the community organisation’s facilities and staff to adequately support the student’s experience, in addition to the minimal staffing cost of reviewing the reflection essay that students are required to write to obtain credit. Every dollar over these administrative costs reduces the intrinsic value of a law degree issued by Melbourne Law School. As our education is reduced to a transaction—money for certification—learning becomes irrelevant, and community becomes a joke.
The tenth floor of the Law School should be a community legal center, rather than a corporate dining space. Local and global current events point to an increasing need for social cohesion. There is no surer pathway to the breakdown of class distinction and misconception than education through exposure. Here, law students can gain the practical legal exposure that the Law School otherwise exorbitantly charges for. Disenfranchised community members can ride the lift up next to Justice Hayne and get assistance with their traffic infringements whilst enjoying that subjugating view over Parkville. The Law School can reinvigorate non-corporate legal pathways and consistently remind those learning to wield power of its implications. The recent launch of the tax clinic is a step in the right direction.
To anticipate the perennial institutional riposte: where will the money come from? Am I being naïve? To throw up your hands and express powerlessness in the face of the broader university administration or the competitive academic and legal markets is to deny the agency of the staff and students under your roof, and renders our studies implicitly defunct—we should all pack up and go home. This is not an indictment on MLS leadership, but a plea to reflect on our capacity to engender or sideline substantive equality, and an invitation to constructively engage with constituency. Perhaps the Law School should publish a greater degree of financial information or push for greater financial transparency in the broader University. As a statutory body, students should not have to submit an FOI request to determine whether the Law School is taking their futures seriously. Without financial transparency, the money retort carries little credibility. The Melbourne University Law School Foundation has millions of dollars to be disposed of at the discretion of the Dean, in line with the trust terms—including the encouragement of excellence in education, and things incidental or conducive to the attainment of this objective.
When we have excellent teachers, facilities, and opportunities, what is more conducive to excellent education than a strong and vibrant community?
Finbar is a Third Year JD Student.