Lowering the bar

ANU recently introduced an entirely online Juris Doctor degree. Nina Dillon Britton questions its merit

A photograph of the ANU law lawns and building

As HSC students manically prepare for their upcoming trials, many with the hope of studying law once they graduate, the law schools around them are rapidly changing. While undergraduates – even from the most prestigious universities – face an unprecedentedly competitive job market, law schools are increasingly marketing more accessible and stripped-back degrees.

One in four law graduates cannot find full-time employment four months after finishing their degree, according to Graduate Careers Australia – the highest rate ever. As large Australian law firms undergo mergers with international firms and jobs are increasingly outsourced, graduates are entering a deeply volatile market.

The trend in these new degrees has included a shift to partially online courses, as seen at Macquarie University, or indeed, a wholly online course – as offered by ANU’s new postgraduate Juris Doctor program. Others, like UWS, Macquarie and UTS, offer a stripped back, three-year straight undergraduate law program, in contrast to the undergraduate five- year combined degrees offered by USyd, Monash and UNSW. A similarly “accelerated” JD program is offered at Monash, so the three-year masters program can be finished in just two years.

Today, 41 institutions offer a law degree in Australia. But not all are embracing the move to online courses. “While Sydney Law School is developing online teaching resources for the masters programs, there are no plans to change the teaching mode for the JD,” said a Sydney University spokesperson.

Advocates of the trend towards online learning argue this is largely a competitive response – particularly seen in JD programs – to meet the needs of mature age students, and to encourage their enrolment. Sceptics, however, suggest it’s a way to up enrolments while scaling back on resources, helping universities reap profit in an era where tertiary education funding is decreasing and unpredictable. These detractors also criticise the move as sacrificing quality courses that actually deliver employment benefits to graduates, whilst diluting the overall value of a law degree for those that do partake in traditional degrees.

Necessarily, JD programs as a postgraduate degree must focus on professional skills acquisition, as dictated by industry regulators. Intensive teaching – a mode whereby programs are taught in condensed periods of time, as in the JD three-year program – is also criticised for its inability to impart conceptual critical analysis. For JDs, the focus is on workplace experience, rather than critical analysis of law. This vocation-oriented approach to tertiary study sits in contrast with the traditional focus of a law degree emphasised at USyd.

“The Law School’s focus is on improving the face-to-face student experience and improving the use of online resources for feedback, assessment and class preparation,” a University spokesperson said.

ANU however, has defended their new online JD, arguing that the quality of learning is not sacrificed. “The ANU JD reflects the University’s commitment to innovation and academic rigour,” a University spokesperson said. “Both ANU Juris Doctor degrees have the same academic entry standards, learning outcomes and academic expectations of students.” These entry standards for the JD are a high pass average in an undergraduate bachelor degree.

It may be true that these entry standards are the same for both ANU’s Juris Doctor degrees, online and traditional, but it’s not a stretch to say students with a weaker academic history (in contrast to the 96 ATAR required for undergraduate law at ANU) could struggle with the lack of support in online courses.

Given that current statistics estimate only seven per cent of Australian students complete online courses, it’s worrying that this low bar for entry is designed to attract students to a degree the university will provide them with little assistance to complete. Although small tutorial groups and interactive seminars are disappearing as class numbers increase to pad the bottom line, even today’s larger tutorials are still a far cry from the Blackboard discussion group style of learning that online courses mandate. Moreover, even the best online degrees necessarily lose student support networks and face-to-face interaction with tutors.

Even if it is untrue that online degrees cannot provide quality education, one should consider how employers would regard such a degree. The field is infamous for its attachment to traditional degrees from established law colleges, if for no other reason than it is these very degrees employers likely completed themselves.

Even by Open Universities Australia’s own analysis, one in five employers will not hire someone with an online degree. Further, in stripping out student interaction and communities, vital opportunities for networking are lost to students, which are key to establishing themselves later in the field. On top of this, ANU’s online JD has yet to be approved by the ACT Admissions Board, which is necessary for its graduates to actually be able practice law.

All of this is likely not to be readily apparent to prospective students, despite being important factors that will affect their future employment prospects. Law is undoubtedly an aspirational degree for many students and there is something to be said for making its more accessible, especially as a privileged economic elite has traditionally dominated the subject.

But for universities, the balance of incentives is skewed. Universities face no shortage of students that wish to do law, but graduates face the reality that there are simply not enough jobs for them. Moves to make degrees more accessible or convenient should be treated with suspicion.

A profit driven approach to legal education has been a persisting source of concern over the last decade. In 2008 for example, Julia Gillard, then Minister for Education, criticised the rise of graduate JD programs as a way for universities to avoid the ban on full fee-paying domestic student placements.

A shift to accelerated, easier to access JD programs and even LLB degrees may hold some broader benefits for making the field more accessible. The more likely scenario, though, is that universities are taking advantage of aspirational students and channelling them into lower quality degrees that will not actually help them.

At that point, the only party who benefits are universities.