The notes economy

Andrew Bell writes on inequality of access to academia in the Law School.

Notes 1

The nature of Law School, particularly at hypercompetitive universities like Sydney, often overwhelms students with incredibly complex units of studies, hundreds of pages of reading material, and a daunting bell curve. The cases are long and the exams are longer.

The conditions of theLaw School foster an environment where the transfer of notes between students operates unlike any other faculty.

First, the syllabi change minimally between years. The 2016 Real Property syllabus is essentially identical to that of 2015, bar the excision of a small introductory section. Only supplementary cases have been added to the Equity syllabus, leaving the vast majority of the unit outline unchanged. In addition, the general structure of the degree is not variable between students. Each undergraduate will be studying core subjects right up until final year, where the electives kick in.

More importantly, the structure of assessment in the Law School makes notes a radically different commodity to their STEM or Arts equivalents (and indeed, accompanying textbooks). Most examinations are set around problem questions, rather than essays.  A typical question might ask students to identify the ‘elements’ of a crime, such as whether a certain scenario amounts to murder or aggravated assault. To be able to do that, students have to substantially reformulate the material given in lectures.

Where a particular case might focus on one sub-point in the law of murder, the exam will require you to understand the entire structure of the area. In addition, lengthy judgments often reduce to a one-line statement about the law to be pulled out in an exam. Scaffolds of applicable cases and legislation that effectively guide students through exam answers, bypass the task of trawling through lengthy judgments and readings to understand a unit of study.

At face value, a set of notes can be a stress-reduction asset and a tool to help students more comprehensively understand the law. This is tainted by structures of inequality that affect access to these notes, which cement pre-existing academic advantages within the social strata of the Law School.

Bronte Lambourne, an undergraduate law student who graduated in 2015, has written numerous sets of notes – including Real Property, Equity, Public International Law, and Evidence – which are circulated widely among theLaw School. They are famous for being extremely accurate and comprehensive.

“There’s certainly a disadvantage to those students – probably the vast majority – who don’t have friends in older years from whom they can source notes, so I don’t find anything strange or offensive in people who I don’t know contacting me directly,” she said. “Often it will depend on whether you or your friends belong to another group at university that cuts across year cohorts, whether that be law revue, college, debating or a political society.”

Meena Mariadassou, Vice President (Education) of Sydney University Law Society (SULS) echoed these sentiments to Honi.  “The culture of notes-sharing unfortunately benefits those with existing networks on campus. However, SULS does not have the right to circulate the so-called ‘master’ set of notes. Given that students have worked hard to compile their notes, it is at their sole discretion to pass their notes on or not,” she said.

Sets of notes are often transferred as displays of social capital and performances of intellect. They often circulate groups of students who are already performing well academically at the Law School, often within the Law School establishment. There is a resultant tension between preserving individual advantage (having notes that no one else has) and transferring notes to close friends to accrue social capital

Honi asked Lambourne how it felt to have her own notes transferred around the Law School between people she’d never met.

“I’m fairly open with sharing my notes if people ask for them. Sometimes this will be friends who will ask me directly but I’ve also had people I’ve never met before contact me on Facebook. I don’t have a problem with this. Note sharing is a tradition, I had notes passed to me from friends in older years and obtained notes from friends who had received them from other sources,” she said.

Since these note transfers are unlikely to ever disappear, the solution must guarantee that notes are distributed widely and equitably.

There is no driving force to re-engineer the notes market. The Sydney University Law Society (SULS) is unlikely to ever implement a note-sharing scheme, to avoid the Pandora’s Box of students dissatisfied with the products and presumably to avoid tension with the law faculty.

Meena Mariadassou, Vice President (Education) of SULS, told Honi, “SULS does not facilitate note sharing. Other students’ notes, regardless of how well they did, are of limited use. Students who perform well have spent a significant amount of time cultivating their own proficiency in a given course.”

She also expressed reservations concerning buy-and-sell websites selling unverified notes. “While websites such as ‘Nexus Notes’ go some way to ‘equalising the field’, they are highly problematic from an intellectual property perspective,” she said.

Members of the Law Faculty have similar concerns. Graeme Coss, who teaches Criminal Law and Legal Research at the University, warns against the use of outdated notes. “We have long lamented in Criminal Law that exam answers refer to old law – sometimes between 5-10 years old! For example, in 2013 [there were exam responses] referring to sections of the Crimes Act that were repealed (re. sexual assault) or amended (re. forms of aggravated assault) in 2007.”

While notes websites do go some way to equalising access to notes, they raise competing issues of accuracy and intellectual property. They are also more easily accessible to those with the resources to consistently buy them. For Nexus Notes, potential buyers are given a 10 per cent sample of the product (which will usually canvass the most basic or introductory aspects of the course) before they have to purchase. It is impossible for the casual reader to verify that the seller is actually the author of the text.

The answer is probably in a better functioning market of notes, in the absence of faculty or SULS intervention. In the meantime, it rests on the shoulders of those distributing their notes, to keep a broader range of recipients in mind.

Art: Mark Bell