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Sydney Law School to cut award-winning PASS program

Many law students across its 11-year history credit the program for greatly improving their marks and helping with their transition into university study.

Sydney Law School will discontinue the popular Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) program for Law from Semester 2 onwards. Details about its replacement are still being decided.

PASS facilitators announced the decision to their students this week.

A University spokesperson said the program was cut to align with the Law School’s “strategic objective” and to demonstrate “the School’s commitment to ensuring our Law students who need the most support are being assisted in the best possible way to meet their particular needs”.

The Law School has confirmed that it does not currently know what the program’s replacement will look like, but Simon Bronitt, Dean of Sydney Law School, described it being a “co-design project” between students and staff.

‘PASS helps students understand their law courses so much better’

PASS offers free weekly sessions for certain business and law units run by high-achieving student facilitators. ​​The program is highly interactive, with students working together to answer exam-style problem questions, and is normally fully booked at the beginning of each semester.

This semester, PASS was available for five junior core law subjects (Torts, Contracts, Criminal Law, Public International Law and Torts and Contracts II).

USyd’s PASS program is “the most awarded program in the Australasian region”, including an international award from the University of Missouri’s International Centre for Supplemental Instruction.

Many law students across its 11-year history credit the program for greatly improving their marks and helping with their transition into university study.

A PASS facilitator in law, who wished to remain anonymous, described their experience attending PASS as a student and then being a facilitator as “ enormously beneficial in providing a supportive group learning environment to students in a discipline which often feels over-competitive and stressful”.

“On so many occasions, students have told us how much they learned in PASS and how invaluable they found the structured opportunity to try new problem questions and revise content with their friends,” they said.

A second-year student who was “shocked and upset” to learn of the program’s cancellation told Honi: “PASS helps students understand their law courses so much better. 

 “You learn to understand how students take different perspectives on a problem, and understand there’s no one ‘right’ answer, but still provide evidence and reasoning from cases.”

Uncertainty about its replacement

When asked about the program’s replacement, a University spokesperson said that the Law School wants to “invest in developing and expanding its own discipline-specific academic skills development program for Law students,” covering both course content and legal skills. This appears to reference the fact that the program is coordinated externally by the Business School.

According to Bronitt, PASS costs Sydney Law School $45,000 per semester, part of which helps employ 10 student facilitators. The spokesperson said that “cost saving was not a consideration in the decision”.

Honi understands that during a staff-student consultative forum on Wednesday, Bronitt justified the decision by claiming that PASS is not reaping its intended benefits according to the data, although Honi has not seen the data supporting this claim. Associate Dean of Student Life Roger Magnusson also argued that PASS caters to a “middle class” of students who are achieving average or high marks, whereas its replacement would target struggling students. 

Sydney University Law Society (SULS) Vice-President (Education) Irene Ma, said she was against mandatory classes for low-achieving students, preferring an opt-in approach similar to PASS. Some students have also privately expressed concerns that such a replacement program would “out” low-achieving students or generate discomfort.

Honi understands that the Law School has concerns about PASS’ pedagogical approach. Facilitators are discouraged from providing answers directly to students,with Bronitt describing it as an “outdated model” better suited for Business units. 

SULS President Ben Hines said that PASS has helped “assist students with the nuances of certain topics and provide new fact scenarios for problem-question based learning”.

“Having programs that assist with the learning of law students is critical, and ensuring these programs are best suited to the needs and experiences of students must be central,” he said. Hines also plans to advocate for students to be employed in the new program.

“SULS is staunchly committed to making sure these assurances we have received from the Law School are met, and that any such decision by faculty will be enacted and designed in a way that benefits, rather than detriments, students. 

“We encourage any student who wishes to contribute to this co-design project to partake in an upcoming survey SULS will distribute via email, and we will advocate for these student perspectives.”

Ultimately, the PASS facilitator who spoke to Honi hopes that the replacement program has the same educational benefits as PASS. 

“I think it’s just sad to know that students (many of whom I’ve seen come back semester after semester because they love PASS) might struggle more and find it harder to access the support they need because of this decision,” they said.