As Australia's universities call on the federal government to increase their funding by billions of dollars a year in a bid to stop quality and standards plummeting as student numbers grow, law students enter the fray. Australian Law Students Association president Matthew Floro says law students pay too much, and says the funding of legal education needs immediate attention.
THE Australian Government’s Higher Education Base Funding Review is of critical importance to law students and the legal profession.
The review, which was announced in October 2010 and is due to provide a report in October this year, will examine the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and the levels of student contributions, together which comprise “base funding” of public universities. The review is a response to the Bradley Review, as outlined in the government’s ‘Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System’ policy.
It is well known that law sits in the lowest funding cluster of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and in the highest student contribution band. In 2011, the government contribution for each law unit of study is $1,793. Conversely, law students are expected to provide a maximum of $9,080 for each unit of study. As such, law students are burdened with 84 per cent of law program funding. In contrast, humanities students provide only 52 per cent of base funding, while dentistry students provide a mere 32 per cent of base funding.
The current rates of government funding still echo the old 1990 Relative Funding Model, which placed law at the bottom of the pile. This situation has not been rectified despite ardent criticism from the Council of Australian Law Deans, which has recommended that law be funded at least at the higher levels of social sciences or humanities.
ALSA firmly agrees that government funding of legal education needs to be increased. The argument put forward by proponents of the current system that the cost of running law courses is relatively low belies the historic underfunding of legal education in comparison to other faculties. This has, in part, been due to a perception that law is an inexpensive discipline to teach – that it requires a mere “chalk and talk” method of teaching.
As a result of underfunding, we have seen deleterious impacts on the quality of teaching and learning in law schools. There has been an increased reliance on part-time and casual staff, which has had implications for student engagement and support. Staff-student ratios have increased, with negative impacts on lecture sizes, the number of tutorials, and the use of small-group seminars. Innovation and reform of legal curriculum, including the promotion of greater practical skills development, such as advocacy and drafting skills, and the initiation of stronger social justice and pro bono ethics, has been constrained as many law schools struggle to find sufficient finances.
The consequence for law students is that, in many cases, they have had to take matters into their own hands. Law students, through campus law student societies (LSSs), run tutorials, peer mentoring programs, practical legal competitions, academic support programs, and other initiatives that supplement and/or replace the work of law schools.
ALSA believes that the disproportionate amount law students contribute to base funding also needs to be addressed. It cannot be presumed that law students, as a class, go on to have collectively higher earnings than other university graduates. The diversity of careers that single- and double-degree law students go on to pursue casts the net much wider than traditional legal positions.
Indeed, as the number of law students has risen, a lower proportion of graduates have gone on to practise law. For those that do begin in law, graduate salaries were ranked around the middle (eleventh) out of 23 professions in 2010, as measured by Graduate Careers Australia. Although salaries do increase post qualification, not all lawyers work at top-tier firms – many work for smaller firms and regional firms. Some leave the industry all together.
Looking at the broader picture, we need to combat the perception in the community that law brings fewer benefits to the community than other professions, such as medicine or dentistry. There are tangible and intangible economic, social and cultural benefits that accrue to the community through increased public expenditure on legal education. Legally educated individuals foster an understanding of and reinforce the value of rules and procedures, enhancing respect for the rule of law. Law schools add value to the community through free and subsidised services, through public libraries and clinical legal education programs.
Access to justice initiatives, such as AustLII, are often funded and maintained by law schools. Lawyers, in big commercial law firms and in dedicated community legal services, protect the legal rights of the community through pro bono work.
ALSA has been active in campaigning against the legal funding status quo and believes that the funding of legal education is at a crossroads. Base funding needs to be increased and reallocated so that a rational amount and sharing of costs is achieved. Only then can we begin to transform Australia’s higher education system.