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Jansen, Jodie --- "Legal education: Changes to higher education" [2004] AltLawJl 89; (2004) 29(6) Alternative Law Journal 299

Changes to higher education

JODIE JANSEN[*] discusses the consequences for students and the legal profession.

Changes to the higher education sector over the last decade have had particular effects on legal education. Legal education has been subject to huge fee increases, almost tripling since 1996. The introduction of domestic full fee\! places has also seen rapid growth of domestic undergraduate full fees in law courses, both full fee places and the fees themselves. The increasing cost of legal education has implications for the diversity of students studying law courses and eventually entering the legal profession, as well as the areas that law graduates choose to practise in. Access to legal education has implications for access to justice.

Until 1996 HECS was a flat rate across all fields of study. The (then) newly elected Howard Government introduced fee increases and differentiated by field of study on the basis of expected earnings and course costs, making HECS closer in concept to a market price. Fees for law more than doubled from $2442 to $5500 for a full-time year. Another aspect of the 1996 higher\education changes was that universities were allowed to introduce up to 25% undergraduate full fee­ paying places for domestic students. Many universities enthusiastically took up this option with law course full-fee enrolments being some of the first to reach the cap, leading the Government to increase the cap on domestic full fee places in 2003.

One effect of the increasing cost has been the reversal of a study improvement in access, of degrees such as law. Concrete data is difficult to obtain in this area as the Department of Education, Science and Training no longer publishes the data necessary for such analysis. However, some research shows that there has been a 38% decrease in students from lower socio-economic backgrounds studying degrees in the most expensive HECS band such as law. The National Union of Students believes this trend is likely to worsen as of Australia's 38 universities the majority has opted to increase HECS fees by a further 25%, and students who miss out on a HECS place are pushed into considering full fee paying options.

The legal profession has often been criticised as an elite fraternity designed to uphold a legal system entrenching the economic privileges of the ruling class in law. To break down this view of both the law and the legal profession requires a diversity of backgrounds to be represented in the legal profession at every level. The first step is diversity in those undertaking a legal education. Some gains were made in this area with women, indigenous students and students from varying socio-economic backgrounds all moving into the study of law. These gains are being swiftly eroded by the rapidly increasing fees that now see most law students paying 100% of the teaching cost of their degree, a higher proportion than any other students.

Another aspect that has historically been part of the legal profession is the value placed on community service. Many commentators have argued that traditional legal values such as service to the community are difficult to uphold, as the practice of law becomes a business much like any other. Contributing to this will be graduates and new practitioners who, because they owe large study debts from either HECS or full fees, must focus on earning income significant enough to quickly repay them. Many recent graduates comment they notice HECS repayments eating into their disposable income. High study debts provide no incentive to sacrifice earning potential in order to serve the public good through legal aid or work in community or indigenous legal services. This in tum raises further questions about access to justice in our society.

After the federal election the Government proposed to either ban universal service fee collection by universities, or to restrict the activities that such fees can be spent on. Currently these universal fees are passed on to the relevant student organisations. Either proposal would rob students of many essential services such as academic advice and advocacy, childcare on campus, welfare advice and counselling. It would also rob students of the social and cultural campus life one expects from a university experience, as well as mute their voice and deprive them of their ability to represent themselves.

The former Chief justice of Australia and outgoing Chancellor University of Technology, Sydney, Sir Gerard Brennan, has said:

The student clubs and societies provide fora in which students mix with students from other disciplines, where they may join together to further a common interest in music or the arts, where they engage in debate on some of the social or political issues of the day. If Universities cease to be the venue for discourse or dissent, the next generation will be supine in the face of authority and our democracy will be a hollow incantation. Therefore membership of a students union has been traditionally regarded as a condition of membership of the University community.

A university education is not only about preparing graduates to enter their chosen profession. It is also about preparing students for participating in a civil society, to contribute to the community in sporting, cultural and socio-political arenas. Often it is the university experience, including involvement in student organisations and the clubs and societies they fund, that prepares students to be future leaders in those fields.

This is particularly true of many of the leaders in the legal profession including many Supreme Court justices and Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court. The legal profession puts considerable value on community service and leadership from its members. Student organisations play the leading role in instilling and developing such values and skills in graduates from all professions.

The changes to higher education that have already occurred, and those that are currently proposed, will have far-reaching effects on legal education and the profession. Legal educators and legal professionals will need to address these challenges if we are to protect the next generation from becoming 'supine in the face of authority' and our democracy from becoming 'a hollow incantation'.

[*] JODIE JANSEN is National President of the National Union of Students and an arts/law student at the Queensland University of Technology.

© 2004 Jodie Jansen

email: president

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