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Broadbent, G; Sellman, P --- "Great expectations? Law schools, websites and 'the student experience'" [2013] LegEdDig 45; (2013) 21(3) Legal Education Digest 47

Great expectations? Law schools, websites and ‘the student experience’

G Broadbent and P Sellman

The Law Teacher, Vol 47, No 1, 2013, pp 44-63

As part of a wider study of the ways in which university law schools represent themselves and legal education through their web pages, this article focuses on the ways in which law schools project images of ‘the student experience’ that those studying law might gain from studying at that particular institution, with particular reference to undergraduate students, and the context within which this operates. The provision of information by universities has become a much discussed issue in recent times. The National Union of Students (NUS) has, over a period of time, argued for better provision of information from universities for existing and prospective students. More recently, the Browne Review took up the theme, arguing for greater availability of material to inform not just students but other stakeholders. The recent White Paper largely adopted the Browne recommendations and led to the joint Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Universities UK and Guild HE policy document which sets out, in line with the White Paper, the requirements for the ‘Key Information Sets’ (KIS) that all HE institutions are providing from September 2012.

Institutional web pages have a significant role to play in providing the ‘official’ version of information about any particular law school, its views and activities and, more widely, about the university in which it is located. However, they exist as only one source amongst a whole host of others, whether official or unofficial, formal or informal. The mere availability of information is, however, only part of the picture: the understanding and use of that information are also important.

In the present context, given the diversity of the student body in many (though by no means all) universities, it becomes artificial to talk of ‘the student experience’ as if there is only one. Promotion of ‘the student experience’ at any particular law school as part of the projection of the image of the law school may, however, play a part in the process of encouraging undergraduate applicants, particularly if accompanied by glowing student testimonials, as well as informing them.

The benefits of higher education have been promoted in official discourse largely, though not exclusively, in economic terms: higher levels of education lead to higher levels of individual economic benefit via higher earnings over the life course, and this, in turn, benefits the country in economic terms by providing a workforce sufficiently skilled to ensure that the UK remains competitive in the global marketplace. If this is correct, then it is not surprising that subjects such as law, which appear to lead to substantial financial rewards, become more attractive to prospective students and it is not surprising to find this reflected in law school web pages.

This is important because the economic inducement to individuals that they will earn more as graduates only works if the supply of graduate jobs is not exceeded by the demand for them. It has been the case for some time that the number of graduates that the traditional branches of the legal profession can absorb has been exceeded significantly by the number of law graduates, though some of the impact of this has been offset by the ability of law graduates to secure employment in fields other than traditional legal practice.

Despite the formal abolition of the binary divide, there are still distinctions between institutions in practice and these are reflected on the web pages of both universities and law schools. Whilst the pre-1992 university law schools have retained their research focus and their national and international character, the post-1992 institutions are more likely to emphasise teaching and, Andrew Marks argues, have remained essentially local in character. For non-traditional students, who are less likely to be mobile because of domestic or economic commitments, this restricts their choice and perpetuates inequalities as institutions become ‘widening participation institutions’. Indeed, the whole question of choice, assumed by Browne and the recent White Paper, is rather misleading, as, for many students aspiring to study law, there will be little or no real choice. As well as academic criteria, cultural factors also have an effect on university choice. Studies on widening participation suggest that some applicants, especially but not exclusively mature and/or minority ethnic students, have concerns about whether they will ‘fit in’ at a particular institution or on a particular course and the institution’s publications and projected images play a part in this decision-making process.

Although many law schools offer open days or similar events, the importance of material contained on web pages is heightened as it may provide the only home-sourced information directly available to applicants. Some law schools appear to recognise this and try to anticipate it by having ‘frequently asked questions’ or similar as a feature of their websites, together with images, whether static or moving, of the campus in tacit recognition that prospective students may not otherwise see it prior to starting the course.

For many students, studying law will involve engagement with a subject they have not previously encountered. This means that there is no direct experience to draw on, thus increasing reliance, at least before starting a law degree, on what others say about it. There is no longer a single model of student experience at university, let alone of the range of experiences of law students, yet university material often projects the ‘traditional’ student life of the person aged late teens or early 20s, usually to the accompaniment of pulsating rock music, enjoying both curricular and extracurricular activities, and talks in terms of ‘the student experience’ as though there was only one. Many students work part time, or live at home or have domestic commitments, thus limiting their engagement with the university and often precluding them from taking part in extracurricular activities, yet this is hardly ever reflected in material on law school websites. Perhaps web pages should also seek to correct misapprehensions based on media images, which do not portray the realities and variety of the lives of modern law students in this country and may contribute to setting up false expectations as to how, for example, law will be studied. The relationship between expectation and experience is of particular significance, as it has been suggested that unmet expectations are a key factor in dissatisfaction amongst law students and in the non-completion of degree courses generally.

Dealing with any form of collective activity, such as classes, means that, inevitably, the organisation cannot cater for every wish of every individual. However, for present purposes, in this consumer era, universities may need to make clear what they can and cannot do with regard to matters such as scheduling of classes in order to avoid dissatisfaction later. It is of interest to note that in studies that have been carried out of student wishes in terms of information there is a contrast between the very specific information students seem to want and the more generalised forms of information that university websites and the like are able to provide, though this may now be partly addressed by KIS.

Traditional methods of communication, such as prospectuses and websites, might not reach the audience that needs it most, namely those who are not familiar with the university sector or able to access advice on university entrance and practices. Merely making information available is not enough: the information has to be comprehensible, in meaning and context, to its audience of potential students and other interested parties. This has implications for equality: material that is not explicit about matters such as academic practices privileges those with knowledge of such practices and discriminates against those without, thus perpetuating inequalities. Equally, however, students need to take steps, in so far as they can, to make themselves aware of such matters prior to starting the course, as failure to do this may result in non-completion. It is ultimately a two-way process.

This study has been carried out initially by accessing law school websites and analysing their content from our standpoint as law lecturers. Clearly, as experienced law lecturers, our perspective will differ from that of the prospective student, but our objective was to explore the content of the websites. We have studied the web pages of 45 of the 90 law schools in England and Wales. The choice of law schools included pre-1992 and post-1992 institutions and was selected randomly from within those categories, resulting in a wide geographical spread. As expected, the websites varied greatly with regard to the information they contained. At a most basic level, some websites were more user friendly than others. Ease of navigation is a key issue, as much of the more general information, such as that relating to student support and fees, was often on the university’s general website rather than the law school web pages. The websites are also clearly designed for the dual purposes of providing information about the university and the law school and as a marketing tool.

As our immediate focus was on undergraduate degrees, we concentrated on the LLB, leaving combined and postgraduate programmes for future study. Most of the law school websites accessed for this study referred somewhere to the degree structure, and included reference to the foundation modules required for completion of the academic stage of legal education. This was often by a cross- reference to an online prospectus or similar document. Some provided links to module descriptions or handbooks. It is unlikely that the presence of the foundation subjects will have much impact on student choice in itself as they will be universally present in course outlines. Although some web pages split the modules into the different levels or years, some did not. An applicant looking for information may not find information as to what was studied at each level/year. Does this matter? Will studying land law at level 4/year 1 at one law school and level 5/year 2 at another help an applicant to decide between different universities? Optional, or elective, modules were also frequently included but not always separated into the different levels. This could be because many law schools might not want to tie themselves into offering particular modules at different levels, or to be seen as guaranteeing that those particular modules would be offered. The range and type of optional modules available may well be a factor in attracting a potential law student to a particular institution, as, unlike the ever present foundation subjects, this is a feature that differentiates law schools from each other. Some students may well not be aware of the meanings of some of the terms used until they are registered on a programme or have commenced their legal studies. A further factor that may attract students to a particular law school is a distinctive approach to legal education, something that was emphasised by several in our study.

Information about assessment varied considerably. The Oakleigh Staffordshire study that informed both the Browne Review and the 2011 White Paper suggested that students wanted detailed information about assessment. This could be provided by web pages linking to module descriptions or handbooks, which is the approach that some law schools took. Most, however, made general statements to the effect that assessments will include coursework and/or examinations. There is, perhaps, a practical reason for not providing such detailed information on web pages, for if there are amendments to the assessment regime, then the web pages will also have to be amended. The increasing demand for more information may mean that in the future law school web pages will be encouraged to provide links to specific module information.

The Oakleigh Staffordshire study also found that students wanted to know the number of contact hours per week for the course. Whilst this may be criticised as seeing higher education as an extension of school and failing to understand the greater focus on independent learning at university, it was nevertheless taken up by both Browne and the government and now appears as part of the requirements for the KIS that universities now have to compile. It is, at one level, understandable that students may want this information, to enable them to fit studies around part-time jobs or domestic commitments. To help them in this, however, they would also need timetable information for the coming year which was almost universally unavailable on the sites we visited. In terms of student workload, some websites did refer to the anticipated student workload of, for example, ‘at least 40 hours per week’.

Staff details were much more readily accessible on some websites than on others. The amount of information about individual staff members varied greatly; some had virtually nothing whilst at the other end of the spectrum were life histories. The material was often contained in a standard format which, in many instances, meant the presence of a number of blanks for particular individuals. Under the requirements for KIS, the teaching qualifications of staff will need to be made available. Of all the sections of the law school web pages, the staff pages were the most likely to be out of date, with references, for example, to forthcoming publications in years long gone.

Many law schools, from all parts of the sector, sought to make a connection between their research work and their teaching. However, applicants may not register the subtleties of the distinction between research-led teaching and research-informed teaching. There is an additional issue in that, as Lewis Elton points out, research active staff will often buy out of teaching or be relieved of teaching duties in order to create more research time, which rather undermines the benefits to teaching brought about by research. A further effect is that staff featured on the web pages will not necessarily be the people who will teach on undergraduate courses.

Many websites included testimonials from current and former students, though these were often contained in the university pages rather than having dedicated law school testimonials and not always easy to find: a sixth-former in Hannah Fearn’s article ‘Deciphering the Code’ is quoted as saying: ‘I struggled to find student comments, and if I did they were always good and never bad ones.’ There was considerable variety in format, from a short written paragraph to videos. The videos did not always give a great deal of information but were usually short (e.g. 56 seconds) and clearly used to show that students were happy, staff were helpful and that studying law at a particular university led to great opportunities.

Employment tends to be represented on law school web pages in two ways. First, by indicating the potential careers for law graduates and secondly, by highlighting the careers of some alumni. A further dimension has now been added, as employment destinations and the salaries attaching to them have become part of KIS.

Predictably, given the qualifying status of the law degree, the material on the websites focused on careers in the traditional branches of the legal profession. An article in The New York Times highlighted the experiences of law graduates in seeking employment. The main complaint centred on the fact that law schools had held out law degrees to be a gateway to good employment, but for many graduates this was not the case.

Most law schools appear to assume that applicants looking at law school pages on a website are sure that they want to study law and that they know what this entails. There was little to indicate that students will have to spend hours reading. Photographs reflected none of the despair, stress and looks of panic around assessment times!

Whilst there are large amounts of material available to prospective applicants, the material is often fragmented and not always easy to find, and this is exacerbated where links do not work. Even when accessed it can be difficult to read and understand. It can be confusing and time consuming going between a university’s website and a law school’s web pages and, often, university material is general rather than specific to the law school. This, in part, lies behind the impetus for KIS, which are designed to provide information in an accessible and uniform fashion to enable prospective students to compare institutions more readily. What potential students want to know and what law schools want to say about themselves do not necessarily coincide: as one sixth former put it in an article in Times Higher Education ‘Most university websites don’t show you information you want to know, they just show you the information that they want you to know. That’s quite stupid really.’ But is it stupid? This would suggest that the content of web pages should be driven solely by the wishes of the user. It is surely not as simple as that. Law schools need to be able to use material they put out about themselves to project their identity and to reflect the things that are important to them as well as satisfying the demands of users. Ideally, both could be accommodated.

One of the most notable features of our investigation of law school web pages is the variety in style and content, with each law school doing something distinctive. Perhaps applicants may find this very distinctiveness unhelpful and would prefer each law school website to be in the same format and carry the same information. It will be sad if external intervention leads to standardisation and dull, bland uniformity, as the current picture is one of vibrancy and variety that reflects the diversity of law schools.

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