I am trying the conference thing again. It’s probably better than spending the next week or so in the office with everyone around me trying to absorb the pressures of the start of term. Still I am conscious that depression has kept me on the sofa much more than I would like and that anxiety levels have been generally high. I am working on the re-set but it’s not easy. So when I set off yesterday it didn’t seem like a great idea to be heading into people and give a paper based mostly on personal experience and reflection.
Travel was a bit irritating because the trains into Bradford and then back out to Preston didn’t match at all. I sat at Bradford interchange for 40 minutes watching the world go by…. that’s another story! Then I got on my little train and pootled towards Lancashire through the familiar northern landscape. It suddenly felt important to be staying in the north. Safer, less pressured, more familiar. I watched the hills and fields come and go and longed to be out there breathing the fresh air. I went over my paper. I stared into space and then a few blokes with dogs got on the the dogs were scary and I hoped they would get off at Preston so I didn’t have to go past. I was also suddenly very aware of my own privilege, of what having a job and a secure income at a level where worrying about money isn’t a thing really means; how rare that is in these northern towns I was passing through. I felt both lucky and powerless.
Preston. I walked from the station to the hotel to leave my bags and realised that some time out before people would be good. I found a Costa coffee and had a peppermint tea and bar of dark chocolate. I like Preston. It’s real. It’s a bit of a dump of course, there’s the university and there’s poverty and not much else but the people are real, they are friendly and welcoming and I couldn’t help smiling all the time. I belong in towns like Preston (or Keighley), it feels right. I slowly walked up to the university passing huge building sites and lost in my thoughts. I registered, I bought books, I chatted to one or two people and then it was time for session 1 and my paper.
The session started with Caroline Strevens (Portsmouth) ‘Challenging Assumptions:revisiting the Law Curriculum’ and her paper was packed full of fabulous ideas centred around self determination, motivation, mindsets and teamwork being the answer. I do think self determination theory is useful and it can tell us something about how universities get things wrong by undermining academics and their intrinsic motivation and how we get this wrong with our students too and basically force them to focus on extrinsic motivating factors… I am not sure about teamwork being the answer. I don’t know enough but as an introvert and someone who quite likes working alone and did as a student I wonder…
Then it was me. My paper reflects on two of my publications from 2008 and 2009 both written in the 2007/08 academic year and suggests that I was perhaps rather naive then and got some things wrong, not least arguing for a time turner to make the academic job doable. Instead, I suggest in this paper, we should make better use of an invisibility cloak and marauderers’ map (I do indeed solemnly swear that I am up to no good) to help us do things our way and defend against the dark arts (of neoliberalism, managerialism , marketisation, metrics, ranking, the glorification of busyness…) I am actually really looking forward to properly writing this one up.
The third paper in the session was be Steven Vaughan (UCL) and was, as always, a treat. I love the way Steven presents, it appears easy and effortless and pulls you in. The paper was one I had heard before but that didn’t matter. Steven told us about his work on the structure of LLB programmes and in particular the core subjects. I have often asked why the core is the core. In fact I ask my students and part of me loves the fact that we don’t really know, that it seems to be a historical accident and one which we can’t rally justify on pedagogical or legal grounds. The core is the core because it’s what was predominantly being taught when the core was decided but there were other subjects in contention too. What I find utterly fascinating though is that colleagues often find it impossible to imagine something else. That when you ask them to design a law degree starting with a blank page they start with what they now understand to be the core but they can’t articulate why.
I can write about what I would put in a law degree another time but for now let’s just say I’m not wedded to the core, I wouldn’t teach in the current modular silos and I am not sure I would make anything compulsory other than a sort of legal skills, methods etc course. I see logistical argument for first year compulsory modules but I am struggling for pedagogical and legal ones. But I digress.
I had coffee, there were too many people, I briefly considered going back to the hotel but then just went to the next legal education session instead. It wasn’t a great choice. The papers were just not really my thing. The first was by Roland Fletcher (OU) about apprenticeships and I think I was tired and stopped listening properly. The second was a panel on workplace focused law degrees and while what they were doing seemed quite interesting there is something about the focus of law programmes on providing legal experience to the exclusion of all others that annoys me. It perpetuates the myth that what we do is about our students becoming lawyers and that a degree is/should be about employability. Of course I am being unfair here, they might be doing all sorts and just sharing this particular aspect. I would have liked more on the literature and context though rather than just a ‘here’s what we are doing’ sort of thing.
I went back to the hotel, dumped my bag and checked in and then went back for drinks and dinner. They were fine, conversation was easy because I was with people I knew and people I was content to just listen to. The entertainment folk singing went on for a few songs longer than I felt happy with and I was glad for some air and me time on the walk back. I slept badly. I woke early. I wondered about going for a run but it was raining cats and dogs and the bed was comfy and I felt achey. I didn’t want a battle in my head, I wanted a slow morning. And that’s what I’ve had. Nearly time for SLS Day 2 now!
Those of you who know me will know that I see UG law degrees as liberal degrees which are loosely linked to the legal professions if indeed they must be linked to them at all. As such my concern about the Legal Education and Training Review were that it would recommend greater regulation of undergraduate degrees or the academic stage generally. I was worried about the introduction of greater links between law degrees, vocational training and professional practice as well as about greater prescription of content for law degrees. Now that the LETR has reported and I am mulling over the 300+ pages and reflecting on the report as well as the other documents produced by the review, I thought it may be worth sharing some initial thoughts.
My initial reaction was that there was very little in the report concerning the education part and I thought that was a good thing. I shared the view of many that there really wasn’t much new here and that we seems to have spent a lot of money and waited a long time to have a report which says almost nothing new. However, I have let things sink in a little (and there is more of that to be done) and like some I have changed my mind a little. Even though the report conceded that UG law degrees are generally outside the remit of the review other than when directly impact on the provision of legal services, there are elements of the report which, if taken up by the regulators have significant potential to change law degrees, even if regulation remains light touch.
The Foundations Subjects (See Recommendation 10)
The report suggests there is little appetite for change here and that the idea of foundation subjects is likely to stay. However it also questions whether the balance is correct, whether the rights things are core and whether there should be more fluidity and flexibly as well as more prescription. This does not seem to make sense, can we have flexibility and fluidity and prescription? Well maybe, you could prescribe topics and skills to be covered without specifying modules for example. What concerns me more here is the ‘who decides?’ question. If the foundations are to be revamped, who does the revamping? This is not a level playing field and if, as could easily happen, the agenda is dictated by magic circle law firms, we might end up with something which has a core which is biased in favour of corporate commercial interests but offers little to high street practice never mind those graduates who do not wish to go into the professions. There are already arguments about what is core and what should be core and it would do all of us no harm to remember that what we think is interesting and important is not necessarily core. The LETR report opens the door for a whole scale reform of the foundation subjects, which I don’t really have a problem with, it is what comes next that worries me!
Inclusion of writing/communication and research skills (See Recommendation 6 and 11)
The comments in the report about writing skills and research skills I found a little tricky. On the one hand I sympathise. I teach legal skills and I mark a lot of work produced by students who are lacking in both these areas. On the other hand I was irritated, I teach both writing and research skills. Law Schools are doing this, but perhaps we need to do it more explicitly. On balance I think I therefore welcome the recommendation that:
There should be a distinct assessment of legal research, writing and critical thinking skills at level 5 or above in the Qualifying Law Degree and in the Graduate Diploma in Law. Educational providers should retain discretion in setting the context and parameters of the task, provided that it is sufficiently substantial to give students a reasonable but challenging opportunity to demonstrate their competence. (Recommendation 11)
However, I am also keenly aware that most of the evidence about writing skills etc is anecdotal and I really do think it would be useful to conduct research on students’ skills base to help us better understand where the weaknesses are.
Ethics (See Recommendation 6)
I have always struggled with the debate around the inclusion of ethics in UG law degrees, not because I don’t think ethics should be taught but rather because I don’t think it is possible to teach law without ethics or values. Law is inherently value laden and to me very closely linked to ethics. However, teaching professional ethics as applied to the legal professions has, in my mind, no place in the UG law curriculum. Teaching ethics and values generally definitely has.
Liberal law degrees generally
The report seems to recognise that law degrees are academic degrees and that they should not be vocational. I was interested to see that the Bar are most in favour of liberal degrees. It is also of course worth noting that the responses to the question of whether law degrees should be liberal degrees or more vocationally focused are from people in the professions. I wonder how the pattern of responses would change if people who have law degrees but work in other areas were asked the same question… I digress. So coming from someone who believes in the liberal law degree, the LETR report contains some relevant stuff, whether it is stuff to be concerned about or stuff to celebrate or stuff to just ignore will become clearer in time. The LETR is just the starting point, it’s what comes next that has the potential to change things and that I am a little bit worried about.
Watch this space for more on the issues as I reflect further on the issues raised in the report.