May 20, 2022

An Open Letter to the Law Faculty on Staffing and Teaching

Law students at the University of Tasmania are increasingly concerned about the way the law school is being run. In particular, we feel that our education is being compromised by the Senior Administration’s approach to staffing and teaching. 

Students have exhausted all available internal university means to rectify these issues. 

Staffing

The greatest issue is the Senior Administration’s perceived attitude towards staff. Staff have complained that their entire approach is that faculty are to do as they are told, ask no questions and have no discussions. At an open staff meeting, it has been alleged that law faculty were told that if they did not like the way the law school was being run, they could leave as there were 40,000 unemployed academics that could fill their roles. 

Understandably, academics have been haemorrhaging from the law school. Some have secured postings at other high-ranking Australian law schools. Others have opted to take retirement earlier than they were intending. In an almost unprecedented move, the Senior Administration are alleged to have pressured some of them to sign non-disclosure agreements about their recent experiences at the university. At least some of these agreements allegedly include ‘non-disparagement’ clauses, which prevent former staff from being able to criticise the university under significant financial penalty.

The law school posted five continuing positions over the summer break. Only two were filled. Worse, several high-calibre teachers who were well-regarded by students were allegedly not given contracts. It is still unclear why these subject matter experts were not chosen, only to be replaced by individuals who appeared to have no expertise in teaching their law courses, or in some instances, by those who appeared to be without any experience ever teaching law before.

New staff that have been hired, sometimes mere days before the beginning of semester, were apparently given no induction, no guidance on setting up their courses, and no clear guidelines on the expectation and content of the courses they are teaching. This means that students are confused, uncertain, and in some instances, given absolutely no indication of what content they should be focusing on. All of this is compounded by the fact that the university has altered the way that courses are delivered (more on that below).

The academics who remain are trying their best, but there are simply not enough teachers who know what they are doing. 

In response to these complaints, the Senior Administration continually say to wait and let things sort themselves out. But this approach banks more on student expectations lowering to the current standard of education than that standard rising to meet expectations.

The issues are symptoms of the administration’s approach to management. For instance, when PhD students raised concerns with the law school’s lack of a Graduate Research Coordinator they were allegedly met with aggressive resistance. In the following days, an email was sent out stressing only a single PhD student was welcome in future staff meetings.

From our perspective, there is no communication engaged in, no opinions sought, no explanations made, no real actions promised, and attempts to secure any of these are said to be harshly shut down. This is not an environment that promotes staff retention and attracts legal experts. This is not an approach which prioritises student education.

New Model

The university’s Senior Administration decided to implement a new standardised course structure, without any explanation or advance warning to law students. Another instance of a lack of communication. Worse, this new model has been poorly implemented.

The new structure requires one hour of online lectures and two hours of in-person seminars every week. Students had to fight for this, with the original plan consisting of a single hour seminar each fortnight. The new model likely reduces the amount of total hours of student-teacher interactions across a course. However, to avoid getting bogged down in specifics, it is sufficient to say that this is a decrease in the amount of lecture time and an increase in the amount of seminar time. The rationale is that this new model pushes students to prepare outside of classes in order to increase ‘active engagement’ between students and teachers in class time. This is not necessarily true, particularly as in-person lectures often saw active engagement, but it seems like a reasonable enough theory. The overwhelming issue is how the new model has been implemented.

First, the model is applied rigidly and all law courses are required to conform to it. This is not always appropriate. In some complex areas of the law, time would be much better served with a detailed explanation of how the law operates. One of the core advantages of attending a university is having an expert contextualise and explain certain areas of knowledge. You know, be taught by someone. If students are expected to teach themselves, then it is unclear what the educational advantage is over other options, like getting a library card or watching law lectures on YouTube. The model may be appropriate for some courses but it is certainly not appropriate for all of them.

Second, ‘active engagement’ presupposes a foundation or minimum degree of knowledge, but the time to teach that (lectures) has been drastically curtailed. This model views law school as essentially a pleasant forum where students can come together with their teachers and discuss their views on the law. This is a dangerous view. A law school must primarily teach the law and legal reasoning. A medical school would not give over instruction time to let future doctors try out their various homegrown surgical techniques. The law must be properly understood before more sophisticated discussions can arise.

Third, this measure does not necessarily enhance accessibility. Many of the Senior Administration’s recent decisions have ostensibly been to improve access to legal education. While online learning might be more flexible, it is not synonymous with better accessibility. That presumes that students have good internet connections at home, that they have academic resources there, and that it is easier for them to work at home than in a lecture theatre. None of these are necessarily true. Moreover, lectures bring students on campus, and particularly in earlier stages of a degree, allow people to meet other people doing the same courses. This permits students to develop social and academic networks, which can assist struggling or busy students. 

Moreover, measures to increase accessibility or flexibility must be tempered by considerations of educational quality. ABC iView shows are very accessible and can be watched at any time, but they have little legal instructional value. No matter how compelling Jack Irish is. Law schools have a responsibility to ensure a minimum standard of education. This is part of their official certification from the Australian Law Schools Standards Committee. The University of Tasmania’s certification is soon due to be renewed, and students are concerned that if serious and wide-reaching actions are not taken there is a danger this recognition, and their degrees, will be jeopardised.

Fourth, the model has substantially impacted professors’ workload. The breakdown of an academic’s time is not something that students generally worry about. But they have been given cause to. Academia generally runs on 40-40-20 division of time. 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% administrative duties and service. In expanding the seminar time, academics are now required to devote more hours to teaching without a corresponding correction in their other duties. That is, they must do more teaching but there is the same expectation for the other two categories. This is further pressure on staff, on top of an allegedly unpleasant work environment. 

Next Steps 

Students care about the quality of education they receive, after all, they’re paying for it. They care if a lecturer does not understand the material, is wasting time, or is not able to answer their questions. They care if they can’t do research work anymore because their professor’s workload is not reflective of reality. They care if suddenly they are being taught by a lecturer who is teaching way outside their area, simply because a required course needs a warm body to run. They care when staff are treated as disposable. They care what is happening to the courses they need to take to graduate and become a lawyer. The Senior Administration’s prevailing approach runs counter to all of this.

Perhaps the most incredible thing is that the Senior Administration has taken exactly the wrong lessons from the COVID pandemic, and totally failed to appreciate what it highlighted. They seek to remove a sense of community when the pandemic emphasised the need for connection. They increasingly digitise teaching, even having teachers in different states or countries, when the pandemic showed just how saturated that market is and the poor education outcomes which can result. They wish to remove the Tasmanian context and compete with other universities on those universities’ terms, rather than use Tasmania’s advantages. They allegedly treat faculty poorly in Australia’s small legal academic community and during an employee’s job market. 

Our requests are simple: greater resources and support for students and staff, flexibility in the teaching model, ensure a high minimum standard for content, improving the calibre of hired faculty, improve retention of competent academics, and make a substantial, concrete shift towards openness as well as consultation in the Senior Administration’s approach to governance. 

Only these measures can continue to ensure adequate legal education remains in Tasmania.

The authors acknowledge that some of these issues impact more than just the law school. However, as law students, we feel it is appropriate to only discuss the situation in the law school. 

We would encourage students and staff in other areas of the University who are similarly impacted to speak up.

Sincerely,

Concerned students.