For some people at universities, their public funding level isn’t just about the money. It is sending a coded message.
The Council of Australian Law Deans submission to the base funding review seems to take this view. Along with business students, law students get the lowest subsidy levels – just $1,800 a year, while student contributions are more than $9,000. And that $1,800 is saying something.
First, it is apparently saying something to legal academics.
It dampens the aspirations of law schools to harness the natural idealism of many beginning law students and to educate them not only for their own career but also for altruistic ends.
Why this might be so remains mysterious. And in what may be an unfortunate consequence of cut-and-paste submission writing, it is contradicted in the next paragraph:
To enhance a broader perspective, law schools today are consciously embracing a more critical perspective and a more deliberate ethos of law reform, rather than merely teaching the law as it is.
Whether this makes for better legal education is another matter, but for this post sufficient to say that it disposes of the first argument.
But even if academics aren’t picking up the message, perhaps students are:
A low government contribution and a high student contribution sends a message, and perhaps is premised on the assumption, that becoming a lawyer is all about having a successful and materially rewarding personal career, and not at all about making a contribution to the public good. …
The gross imbalance between the government and student contributions, almost a complete privatisation of legal education, encourages a mindset amongst law students of the selfish pursuit of personal goals and obscures the contribution of law and lawyers to civil society, the rule of law, and the public good.
The deans offer no evidence beyond unsubstantiated claimed about the United States on the orientation of law students to their future activities. I started a law degree in the free education era, and I don’t think the cohorts of that time were more oriented to ‘public good’ activities than law students of today (law students have always been more likely than others in professional degrees to be involved in political and other public causes).
Indeed, with the large increase in legal do-goodery options since the 1970s and 1980s, via ‘human rights’ law, it is likely that more law students and lawyers than ever are involved in ‘public good’ activities.
The mundane reality is that there are no big messages given or likely to be heard in the relatively low funding rate for law (or business, but they don’t complain as much). It is just a by-product of law being classified as having a low-cost talk and chalk teaching method, combined with a pragmatic judgment that on average law graduates can easily repay their student debts.
The overall teaching rate should be (and is being) reviewed. There is little reason to believe that a number set without reference to costs or standards is right. But I don’t think there is much need for concern about the subsidy rate.
Though the Deans point out that not all law graduates go into high-paying jobs, the overwhelming majority go into well-remunerated occupations. As I noted a few years ago about my work with census data, my attempts to calculate the average earnings of people with law degrees was thwarted by the fact that by their mid-30s most male law graduates were ticking the maximum $2,000 a week or above census box (and this includes people not working as lawyers).
Though $27,000 for a degree may seem like a lot to someone getting $200 a week from a casual job, it is a small percentage of their lifetime earnings premium. And it makes little sense to give additional handouts to a group that will mostly be very affluent by Australian standards, just because a few devote themselves to low-paid ‘public good’ work.