Banning degrees

In recent years ‘Juris Doctor’ (JD) programs have proliferated around the country (eg U of M, UNSW, Monash, Sydney). JDs are initial professional entry qualifications for legal practice, but in theory at least taught at Masters level.

But now a team from the Australian Qualifications Framework Council – led by the great crusher of educational diversity, John Dawkins – has effectively recommended prohibiting the JD terminology. A report to education ministers issued late last week recommends that all qualifications taught at the various levels set out in the report be exclusively known by the names provided in the AQF. So all JDs would have to be renamed ‘Master of [Legal Something]’.

To date, degree titles have been a matter of self-regulation for universities. The current qualifications framework describes higher education qualifications, but does not prescribe them for self-accrediting institutions.

This system of self-regulation seems to have worked pretty well. The main criticism has been that some masters degrees are too light – really just undergraduate subjects, or too short, or both. Intellectually, some honours bachelor degrees are superior to some masters degrees. But there is little evidence that this has caused significant ‘real world’ problems. Employers know what is what.

JDs spread partly because they were a way of getting around the crippling regulation of undergraduate course finances. But at some universities at least there was genuine product innovation, with smaller classes, different teaching styles, and year-round teaching to finish in less time.

The JD nomenclature was a useful way of distinguishing an intial professional entry qualification from the traditional LLM programs, which are more specialist qualifications. A JD is the standard term for a legal qualification in North America. There may be risks in using non-traditional titles, but that should be something the institutions and students weigh up, rather than regulators imposing standardised titles.

Now that there are many JD graduates in the workforce, they are likely to be displeased that their qualification is being banned. Fortunately law firms more than most employers know that regulators are not sources of wisdom.

I am hoping that this and other aspects of the Dawkins report will be rejected. The old describe but don’t prescribe approach is the best one. But with Labor returned to power, I doubt they will want to reject their man’s advice.

14 thoughts on “Banning degrees

  1. My recollection is that the JD degree started in the US – replacing LLB – because it as argued that a law degree was equivalent to a PhD. A student did 4 years liberal arts (BA) and then 3 years law school – about the same as most PhD students.
    It was thought that as a result lawyers could call themselves “doctor”. That never caught on.
    In Australia, a much bigger issue, it seems to me, is the wide variability in what’s required for a PhD though I think I agree that government regulation would not be progress.


  2. Ken – It looks like it was inspired by European practice, where I think lawyers are often called ‘doctor’. The Wikipedia entry notes a perceived need to upgrade legal professional education, but not that a JD was equivalent to a PhD.
    I would have thought that there was less variation in PhDs than Masters, despite the rise in professional doctorates. I haven’t researched this, but all I have heard of are still at least three years and have external examiners.

    Peter – JDs are not specifically mentioned, but the relevant material is the description of Masters starting at p.49 and the qualfications issuance policy at page 61.


  3. “but all I have heard of are still at least three years and have external examiners”
    They’re not necessarily 3 years — it’s just the recommended minimum time at most places (people almost always take longer). Also, professional doctorates arn’t PhDs (they’re smaller but generally can’t be done as quickly due to having more coursework and placements), and there is a lot of variance in what needs to be done to qualify for them, even across disciplines within the same university (probably more variability than PhDs).
    Personally, I don’t think the variance between programs is important as the variance in the standard of the theses — they can be awful and still pass in Australia (my bet is that the median PhD student publishes nothing from their PhD or Professional Doctorate, and those that do generally publish in low quality places), and you won’t even get bothered by a committee asking you questions, like most other places in the world. In fact, I’m surprised at how low the bar is in Australia these days, although that’s not surprising because the amount of money you get from the government declines depending on how late the thesis is, so there is strong pressure to do the very achievable.


  4. It’s true that you can submit early and most submit late, but there has been no softening of the broad amount of work required to be submitted. It’s still thought of as a project equivalent to three years work.

    As to quality, it’s a probable result of the expansion of PhD programs in the last 20 years. On the other hand when I was considering enrolling more than 20 years ago I looked at some dissertations and decided that while it would be a lot of work the intellectual threshold wasn’t too high. It doesn’t have to be brilliant (a point indeed made to me more than once by people encouraging me to finish mine).


  5. I did a Masters or Politcal Correctness … errr …. Public Policy at ANU several eons ago and, yes, compared to undergrad economics, it really was a case of ‘nice subject matter, shame about the rigour’. It was really a course for middle ranking public servants wanting to secure their employment and promotion prospects with an M[something] in front of their name.

    Even so, I think the course was not invaluable for public servants – at least if you had a rigorous first degree to underpin it – but I fear that the ‘Masters’ in front of it might still be misleading – plenty of fairly mediocre people were able to get through. Still, there are no end of essentially brain-dead accounting/business types with MBAs out there, so maybe these days ‘Masters’ doesn’t mean that much to prospective employers.


  6. In the good old days, a Masters degree was to be taken quite literally. It meant that you had the mastered the material in a discipline, and so knew substantially more than someone with a bachelor’s degree, even with honours. A PhD meant that you had had not just mastered the material in a discipline but had made a substantial original contribution to it.
    Those days are long gone but the idea that a JD is equivalent to a PhD is ridiculous. JD students cover the same material as LLB students. The only difference is that they already are graduates (in a different discipline) and so can be be charged higher fees.


  7. On the original topic, while I tend to support government intervention in many walks of life, it is appalling that a government should be telling universities what degrees that they can grant. If the VCs have any balls (which is doubtful) they will push back hard on this one. I know he who pays the piper calls the tune but there have to be limits even to that maxim.


  8. “It doesn’t have to be brilliant”
    Even some universities with once great standards have given up on this. A few years back I believe Cambridge changed their guidelines and that basically meant a PhD went from something interesting and novel to a substantial body of work. A study on the grass in my garden probably qualifies for this latter one, and I imagine this was done to get through all the students that didn’t do something very thrilling, which is the same problem almost every has. This is why people think publications in good journals are far more important now (you won’t be competitive for any academic stuff without them).
    “As to quality, it’s a probable result of the expansion of PhD programs in the last 20 years”
    That’s certainly part of it, but not all of it — part of the reason for the lowering of the bar is simply due to government rules and the way funding works. Many universities also encourage people to supervise students no matter who they are, and so Australlian students, who almost never look up their supervisors’ records before choosing them, often get supervisors that haven’t ever done anything interesting in their lives and most likely never will. Apart from getting credit for getting a student through, I think that many of these supervisors take them as they secretly hope that their students will do their publishing for them, but this rarely works because publishing in good journals is a tricky game that few PhD students can work out themselves. This is very common.


  9. Conrad – I don’t see this decline in ‘standards’ as necessarily problematic. A PhD is what the funding policy is called these days – the research training scheme. The special prize of publication may follow if the PhD is particularly interesting. Or there is Louis Menand’s idea that you skip the dissertation and go for journal publications instead.


  10. Going back to the JDs in the US – most law schools offered to issue a JD diploma to anone with an LLB for $50 or so. I don’t know how many took up the offer.
    And it certainly was expected that lawyers would call themselves “doctor” but I don’t believe anyone had the nerve.


  11. Ken – yes they do worry about brand and don’t allow departments to award the degrees. The rules and examination processes are centrally controlled.

    I have a different view to Conrad on this – while being sympathetic to his argument. A PhD is like a drivers licence. If your best driving is on the day you get the licence, then there is a problem.


  12. I’ve never heard of anyone with a JD call themselves ‘doctor’ or suggest that a JD was the equivalent of a PhD.

    They might suggest that lawyers would be better if they did something practical before becoming lawyers, but the JDs I know generally don’t consider themselves in any way elite. They seem to consider themselves more as pragmatic specialists whose strength is understanding your business because they’ve done it.


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