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City Desk
16 March, 2010  
Juris Doctor, I presume?

The march of the Juris Doctor … Law schools find a cash cow with rebadged postgraduate qualification … What sort of people are becoming lawyers? ... Tom Westbrook investigates

imageSydney University Law School is set to establish a Juris Doctor degree following approval of the course by the Senate on Monday (March 15).

The JD, as it has done at other universities, will replace the graduate-entry LLB program and sidestep government regulations that ban charging domestic students full fees.

The Dean of the Sydney Law School, Professor Gillian Triggs, says that the move does not foreshadow the adoption of the “Melbourne model” north of the Murray.

However, there are changes afoot in the structure of tertiary education nationwide that have significant implications for the study of law and for the shape of the legal profession in the future.

At Professor Triggs’ alma mater, Melbourne University, a plethora of undergraduate degrees have been replaced by just six, broad degrees: arts, biomedicine, commerce, environments, music and science.

Specialisation happens at the postgraduate level.

So does a lot of the university’s income.

At the University of Sydney, as at other universities, straight law is not offered to undergraduates. It has to be combined, for example with Arts, Science or Commerce, as a double degree.

What the JD replaces is the graduate entry LLB.

The old graduate entry LLB was classified as an “undergraduate degree” for the purpose of Commonwealth funding.

This made it impossible to charge full fees for domestic students.

Now, universities can offer essentially the same course as a postgraduate degree and the full fee prohibitions no longer apply.

The Juris Doctor course simply rebadges the graduate LLB so that domestic students can be relieved of their cash.

A new generation of cash cows has been born.

The faculty deans and university vice-chancellors who did not pay for their tertiary education now preside, a generation later, over one of the world’s most expensive higher education systems.

The JD will be a postgraduate entry-level qualification for the legal profession.

Like the graduate LLB it replaces it is a three year course, after which graduates must do a stint of practical legal training before they can get a ticket to trade.

At Sydney University, the JD will be distinguished by its “international focus”, requiring students to take three electives not mandated in the LLB.

It also comes with a price tag of $84,960 for domestic fee payers and $101,960 for international students, who are now the mainstay of university balance sheets.

imageThe faculty insists that the fee paying places are essential to cover budgetary shortfalls caused by the government’s undergraduate fee ban and inadequate federal funding of Commonwealth supported places.

Yet at USYD, Prof Triggs (seen here) admits that the price reflects that being offered by “competitor” institutions, such as UNSW.

The university is offering 25 domestic full fee paying places per year-group in the JD course, along with 35 international places and 95 Commonwealth supported places.

The fee paying places alone will contribute about $5.7 million per year-group to the university’s income.

imagePredictably, the changes have not impressed students who are concerned that the reintroduction of domestic full fee paying places is unfair and undermines merit-based entrance requirements.

Hannah Quadrio (pic), president of the Sydney University Law Society, told us:

“There is a reason the government got rid of full fee domestic places. They’re inequitable. It’s regrettable that law faculties are trying to bring them back through JD programs.”

The number of full fee paying places also looks set to rise, after the faculty refused to rule out increases, while the number of Commonwealth places remains fixed by the government.

The JD program has also come under attack from the presidents of the undergraduate and postgraduate student representative bodies, Elly Howse and Rashmi Kumar respectively.

imageBoth are concerned that the fee paying places will allow those who can afford it to enter the course with lower marks than their Commonwealth supported contemporaries. Howse (seen here) said:

“If you have a merit based scheme, then that’s what it should be, all places should be merit based.”

They are concerned also about the impact of the new course on the shape of the legal profession.

Students saddled with an $85,000 debt are unlikely to be attracted to less lucrative corners of the profession and so a narrower, corporate-focused legal community could foreseeably be the result.

Nevertheless, following its approval by Sydney University’s Senate the first classes are expected to commence in 2011.

At least graduates will not be entitled to call themselves “doctor”.

Tom Westbrook reporting