Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law

The demise of state funding has altered students' attitudes to the legal profession, says Huw Morris

February 23, 2012

The central focus of Margaret Thornton's book is the many ways in which university-based legal education has been privatised over the past 20 years in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Drawing on interviews with more than 145 practising legal academics in 40 law schools, this book concentrates on how changes in funding regimes have altered the ways in which students approach higher education, as well as the means by which academics govern and undertake teaching and research.

As Thornton demonstrates, the replacement of direct state funding of higher education from general taxation by systems of deferred student payment has encouraged commercial discourse to infuse every aspect of life in law schools. She suggests that these changes have created forms of higher education in which "learner earners" choose educational products by reference to the reputation of a university, rather than by judgements about what they might learn. These choices are driven by the need for graduates to repay the costs of their education and this has also had a direct impact on the curriculum. Students, she observes, are now more likely to study company law and conveyancing rather than jurisprudence, human rights and labour law.

For Thornton, the creation of "student customers" has been accompanied by the emergence of a new generation of managers who - paradoxically - focus their attentions on how their universities can be different by being more like elite institutions. In the opening chapters it is suggested that these managers choose to make themselves inaccessible in order to make it easier to manage the rank and file academics. In later chapters, interviews with these same managers reveal the pressures and personal compromises this work entails, as well as the barriers it creates for others who are prevented by personal or institutional circumstances from having similar influence and career prospects.

Taken as a whole this book usefully extends established forms of critical analysis to new sites in law schools in a range of common law countries. It reveals extensive commonalities between these institutions without recourse to essentialism. Meanwhile, although US universities are not included, the influence of American free-market thinkers such as Milton Friedman is explored and identified as the ideological root from which the withdrawal of public funds from higher education has grown over recent years. Unfortunately, the common thread of state-led and market-mediated privatisation that Thornton focuses on is described with a slew of shibboleths - Americanisation, casualisation, commodification, corporatisation, massification and McDonaldisation - that share the same suffix but do not always extend our understanding of how these changes have altered the balance of public and private goods and bads for all involved in legal education, not just the academics who were interviewed. So while these trends may be evident, these terms have not themselves been critically reviewed. As a consequence of these silences, these epithets foreground the negative and draw attention away from the beneficial changes that have also taken place.

This is not to say that the growth in student numbers is not noted, or that the increased participation in higher education of women and students from ethnic minorities are not remarked upon. All of these things are mentioned. However, these changes are not seen clearly as improvements, and the views of the students and graduates, as well as those of their families, friends, employers and professional colleagues, are not commented on. Perhaps they shouldn't have been; after all, this book is about legal academics and their experiences. On the other hand, perhaps those other viewpoints should have been considered. Indeed, if we want to maintain the public university, perhaps we need to find ways to let the public into the comment and critique.

Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law

By Margaret Thornton

Routledge, 0pp, £75.00

ISBN 9780415677899

Published 12 September 2011

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