C’s get degrees: the extra tough law school grading at Victoria University

Victoria University has this week been shown to award significantly more C and D grades to its law students than the Universities of Auckland and Otago. But does it matter?

C’s get degrees, never more so than at the law faculty of Victoria University of Wellington. Oscar Battell-Wallace is in his final year of a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Arts at Victoria and has this week shared data to prove it. He has obtained all grades handed down by the law faculties at three New Zealand’s leading universities; University of Auckland, University of Otago, and Victoria University of Wellington. The results present a clear trend. Victoria University’s law faculty awards grades – prima facie – far tougher than the Universities of Auckland and Otago.

The data includes all marks given for compulsory papers at each law faculty from 2013 to 2017. All statistics were obtained pursuant to the Official Information Act 1982.

(Graphic: Oscar Battell-Wallace)

Some key points:

Across all first year law papers, The University of Otago awarded 30.94% of students an A grade (A+, A, A-). By comparison, University of Auckland awarded 23.17%, and Victoria University just 10.67%.

Of the marks given by Otago University, 51% were B+ or above, 27% C+ or below.

Of the marks given by Auckland University, 40% were B+ or above, 33% C+ or below.

Of the marks given by Victoria University, 19% were B+ or above, 52% C+ or below.

One paper – second year Contract Law – at Victoria University showed an 17% fail rate, 10% for failed submissions and 7% for those who did not complete the course.

The next highest fail rate in a second year paper was for Criminal Law at Victoria (8%) and Property Law (7%) at Otago.

(Graphic: Oscar Battell-Wallace)

The data shows huge disparities between the percentage of high passes (A range) across the three faculties. With nearly one third of Otago grades being in the A range and just over 10% of Victoria’s. Of the three universities, Otago Law is the only one that doesn’t officially grade on a curve.

Grading on a curve is a way of assigning marks that allows for normal distribution, meaning no faculty can give every student an A, or fail everyone. A standard grading curve would mean some students get very high marks, some get very low, and most get an average pass.

While Auckland and Victoria don’t adhere to a strict bell curve in grading, they naturally appear. Auckland’s scale is less related to individual marks and more to ranges, like A range, B range, and C range. Tutors are given guidelines to mark approximately 15-20% in the A range, 15-20% in the C range (or below) and the majority in the B range.

This curve exists across the three faculties, with the B range being where majority of marks are given, but when broken down into individual grades, the differences emerge. Auckland and Otago give more B+’s than any other mark. Meanwhile, Victoria’s most common grade is B-. The difference between a B+ and a B- can be as much as 14%.

Could it be that students enrolled in law at Otago are simply smarter? It’s unlikely. Otago’s Dean of Law Jessica Palmer isn’t sure why their grading appears so much more generous.

“In terms of the grading, I’m a new dean but my understanding is that the deans from across the country have been in conversation with the council of legal education to make sure that their marking in these compulsory courses is as consistent as possible.”

(Graphic: Oscar Battell-Wallace)

While Otago students appear to be outperforming the rest of the country in first year papers, the same cannot be said for those same students in second year law. The A range pass rate drops from over 30% to 10%, a drop that the faculty has been actively working to amend. “We’ve been making an effort to have a look at our second year marks,” said Palmer. “We’d been concerned for several years that they were, in fact, lower. We were giving out fewer A’s . It’s not that we’ve been deliberate about it but we’ve been aware of the fact that we need to make sure we’re seeing some more A’s coming through.”

Even with a history of apparently low grading, Otago still, on average, grades its second year law students higher than Victoria.

Law is a notoriously competitive field of study, with over half of first year students failing to gain acceptance into a programme. Victoria University caps its second-year Law courses at 330 students. In 2017, 772 were enrolled in LAWS 121.

Fortunately for students at Victoria University, they are only competing among themselves for spots in the second-year law programme, but the same cannot be said for clerkships later on in the course. Thousands of law students around the country compete for limited clerkships at the top law firms. With no relevant work experience to speak of, applicants rely heavily on their academic transcripts to secure an interview.

The combined gradings at each level paint Victoria as a startlingly tough marker, which is true. But the data is skewed thanks to one course in particular: LAWS 211 – The Law of Contract. Where the traditional grading curve shows the majority of marks received in the B grade range for all papers across all three faculties, LAWS 211 at Victoria had a majority of marks received in the C grade range and a huge 17.9% fail rate. Remove LAWS 211 from the data and Victoria is still clearly the toughest grader but the gap is far less shocking.

(Graphic: Oscar Battell-Wallace)

When asked if the VUW law faculty, upon hearing the results of the data, considered their low grading and high fail rates to be an issue, a university spokesperson responded. “The Victoria University LLB is a challenging, high-quality degree and our standards are robust. A law degree from Victoria University of Wellington is held in high regard by employers nationally and internationally, and we are very confident of the opportunities it provides for our graduates.”

It’s hard to determine the exact reasons behind the different grading across the faculties. Perhaps there’s a pride in being “tough”, only accepting the best. Perhaps there’s some grade inflation happening everywhere but Victoria. Perhaps some universities simply attract smarter students. There’s no way to know for sure. But what is certain is there’s a difference. And does that difference matter to employers?

The Spinoff sought, but did not receive, comment from six of the biggest law firms in the country. If you’re an employer, of law students or any student, how much do university grades impact hiring decisions? Let us know: madeleine@thespinoff.co.nz.

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