Portraying those who rely on lecture recordings as lazy does a disservice to the many of us who have valid reasons for not attending class, writes a group of University of Auckland law students.
Last week, in an attempt to address low attendance at lectures, Victoria University of Wellington announced that lecture recordings will no longer be available by default to second year law students studying core papers. While at other levels lecturers can set their own rules on recordings, in many cases the burden is now on students to tell their teachers why they require them.
Following the announcement, a number of University of Auckland law faculty wrote a Newsroom opinion column in support of the move, which they said was “something different” and a “courageous” attempt to address a “growing crisis” in legal education. On RNZ, an interview with Victoria University lecturer Dr Grant Morris which focused mostly on the benefits of vibrant university campus life was headlined on the website “How qualified will Covid affected law students be when they graduate?”
As law students at the University of Auckland, we believe it is important to reframe this debate away from questioning the competence and qualifications of law students who have passed the required assessments under challenging circumstances. Instead, we want to focus on the common ground we share with our lecturers and express the concerns of the student community. Legal education, and indeed legal practice, has reached an inflection point. Students want to work out a pathway forward, together with our lecturers.
We want to first make clear that law students are subject to rigorous qualification requirements set by the Council of Legal Education. Notwithstanding Covid-19 disruptions and long periods in lockdown, students have still met these requirements. We have passed exams, often under digital invigilation. We have been assessed on our oral advocacy skills through moots – simulated court hearings – either in person or on Zoom. Students have shown resilience and determination to continue to work towards an academically rigorous degree in conditions that have been far from ideal. That adaptability is, in our view, an important quality in any lawyer.
But it has not been lost on law students that our experience of law school has been different than those who came before us. We agree with Dr Morris that the “holistic university experience is so much more than just the lectures”. Despite still achieving and succeeding virtually, law students recognise the further value of discussing complex issues and learning with our peers beyond Facebook groups chats. We also want to attend Don McGlashan concerts and experience the vibrant campus life which was so memorable for our lecturers when they were our age. Students recognise the value that interactive class time and the ability to discuss concepts with experienced lecturers adds to our training. And so in an ideal world, lecture theatres would be full.
The issue we as law students have with Victoria University’s decision is the assumptions underlying it. The idea that low attendance is caused by students’ penchant for “wagging school”, conveniently facilitated by the availability of recordings, is simply not reflective of lived student experience. There will be some students who rely on recordings as a matter of personal study choice, but for many other students it is a question of necessity.
Student allowance does not meet the cost of living, so many students need to work additional hours on top of full-time study. Other students who struggle with disability, chronic illness, mental illness or family commitments cannot regularly attend campus. Public transport options to and from university are often limited and unreliable. Many university buildings are not fully accessible and there are ongoing concerns about Covid, especially among those with health vulnerabilities.
These are also factors that increasingly stratify our cohort. Law school is more accessible when you have access to financial support from your family, do not have to care for dependents, or are well and able-bodied. These are factors that will not be altered without structural change. We see the clear value of attending engaging and interactive classes, but we also know that lecture recordings are a small way to ameliorate systemic accessibility concerns. If recordings are no longer available some students may be encouraged back to campus. But it will do a disservice to those for whom law school is already inaccessible.
Those are the people the legal profession needs: people with diverse life experiences and an understanding of the barriers marginalised people in society face. We want a legal profession that includes these people, so we are committed to our law school including them too. We want to work alongside our faculty to find workable solutions to student engagement and success – ones that do not ask students to explain personal circumstances they may not feel comfortable sharing.
There are ways students can be reengaged without cutting off lecture recordings. Solutions could include improving spaces on campus, lobbying for an increase to student allowance, making use of tutorial times (where questions can be asked freely, unlike in 400+ person lectures), implementing online question tools such as Piazza, introducing regular feedback sessions on how teaching is going, and more creative assessments that challenge students to stay up to date with material.
We agree with our lecturers that legal education should be discursive, communal, enlightening, engaging. But to achieve that goal we need to work together, to find a solution that works for everyone.