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Schools and universities - coming soon to a court near you!

By James McConvill - posted Monday, 21 August 2006

The big story in education last week is that a confidential settlement has been reached between a leading grammar school in Victoria and the parents of a child unhappy with the school’s literacy teaching.

Those in the know have warned that this case could result in an education system burdened by increased litigation by parents against schools, with schools having to be very careful about how they promote their standard of teaching to parents of future students. Not only does the case highlight that education is becoming an area of focus in an increasingly litigious society, but that on a broader level education - at whatever level - has become little more than a product for sale in the market for knowledge and training.

Quality, values and ideals are on the way out. The end result of purchasing the product is all that matters. Education in this country is moving in the same direction as our society more generally. Quantitative reward has become the substitute for qualitative achievement. Education for education’s sake is now seen as a pipe dream of radical hippies; instead pragmatism is the name of the game.


At primary and secondary school level, parents generally now want their children to be shaped like clones to be acceptable to the elite law schools, medical schools and business schools once gaining their leaving certificate. If their children do not get the ENTER score to join one of these elite schools, the curtains of their leafy inner suburban residence must remain drawn. Hence they are prepared to pay through the nose to make sure this does not happen. The private grammar schools clean up as a result.

With lofty notions of education now a relic of the past, and education taking its place alongside shampoo and James Blunt CDs in the consumer market, we must expect that providers of the product will be a target of litigation from now on. If the latest in shampoo technology doesn’t leave one’s hair radiant with shine as promised, the manufacturer is likely to be sued; if the world is far from a student’s oyster once obtaining a leaving certificate, schools should expect to be hit with a writ.

But the case involving the Victorian grammar school should also put universities on high alert. With the 2007 Good Universities Guide, released last week, showing that 96 full-fee paying courses across Australia now cost over $100,000, with five courses exceeding the $200,000 mark, we can expect universities to be dragged through the courts if a disgruntled student, or their well-to-do parents, feel that they have not received sufficient bang for their buck.

The big bang that students and their parents expect in signing up to these sandstone cash-cows is the promise of easy street at the completion of their course. It is promoted, either expressly through advertising campaigns or more subtlety over lunch between old friends, that the caché of having a degree in law, medicine or business from an elite institution will guarantee entry into the finest jobs.

The focus of university marketing today is on getting people into jobs at the end. Johnny wants to pump gas for 25 hours a week with the knowledge that this will become ancient history once he gets through his law degree.

This is where many universities are going to get themselves in trouble. They promise the world, but often cannot even deliver a job to their graduates. In the past, graduates joined the unemployment line at the end of their course with a sense of personal responsibility for their lot in life. If they had been accepted into a more prestigious course, had they studied harder at university, had they worked on their CV, they may be somewhere else.


But this is going to change. It is much easier to blame someone else, particularly if you can point to representations made that you were going to be showered with riches once receiving your testamur. Already in universities today there has been a "dumbing down" in standards as students - burdened by high debts - blame lecturers for making them study for long hours rather than giving them detailed summary notes to make their lives easier; threatening lecturers with poor student evaluations at the end of the semester if they don’t aim their teaching at the lowest common denominator.

Consumer demand is now for university lecture theatres to be one-stop convenience stores. Lecturers in turn have responded to such demand by making classes as user-friendly as possible. It is only a matter of time before the standard line at the end of each lecture is not "please read the next chapter before class", but rather "please come again" like Indian cashier Apu from The Simpsons.

A study I undertook a few years back involved interviewing Victorian law students in their final semester of university. I asked these students two questions: (1) have you applied to work in a law firm at the completion of your degree? and (2) if so, have you secured a job in a law firm?

The results were startling. Out of the students who indicated that they had applied to work in a law firm, only 50 per cent had been successful in obtaining graduate work for the following year. Furthermore, only about one-fifth of those students fortunate enough to secure employment, gained employment with one of the top ten commercial law firms in Melbourne. This is despite the fact that most law schools, and one law school in Victoria in particular, design and market their course to get their students into these firms.

To avoid litigation in the future, what law schools, along with other university faculties, need to be doing is using less of their budget to employ academic staff, and instead pumping their funds into careers officers, marketing officers and the like who spend their time selling the course to future employers, and matching students with jobs that come up. My experience is that most academic staff don’t know where to start when it comes to the practical task of getting their students work.

It is inevitable that litigation will be one of the big issues confronting providers of education into the future. Primary and secondary schools must respond to this change in culture by focusing on the quality of their teaching rather than the colour scheme of their brochures, and universities must get their head out of the sand and actually put some real effort into meeting their promise of getting their graduates jobs.

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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