Not so wonderful Copenhagen
Friday, May 5, 2017
Justinian in Education, Student-at-Large, Universities

Denmark ... Great at furniture design, but wanting in legal education ... Maybe it's because university education is free ... (N.B. Malcolm Turnbull) ... An LLM exchange student looks for the rigour ... Hygge more important than a high paying job ... Hannah Wootton files from Copenhagen 

University of Copenhagen: could try harder

Scandinavia has long been the go-to example of anyone wanting to cite ideal ways of living, governing and working. From happiness to social welfare to schooling, the "Scandi" approach gets a lot right.

Imagine my surprise to find that, as an exchange student at the University of Copenhagen, Australian law schools seem to offer a much better education than their Scandinavian counterparts.

Ideally, university expands students' minds, challenges their ideas and provides educational discipline. In Australia, this comes from rigorous assessment, stimulating lectures and intellectual investment from students.

This does not seem to be a priority in Copenhagen.

In terms of workload, for example, my LLM electives in Copenhagen have just 4,500 words of assessment. They are worth more credit points towards my degree than those at my home university, yet have about half as much marked work.

While it is possible to gain a lot from a subject beyond the material that is examined, assessment generally is what pushes students to gain a comprehensive understanding of a course. It requires students to go to a deeper level of engagement.

A 4,500 word essay that focuses on only part of the course means students can get away with not developing this level of understanding.

Practically, this limits the reliability of university degrees as far as employers are concerned. 

More importantly, it means students are not pushed to get as much as possible from their education. If you can get away with doing less work, most people will. 

Opportunities to gain as much as possible from classes and lectures are under-utilised in Denmark.

At most Australian law schools, getting through all your subjects without attending lectures or tutorials is very difficult. At my university you can't pass without attending a certain percentage of your classes. Furthermore, contributions are often a marked assessment element. 

Before coming to Copenhagen, I thought this was harsh. Indeed, compulsory participation is a controversial topic due to valid concerns regarding its impacts on mental health and fairness to students.

Having witnessed the alternative, mandating participation is much better than having zero participation. Here, students rarely show up to class. I have seminars in which some students have only attended once.

When they do show up, it is unusual for people to actively contribute in an argumentative or analytical way. Although we discuss the readings, contributions rarely go beyond the surface.

The obvious impact is that class discussion is less stimulating compared to Australian universities (at least, the ones I have attended). On a practical level, it also limits the development of professional skills. Argument, analysis and inquiry are central the the discipline of law. These skills are arguably as important to professional success as knowledge of the law itself.

Employers know this. Many of the major firms here actively court international students in the hope of employing them, knowing that most possess a strong set of legal skills as a result of a rigorous education. 

It is not clear why there is such an apathetic approach to law school here.

One of my lecturers, originally from the UK, believes that the lack of involvement in law school stems from university being free. He argues that since there is no financial investment by students, they do not lose anything tangible by not fully utilising the education on offer.

Another argument is that students just care less about marks and academic development than in other countries. There is less pressure to gain employment that is financially or intellectually fulfilling.

The social welfare net combined with high taxation means that there is less difference in income levels of various jobs than in Australia, leading to less incentive to get high-paying work.

In Scandinavia there is a greater emphasis on finding happiness and personal meaning than having a "fulfilling" job. Hygge (core to Danish concepts of happiness) is about enjoying the small moments in life. These do not come from work, rather from recreational time.

Consequently, Scandinavian students do not experience the levels of depression and anxiety that are endemic in Australian law schools.

Legal education is supposed to be challenging and mind-expanding. As great as Scandinavia is at so many things, it is a great pity that it does not utilise this opportunity to its full potential. 

[Here's another version of Copenhagen - "salty old Queen of the sea". Take it away Danny Kaye ...]

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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