The Australian National University’s proposal to charge $9000 for the nine-month Legal Workshop course is most welcome. Not because it is a worthwhile proposal, quite the contrary, but because it will stir up much needed debate about the whole nature of legal education in Australia and the whole nature of university funding.

Two decades ago, courses like Legal Workshop were set up around Australian university law schools to give a period of practical legal education after four or five years of Socratic, academic education leading to the Bachelor of Laws degree.

Before that, law graduates did a year or so as an articled clerk or “”read” with a barrister for a year or so before become eligible to practise.

The Legal Workshop approach had some advantages over the articled-clerk approach. The workshop attracted the full range of practising lawyers to give instruction in the practicalities of family, property, contract, succession and other areas of the law. An articled clerk might be condemned to serve a year with a suburban lawyer who did nothing but conveyancing.

however, once a $9000 price tag is placed upon that education, the balance in the equation changes. Given a law graduate might get $20,000 or so as an articled-clerk slave, some might prefer that method of getting into the profession. And the profession would be the poorer for it. Or they might cop the $9000 fee, do the Legal Workshop, and hope to recoup it later in higher legal fees to the public.

Of course, it may well be argued that lawyers are in the higher end of income brackets in Australia, so why shouldn’t they pay for the education that gets them there? Well, they already do pay through the HECS scheme for the basic degree.

The high level of the fee indicates that the ANU, like other universities, is so punch drunk by short-sighted government funding policies that it has to sniff around for whatever takings it can get. The pickings at the foot of the entrance to the legal profession seem the easiest and the most lucrative.

The philosophic base of education funding, and therefore education itself, has had a revolution for the worse in Australia in the past decade. Narrow ideas of user pays and domination of vocational and industry training are not the way to engender a clever country. Australia should return to a more generous view of education. In dollopping education about liberally and freely there may be a little wastage here and there, but there will be far less wastage than denying ready willing and able students from taking part in a course just because they haven’t go the money.

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