Images of Law and Legal Education: Law School websites and the provision of information

Images of Law and Legal Education: Law School websites and the provision of information

Graeme Broadbent [1] and Pamela Sellman [2]

Cite as: Broadbent, G., and Sellman, P, 'Images of Law and Legal Education: Law School websites and the provision of information', European Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2013

1. Introduction

As part of a wider study of the various ways in which university law schools represent themselves, law and legal education, one focus of this article is to identify some general features of law school websites. For the purposes of this article, we use the term 'law schools' to include law departments and law faculties. Our study of law school web pages has been carried out initially by accessing law school websites and analysing their content from our standpoint as law lecturers, though future work will involve others with different expertise. We have studied the web pages of 60 of the 90 law schools in England and Wales. Choices of law schools included pre-1992 and post-1992 institutions and were selected randomly from those categories. Our approach was informed partly by the existing literature, both official and unofficial, and partly by information gathered from our own experience. In particular, we draw attention to the tension that exists between the provision of information and material promoting, amongst other things, the law school itself. This has taken on new significance with the requirement (HEFCE 2012a) that, from September 2012, universities must provide Key Information Sets (KIS) to facilitate direct comparison between, in the present context, law schools, and this provides a second focus for this article. We consider the events and sources leading to the advent of the KIS and subject the model that has been devised to critical scrutiny.

2. Law School Websites

Law school websites are important because they are the most likely official source of information for those seeking to find out about particular law schools. They are readily available worldwide and provide instant access for the various people - whether students, actual or prospective, their families and friends, employers, colleagues or anyone else - who may be interested in that law school. They may also be regarded as credible by those accessing them. They are significant in providing the institutional view and one over which the individual law school has a degree of control. Increasingly, there are other sources of information and opinion about law schools, whether official, such as Quality Assurance Authority (QAA) reports, or informal, such as views posted on social networking sites. Some information and opinion about law schools appears to be official but in fact is not; an example would be the league tables compiled by various publications and organisations which have no official standing (Bowden 2000; Turner 2005; Brown 2006; Gunn and Hill 2008). This does not stop law schools making reference to them, especially where they reflect favourably on the law school in question or, with suitable strap lines, can be made to read favourably. For example, being the most improved law school in a particular region may not, when unpacked, be saying much, however impressive it may sound to the uninitiated. It is also evident that families and friends are a source of information about law schools, though how reliable they are is open to question: reputations enjoyed by law schools in the past may not be representative of the current standing; experiences as students at particular law schools may have changed over the years, particularly with the impact of mass higher education.

One significant limitation of law school websites is that they do not provide sector wide information. This was one of the services provided by the United Kingdom Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE) before its unfortunate demise in 2011. The professional bodies - primarily, though not exclusively, the Law Society or the Bar Council - provide information about qualifications relating to their particular occupational group. Law school websites do, however, serve a variety of interests. Whilst often directed - and frequently primarily - at prospective undergraduate and postgraduate students, they are also providers of information to others such as employers, colleagues and researchers. Herein lies a challenge for those designing and populating law school websites: how to provide information that is meaningful and accessible to all those who may, for whatever reasons, wish to access it. One particular aspect of law school websites is that they provide law schools with an opportunity to project their identity through both the form and content of their web pages. They also provide images of law and, to a lesser extent, legal education. Unsurprisingly, we found a wide variety of style, emphasis and content in the websites we accessed. For example, research intensive universities highlighted the strength of their research and performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the quality of their staff as leading experts in their fields. Other law schools emphasised their focus on teaching with particular emphasis on National Student Survey (NSS) scores. Yet others made much of their diversity. These are, however, only images and the reality may differ: the sun does not, for example, shine all year round on any university location. Clegg's (2004) study suggested that law students were sometimes dissatisfied with the way law is taught, thinking that they would be arguing on their feet more of the time, a feeling perhaps reinforced by images of students mooting that populate many of the law school web pages. The overall picture that is presented is one of vibrancy and variety which reflects the ways in which higher education generally has become more divergent in its constituent parts.

There is a great deal of information available on law school websites ranging from formal documentation to more user friendly material. The availability of documents such as programme specifications and module descriptions may serve formal requirements but probably have a limited readership. The style in which they are written, and particularly the use of educational terms and jargon, make them inaccessible in any real sense to many who might access them on the web pages. Indeed, the variety of language used by different law schools may be confusing to the uninitiated. For example, the various use of terms such as 'seminar', 'tutorial' and 'workshop' to describe small classes may be referring to the same thing by a different name or using the same term to describe different things across different law schools; equally, the distinction between 'research led' and 'research informed' teaching may not be apparent to the uninitiated. It is this variety of usage that is reflective of the diversity of the sector yet creates difficulty in making direct comparisons between institutions that has, as discussed below, led to the creation of KIS. The wealth of material that is accessible from law school websites is often fragmented, especially between the law school site and the university site. This poses certain problems as navigation is not always straightforward and links are vulnerable to failure. Websites are not static: a link that was unavailable when we accessed it might be available at a later date, and vice versa. Finding academic staff on the web pages is not always easy as staff details are either not apparently available or they form part of a global or faculty list which does not isolate staff by discipline (for example, Staffordshire University (2012), University of Huddersfield (2012)). It is ironic given that many law schools make much of the quality of their staff that finding out about them can be difficult.

The discussion so far has concentrated on the availability of information, which has been a key concern for both the government and the National Union of Students (NUS) (Oakleigh 2010; Browne 2010). However, law school websites serve purposes other than merely conveying information. They are also a key marketing tool for the law school and, as such, are as much about advertising the law school as they are about providing information about it. In this context, it is of interest to note that digital advertising has, from 1 March 2011, come under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) (ASA 2010), something which may cause institutions to reassess their web pages: although there have been very few complaints to the ASA about university advertising to date, including online material within their remit increases the potential scope for complaints in the future. Further, the advent of higher tuition fees in 2012 may make students - and especially law students - more prone to complain and litigate over aspects of law school promises and provision. It is, in any event, sometimes difficult to disentangle information from propaganda. Providing details of the law school's position in league tables, its RAE scores or its NSS results is, on the one hand, provision of factual information (though what that information means is a wholly different question and is discussed below). It is also, on the other hand, advertising the success of the law school especially where selectively used. Self evidently, law schools will give prominence to those measures that show them in a positive light, and, given the prevalence of such measures - there is, for example, seemingly a league table for virtually anything a university does - law schools can usually find something to boast about. Law schools will, of course, select materials and inevitably the selection varies with each law school. This is as much about the law school highlighting its strengths as about projecting those aspects of its operations that it thinks are valuable given its preferred identity. One facet of this is, however, the need to update information and this is dependent on individual and institutional vigilance which may vary in assiduousness in this task.

Law suffers by comparison with some other disciplines in that it is not inherently visual and so the scope for arresting visual images on web pages is more limited. Indeed, some websites are almost entirely text based. It is unsurprising that the predominant images are of mooting, books and new or distinctive buildings. Gowns and, to a lesser extent, wigs also feature, giving the perhaps misleading impression that law students spend their time in court based activities. Staff photographs, more professional looking than they used to be, are the other main visual image to appear on web pages. There is also the potential for misleading information here as the staff members depicted may only represent a proportion of the people who will be involved in teaching, particularly on undergraduate courses where significant amounts of teaching may be undertaken by postgraduate students. So the people depicted and profiled may not be the people by whom students are actually taught. Some law schools (for example, University of Kent (2012) and Lancaster University (2012)) address this directly and point out that undergraduates will be taught by full-time academics. More widely, there is increasing use of video clips of staff and/or students extolling the virtues of the law school and, often, its location. There are also panoramic virtual tours of campuses, building and other locations, including, in a few instances, webcams (for example, University of Warwick (2012)). Interactivity is limited and seems to be interpreted to mean that there is a clickable menu for users to choose from. Live dialogue or other forms of two way communication did not feature in any of the websites we accessed. With the increased use of informal electronic media communications by students, some law schools are referring to social networking sites such as facebook or twitter (for example, Birmingham University (2012), Essex University (2012), Nottingham Trent University (2012) and University of Portsmouth (2012)).

3. Key Information Sets

Despite the amount of information which is currently available on university web pages, the Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University Report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Understanding the information needs of users of public information about higher education (Oakleigh 2010) concluded that there was a need to make this information more accessible, particularly for prospective students, and hence there was a need to move to a standard format to enable comparisons to be made. The Oakleigh report recommended that a minimum of sixteen information items should be published on websites. The sixteen came from a list of fifty-one information items that were put to focus groups comprising current and prospective students, but the highest ranking sixteen information items were identified as information that prospective students would find 'very useful' when comparing institutions. It was accepted by the Oakleigh report (2010, p.11) that a large amount of information was already available to prospective students but it was 'displaced across a number of sources'. Interestingly, it thought that 'prospective students may not be aware of the importance of many items' (Oakleigh 2010 p.5). This raises the question of whether prospective students are concerned with some of the items raised by the researchers, or are researchers and others assuming that particular items should be important to prospective students?

The Oakleigh (2010) recommendation to move toward more readily available information was embraced by the Browne Review(2010). The Review reiterated that, in its view also, there were gaps in the information available to prospective students and that the information which was available was 'spread across many different sources' (2010, p.31). It argued that greater student choice would improve quality but in order to have such choice, students needed to be able to compare institutions and to have the information in an easily accessible format to facilitate this. The joint publication by HEFCE, Universities UK and GuildHE, Provision of information about higher education (HEFCE 2011, p.4) set out 'how it intended to improve the accessibility and usefulness of information about higher education'. This publication endorsed the earlier recommendations for the establishment of KIS for undergraduate courses (though not postgraduate), whether full-time or part-time, in institutions providing higher education. The 2011 white paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System (BIS 2011) emphasised the need for accountability of the public-private partnership in higher education to both students and taxpayers. Included in this accountability was the need for universities to give greater information to prospective students in order for them to make comparisons between institutions. The white paper anticipated that, as students became more discerning, they would need information on websites in an easily comparable format, hence the need for the development of KIS (BIS 2011, p.29).This information was to be complemented by the Unistats website (Unistats 2012), a government sponsored website, and a wider set of information. This latter source can be divided into: (i) information which will be available internally, i.e. to students and staff; (ii) information available on request; and (iii) information to be found on universities' websites (BIS 2011, p.30).

This move toward giving prospective students greater and more accessible information on which to base their choice of university is to be commended. Properly informed decision making is self evidently a desirable objective. Students are bound to benefit more from attending a university, and studying a particular course, if they are really engaged from the beginning of their higher educational studies and more readily accessible information will assist in this process. But it is the way in which information is provided that may cause problems. All law schools have websites which provide information on the various programmes offered to prospective students, but as discussed above the websites vary as to the general and specific information provided on them. Some websites are more user friendly than others, while others require hitting more links in order to retrieve information. But whatever the idiosyncrasies of the different websites, all have the common theme of containing information amid marketing material to attract prospective students to the law school and to inform the wider community.

We will concentrate on the KIS because this is the information now made available in a standard format and which has been identified as very useful to prospective students. In discussing the results, it should be borne in mind that the Oakleigh respondents, the participants in the focus groups, covered the whole spectrum of subject disciplines and their views may not be wholly reflective of the priorities of law students; indeed, the conclusions will inevitably be unfocussed. The Oakleigh report listed 16 of the 51 'information items' that were ranked by respondents as 'very useful', but for the highest ranking only 54.4 per cent of the participants in the focus groups thought this was relevant to making a decision about where to attend university (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). The information item in the number one spot was: the 'proportion of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the standard of teaching' (Oakleigh 2010 p.4), a phrase with obvious links to the NSS. Just below, at 50.5 per cent was the second highest ranking information item: 'proportion of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with their course' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4), a phrase again linking to the NSS. The report pointed out that, at just 55 per cent for the highest ranking information items, 'prospective students may not be aware of the importance of many items of information to them, if they are to make an informed decision about going to HE' (Oakleigh 2010 p.5). Perhaps rather than not being aware, prospective students do not find these information items particularly important as they are basing their decisions on other criteria.

The third highest ranking information item, with 44.6 per cent of the participants, finding this 'very useful' was the 'proportion of students in employment in the first year after completing the course' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). Within the current economic climate it can be expected that this will become more important to prospective students, and may well be a factor in deterring people from applying to university. A few ranks down the list, but connected to the employment issue, was the seventh 'very useful' rank: 40.5 per cent of the respondents indicated that it was very useful to know the 'proportion of students employed in a full-time professional or managerial job one year after completing this course' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). This might not be particularly relevant to the prospective law student who has aspirations of practising as a lawyer and would, therefore, need to continue with either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) after successfully completing the undergraduate degree. Further down the ranking list, at number twelve, were 35.1 per cent of participants who thought that it was very useful to know the 'average salary in the first year after completing this course' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). Presumably, this would be course specific. For example, students on courses not requiring further study before commencing employment might want to know the average salary within a year of completing the course but, again, this would not be so relevant to the prospective law student who has aspirations of practising as a lawyer and needs to complete vocational training after the undergraduate degree. Even if this information item is relevant to prospective students, it might prove to be problematic for universities to obtain this information unless they have strong links with their alumni, as graduates may not stay in contact with their universities and some graduates might not want to supply this information.

Due to the increased tuition fees, together with the current economic climate, it is not surprising that the 'very useful' rank includes the 'maximum available bursary' (although only 34.5 per cent of participants ranked this as a very useful comparator); and the 'cost of halls of residence' (37.7 per cent) (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). Just two ranks below the 'maximum available bursary' is the information item, the 'maximum household income for eligibility for a bursary' (33.3 per cent) (Oakleigh 2010, p.5). Nestling in between the two information items relating to bursaries is the 'proportions of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the IT facilities' (33.6 per cent) (Oakleigh 2010, p.5). In our experience, students attending universities today are usually very familiar with technical/digital equipment and, therefore, it might have been expected that this would be higher in the ranking of 'very useful' information items. However, it may well be that this particular information item did not rank higher because many prospective students would be intending to use their own equipment. Interestingly, coming above the IT facilities is the information item relating to the 'proportions of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the library facilities' (40.1per cent) (Oakleigh 2010, p.4), a matter of particular interest to law students, given that law is still essentially a library based discipline. Although, in our experience, a greater number of students are using the internet for finding information, they may still want the paper based resources but, of course, the library facilities would include e-journals. However, would prospective students gain any real advantage from knowing that the proportion of students in one university is more satisfied with library facilities than the proportion of students in another university? The results say as much about the respondents as they do about the institution and may reflect different priorities. Such a comparison might be relevant to an overview of the university's capacity to provide for students but library resources will, again, be course specific.

An information item which would seem to be important to many lecturers these days, because of the regular discussions around feedback (Adcroft 2010), is the 'proportion of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with their feedback on assessment' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4) yet only 41.7 per cent of those taking part in the focus groups listed it as 'very useful'. There is the continual problem of what is meant by 'feedback'? For some students, feedback might only be seen as relating to summative assessments, whereas for others it would include feedback after formative assessments and feedback in class discussions. For others, it is simply the mark they have received (Bermingham and Hodgson 2006). For many lecturers, feedback includes discussions throughout the year, but in our experience this does not seem to be the view of many students who complete end of module questionnaires. It is not surprising to see 'weekly hours of teaching contact time' on the list, but it is perhaps surprising to see only 37.6 per cent of participants ranking this as a very useful Information item (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). There is a danger that studying in higher education is seen as predominantly classroom based, as it is at school, whereas the move to the more independent learning required at university means that more work is done outside the classroom. The information that appears here is essentially quantitative, giving little indication, other than a general description, of what activities take place during those hours. Additionally, class sizes are not indicated as part of KIS and it may be difficult to ascertain accurate figures anyway (Grove 2012). What students are doing during those hours is important in determining how effective they are: a simplistic idea that more hours of class contact equal a better student experience may also shade into the economic argument that hours in the classroom are being paid for by means of tuition fees and fewer hours in the classroom may look like giving less value for money.

It might be expected that information about scheduled learning activities would be a higher priority with the need for many students to work at part-time, and perhaps even full-time, jobs during their time at university (Curtis and Shani 2002; Hutchings 2003; Cuthbert 2005). This need to work at outside jobs may often be the reason for students asking for the early release of timetables. The white paper (BIS 2011, p.26) refers to the variations in student workloads by subject and for Law the highest institutional mean is 44.8 hours a week, and the lowest is 18.7 hours a week, drawing on data from a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) (Sastry and Bekhradnia, 2007; a more recent study from the same source revealed largely similar figures: Bekhradnia 2012). The white paper also recognises that 'institutions can approach course teaching in very different ways' (BIS 2011, p.26) but how are prospective students supposed to compare such statistics? It is argued that 'potential applicants and employers should know how much time will be spent on different learning and teaching activities before they select a course' (BIS 2011, p.26) but the need to have a standard format advertised on a website risks restricting the organic development of new courses. Such information on the website is not necessarily going to give the prospective student, or their adviser, the means to compare institutions. Ranked at number five, with 43.6 per cent is the 'proportions of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the support and guidance they received' (Oakleigh 2010, p.4). There is no clarification as to what amounts to 'support and guidance'. This could be support and guidance relating to their academic studies, future careers, or support and guidance related to financial issues, health, housing or social life. This piece of information will, therefore, presumably be coloured by the reader's need at the time of accessing the information.

The remaining information items that are ranked as 'very useful' in the top sixteen Items are: 'professional bodies which recognise this course' (44.6 per cent); 'proportion of the assessment that is by coursework' (35.2 per cent); and the 'proportion of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the Student Union' (34.7 per cent) (Oakleigh 1020, p.4). We are not surprised that the coursework assessment and recognition by professional bodies are included in the top sixteen 'very useful' information items given that the respondents are students or prospective students. A student's decision on an elective sometimes seems to be influenced by whether the elective is to be assessed by coursework or by examination. Recognition by professional bodies is important for law schools, and, for the vast majority who offer the qualifying law degree, this is a given. The satisfaction with the Student Union could be in their role as representatives of the student body, or in arranging a social lifestyle on campus. There is no indication of the criteria to be applied when reaching this judgement.

As the Oakleigh report (2010, p.7) points out, prospective students are 'not a homogeneous group' and it is clear that 'a large majority who looked for information ….found it' while 'many…. do not look for information even when they think it would be very useful' (2010, p.6). It is also important to remember that prospective students will come from a variety of backgrounds and have various reasons for wanting to attend university and, in particular, to study law. If prospective students are first generation higher education students, they may need more information or more explanation of the information they receive than people who are coming from a background of expectation of attending university. As many prospective students will seek advice from other individuals, as well as looking at websites, it is important to remember that websites appeal to people beyond individual applicants. The Oakleigh report recognised (2010, p.11) that 'most of the information items are already available in the public domain' but they are not located in one source. But even the KIS will be complemented by wider information available from sources such as UCAS or Unistats. The standard format for the KIS on universities' websites may affect the marketing styles of individual institutions, but could just be seen as an extra set of information to be included in the websites. The more worrying aspect of this information which universities are now required to include on their websites is that it is purely quantitative, with no context or explanation. It is, of course, important to move to more transparency and greater accessibility for the prospective students who are making choices about which university law school to attend, but it is equally important to remember that the list of information items is not the whole story for any law school.

4. Some Residual Issues

4.1 Assumptions

The KIS seem to rest on the assumption that if information is provided then users of law school websites will have readily comparable data and will be able to understand or make choices based on those data. As we have argued, however, merely making information available is of limited use as it lacks context and explanation. Law schools already make assumptions, consciously or otherwise, that, for example, readers of their material are familiar with educational terminology, a dangerous assumption in areas where there is not uniform usage. Even terms which have traditionally had a shared meaning are subject to change. The designation 'professor', for example, which historically denoted a leading figure in the field, is now adopted to cover not only those with expertise based on research but also by heads of school or practitioners. The use of acronyms also presupposes that they are widely understood. The official documents make much of the need for information, advice and guidance. The KIS requirements address the first of these three, but not the other two. Whilst there is encouragement to develop better careers advice (BIS 2011 pp.56-58) it remains the case that, in the absence of uniformly strong careers advisers, inequalities will be perpetuated in that those with access to the best advice will be able to engage with the information provided in a more informed way.

4.2 Selections and Omissions

The issue of who selects the material that appears on law school web pages is not as straightforward as might at first appear. It might be expected that this would be the law school itself or, at least, some members of the school. The content is subject to external requirements of either the university, often in the interests of branding or corporate identity, or agencies such as QAA which require documents such as programme specifications to be accessible to the public (QAA 2012). These were not the most prominent of documents in the websites we accessed, nor is it easy to imagine that readers from outside the educational world would necessarily find them readily digestible. They differ from the type of material that may be found in prospectuses in that they are seen (QAA 2012) as consisting purely of information rather than also including marketing material. The same is true of the material required for KIS, which is largely raw data devoid of context or explanation, thus only providing part of the picture. More widely, the selection of material for the KIS was made largely on the basis of the Oakleigh (2010) research, which seems to have been accepted at face value by both Browne (2010) and the white paper (BIS 2011). Its data were based, as discussed above, on responses to specific questions and therefore reflected not only the selection of questions but also the responses. It may be that certain types of information were omitted or not felt to be important by respondents to the Oakleigh survey, either because it was already readily available or because it was not in the consciousness of the respondents.

The Oakleigh report necessarily took a very broad brush approach to the question of what information was felt to be most important by those responding, essentially based on a majoritarian approach. This means that the interests of minorities may not be specifically catered for by the KIS. If we take student applicants as a target audience for the KIS, then some significant groups may not find material that is of particular interest to them. Studies on access have suggested that groups such as mature applicants or applicants from minority ethnic groups have an interest in the composition of the student cohort (for example, Burke (2002); Bowl (2003)). Thus, information about the age profile of the student body and its ethnic composition would be of interest to such applicants but is not part of KIS. More widely, given the emphasis on social mobility contained in the white paper (BIS 2011, ch.5) and the enhanced role of OFFA in widening participation in higher education that it establishes (BIS 2011, ch.5), to say nothing of monitoring under the Equality Act 2010, it would be of interest to a broader audience to see the composition of the student body. Other omissions from the KIS include any reference to research. This may seem odd, for while the nature of the link between research and teaching has been widely debated, most commentators agree that there is a positive link between the two (for example, Brew and Boud (1995); Elton (2001); Barnett (2005)). It may, therefore, be relevant for prospective students to have, for example, RAE ratings, to help them in their choices. These are, of course, subject to the same criticism, namely that the raw scores do not provide a complete picture of the research profile of that law school - they do not, for instance, include the proportion of staff submitted - and require interpretation to enable meaningful comparisons to be made.

4.3 Focus

There is a marked contrast in the wishes of students for very specific information and the provision of information by law schools (Fearn 2010; Oakleigh 2010). This is reflected in some of the KIS requirements resulting from the Oakleigh (2010) research, such as information about class contact hours. Some information, such as timetables, which are not required by KIS, were felt to be important by some of the respondents in Bowl's (2003) and Burke's (2002) studies. The respondents in these studies were mature students, mainly female, many of whom had domestic responsibilities and for whom this information would be valuable. However, bearing in mind that many of them were applying for full time courses for which there might be an expectation of availability, if not actual attendance, for a normal working week, (something emphasised on some law school web pages; for example, University of Bristol 2012), provision of timetables may not have been that helpful. Employers, by contrast, are seemingly more interested in matters relating to individual students and their abilities and skills (Oakleigh 2010) rather than matters relating to their courses, something that will be addressed in more detail when the traditional degree classifications, which provide very blunt information, are replaced by higher education achievement reports (HEAR) (HEFCE 2012) which will provide more detailed information. They are also, it seems, more interested than their student counterparts in matters such as research collaboration and the research strengths (Oakleigh 2010).

There is a strong economic focus in the white paper (BIS 2011) which reflects the emphasis that successive governments have taken, namely that higher education is primarily about feeding the national economy by producing graduates and research and by improving the individual economic position of individuals by enabling them to earn more across the lifecourse (DfES 2003; BIS 2011). It is also a document located in a time of economic difficulty and makes the point that higher education cannot escape government spending cuts (Allen and Broadbent 2012). The other focus is consumerist. As we have seen, a fundamental tenet of the KIS is the idea that by giving students information they will be able to make informed choices about higher education. Students are thus perceived as consumers of educational products, a tendency that has been further developed by the appearance of the Which? Guide to universities (Which? 2012). A National Consumer Council survey in 2005 (Mayo) suggested that young people in the 10-19 age bracket were sophisticated consumers aware of their rights and we might expect that they would bring this mentality with them to university, a tendency exacerbated by the increases in tuition fees. Whilst such notions of consumerism have been contested by writers such as Barnett (1997) and Morley (2003, 2003a), the idea of the student as consumer is embedded in higher education discourse and the KIS are a further manifestation of it. We may also expect to see consumer-like behaviour escalate as the higher tuition fees come into effect, encouraged by a government that wishes to move to a situation where universities are required to explain to the public what they are spending their money on (BIS 2011 ch.2). As to choice, this is, especially in the case of gaining a place in a university law school, limited by a variety of factors, discussed by Broadbent and Allen (2011, p.234). Again, the mere provision of information will not facilitate informed choice by prospective law students unless they are in the happy position of understanding these things unaided or have access to advisers, such as careers tutors able to advise on law degrees and legal careers, who can explain what the information means.

4.4 Inequalities

The last point highlights the dangers of simply perpetuating inequalities whilst apparently trying to reduce them. The ability to understand the meaning of the information presented, whether by KIS or by law schools themselves, depends on the level of familiarity the reader has with the system of higher education and the context in which the information presented is lodged. Those with high levels of familiarity with the system of higher education, and of law schools in particular, or with access to such knowledge, will be privileged whilst those without these attributes will be disadvantaged.

5. Conclusions

Law school websites serve a number of purposes. One is to project the variety of law schools in the UK, each with its own distinctive identity. Of course, all accent the positive aspects of what they do and as such do not provide a balanced picture of themselves, of the law or of legal education. The regrettable demise of UKCLE has meant that a location for an overview of legal education in particular and the gathering of information into one place has been removed without a ready replacement to provide sector wide material. The variety of information available on individual law school websites has been largely determined either by the law school or at least by some arm of the institution and as such reflects local priorities. Indeed, ownership of law school web pages, how they are designed and what they contain is a contentious issue, with potential tensions between corporate and individual wishes. Outside interference in the form and content of web pages has, to date, been limited, but the trend to require institutions to provide certain information in certain formats is gathering pace. The advent of KIS may be seen as part of this wider process. Whilst facilitating comparisons between law schools may be seen as a desirable objective, it is to be hoped that this process does not escalate to replace what we perceive to be the current collection of distinctive and varied websites with bland uniformity.


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[1] Graeme Broadbent is Senior Lecturer in Law, Kingston Law School, Kingston University

[2] Pamela Sellman is Principal Lecturer in Law, Kingston Law School, Kingston University