Less Cramming, More Depth
The Faculty of Law at UZH is making fundamental changes to its programs that will go into effect in the Fall Semester of 2021. We sat down with Alain Griffel, Vice Dean of Studies, to better understand the goals of the upcoming reform..
Law degrees will be overhauled for the third time already in the Fall Semester of 2021. What needed to be changed again?
Alain Griffel: We have to adapt the structure of our study programs to the university’s model framework ordinance. We’re using this opportunity to optimize the law study program with a view to the future and to correct existing flaws from previous reforms. When we transitioned to the Bologna system from 2004 to 2006, it was a very fast process, and we didn’t have any experience with the new system. The next reform from 2010 to 2013 only impacted the Bachelor’s programs.
Has the Bologna system failed?
You can’t answer that question with a simple yes or a no. It always depends on how a particular course of study is structured within the given framework. When it comes to studying law, the Bologna reforms have led to some changes for the worse but also to some improvements. Along with Vienna, we’re the biggest law school in the German-speaking world, so we had additional challenges to overcome just based on our size.
What are the weaknesses of the Bologna system?
One negative change for me is that students and teachers are now prioritizing credit points above all else. Collecting ECTS credits and cramming for exams seems to be the way of doing things these days. One improvement in my opinion is that students take their studies much more seriously, which is a good thing. It’s no longer possible to study while working elsewhere with an 80% part-time job like in the previous system.
What is going to change for students with the current reform?
When the Bologna system was introduced, the assumption was that the Bachelor’s degree would be the standard university qualification and that only a few academically inclined students would go on to do the Master’s. Previously, there was no Bachelor’s degree, so this resulted in the Faculty of Law packing all the content of the previous course of study into the new Bachelor’s program and offering specializations and numerous additional modules for the Master’s level. But in 2006, the Master’s degree became a requirement for being admitted to the bar, and by that time it was too late to change the structure of the study programs.
The upcoming reforms will solve this issue. We are establishing the Master’s degree as the standard degree, as most students end up obtaining this degree in order to take the bar exam. And we’re returning to the idea of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees being parts of the same whole. So, the course content will be distributed evenly throughout the two degree programs, and some compulsory modules will be moved to the Master’s program. This is why students will now have to complete compulsory modules at the Master’s level as well.
Doesn’t this amount to treating Master’s students like schoolchildren and taking away their freedom of choice?
It depends on your perspective. Under the current system, there are more than a few students who feel overwhelmed by having to choose from the immense range of Master’s modules on offer. It’s a question that doesn’t exactly come with an instruction manual. And if students choose the path of least resistance, then it’s possible to put together a relatively easy à la carte Master’s study program, maybe with good grades. But this can end up backfiring in the real world. At the beginning of the reforms, a district court president asked us, “What good is it if a student has a 5.5 grade point average in their Master’s studies but didn’t take any subjects relevant to actual court practice? They won't even be invited to an interview.”
And even though we're now limiting the choices in the Master’s program, students can still choose 36 credit points of module courses and 12 credit points in the basic subjects. So we’re achieving a healthy balance between solid training and the freedom to choose your own areas of focus.
You often hear people saying that students don't have enough knowledge to make it in their careers...
That always depends on what standards you set. Courts and law firms take on students as interns to introduce them to the day-to-day realities of work and train them in a hands-on way. A university can’t afford to do this. On the other hand, thanks to a broad-based evaluation we did with professionals from the legal field, we have definitely realized that we can do more to guide students toward the practical side of things.
This is also the main impetus of the current reform. We want to get the most out of basic university education and enrich it with more skills in practical methods. Aspiring legal professionals should be well equipped to think like specialists in their field and to deal with complex issues so that they are able to solve legal problems to the best extent possible. Some subjects, like real-world civil law, are being given more attention. As a tendency, we are aiming for less breadth and for a more in-depth, interconnected approach.
How are students and instructors reacting to the changes?
Members of the teaching staff have been heavily involved in the process. In the end, it’s about redistributing a pie that has already been distributed – something that isn’t totally painless. However, all of the Faculty Assembly’s concepts and resolutions have been strongly endorsed up till now.
There hasn't really been any criticism from the students yet. They’ll only feel the impact of the transition phase three semesters from now. If they do a bit of planning and take ownership of their studies, they can make the change to the new Master’s structure a positive experience. They still have three semesters to prepare. We intentionally designed the transitional regulations to be very flexible so that we can continue to ensure the quality of instruction and avoid hardship cases.
What are the next steps? What remains to be done?
We have a detailed concept and now still need to work out the program regulations. The framework ordinance was already approved by the Faculty Assembly last December.
The 2021 program reform at a glance:
• The assessment level (1st year) of the law degree program is being changed to place more emphasis on legal methodology and academic writing.
• The course content of the advanced levels (2nd to 3rd year) will be slimmed down.
Some modules will be shifted to the Master’s program.
• The current specialized Master’s programs will no longer be offered. There will only be one program, the Master of Law, one-third of which will consist of compulsory subjects.