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Study programme administration gets a ‘fail’ grade, bachelor’s degree gets a grumpy smiley, and employees say they are treated miserably. The case files with issues are piling up at the Faculty of Law, but management says they are cleaning up their act
High entry requirements, a race for high grades, low unemployment, and the prospect of a high-salary job in the legal profession or a career in a government ministry after graduation.
The law programme at the University of Copenhagen is usually regarded as a smoothly run elite study programme. But deep scratches have appeared on the law programme’s polished surface.
The public-at-large began seriously to ask what on earth is going on at at the Faculty of Law when it appeared in the media that associate professor Michael Bjorn Hansen had taken his student Kristian Hegaard to court after he had complained about the professor’s teaching.
The associate professor ended up losing the case in the District Court, but not before a just-qualified lawyer Leif Donbæk had written a featured comment with the title “we are the laughing stock of the whole of Denmark” and begging the two sides to drop the case.
According to Michael Bjorn Hansen things would never have gone that far had faculty management done its job properly.
“It is grotesque. But I gave them the opportunity to deal with this complaint internally. When they did not listen, I decided to sue the student. As things stood, it was important for me to show that the statements about me were untrue, and that I took the problem seriously,” he says and continues:
“I have worked my pants off for this university for 37 solid years, so a little respect and support had been appropriate. Management is bogged down with regulations, guidelines and manuals, and it no longer looks anything like real leadership,” says Michael Bjørn Hansen, who ended up being laid off as a result of the case.
But the question is whether the Hegaard case is just the tip of the iceberg. In September 2015 the bachelor’s programme in law only got a ‘conditional’ positive accreditation.
This corresponds to a ‘grumpy’ half smiley, and means that the programme does not meet the quality requirements of a university education, and that the faculty must reapply for approval.
The accreditation council stated in their decision for this that “the students have only limited access to the legal research behind their education through teaching and supervision. This means that students are not getting a sufficient research-based education.”
“The Council considers finally that it is the accreditation panel’s assessment that there is not sufficient administrative support for the programme. This assessment is based in particular upon the panel’s visit to the study programme, where students and teachers alike said they did not feel that the administrative support for the education was effective and sufficient, and that they felt that the challenges had been going on for quite some time,” it says.
The debate in the students’ closed facebook group is often about bad experiences with administration.
“If things can go wrong, they do go wrong – If they cannot go wrong, they will probably go wrong anyway” – student on the Law students’ facebook group about the Faculty of Law’s administration
One student writes: “I have had enough of our administration. There are clearly lacking the resources to run the Faculty of Law: 1) They do not show good governance. 2) The Study Counselling Office has become the Study Misleading Office. 3) If you fall sick during your studies, you are assured no help – and mysterious selections and relegations to group work. 4) If things can go wrong, they do go wrong – If they cannot go wrong, they will probably go wrong anyway.”
Another writes: “Is there anyone else in this forum who has this problem: Due to the slow administrative work processes I might have to prolong my study? If so send me a private message.”
One of the answers reads in part: “I am also one and a half years late because of delays in waiting for a response, and I ended up getting onto a different study curriculum and had to delete subjects, and start new, compulsory, subjects: This is like a cartoon.”
A student writes: “My time has been extended by 1.5 years – thanks to poor administration, including protracted admin time in processing”.
The students’ annual satisfaction surveys reveal widespread discontent.
Law scores significantly lower than the other UCPH faculties when it comes to assessments of their administrative service. This year, 69 per cent respond that the administrative support for their education is not good. 67 per cent do not believe they get a response within a reasonable time frame when they apply for credit or exemptions.
Several former law students reckon that the programme’s administration is falling apart.
Like Leif Donbæk who graduated this August and says he has worked for major Danish companies and visited law schools at other universities.
“I’ve never seen a place with such a lack of control of things like the Faculty of Law at UCPH. It has reached down to impressive depths in its lack of talent,” he says.
Leif Donbæk mentions recent examples like the administration forgetting to send his friend’s thesis to his supervisor to be evaluated.
His own thesis defense was 45 minutes late because the censor was set to examine two students at the same time.
“I’ve never seen a place with such a lack of control of things like the Faculty of Law at UCPH. It has reached down to impressive depths in its lack of talent,” Master of Law Leif Donbæk, graduated in August 2016
He believes that a sick culture has evolved at the Faculty of Law:
“They have an idea that we the students are there for the administration’s sake and not vice versa. For them we are a nuisance that interferes with their work. I don’t think there is one single student that does not have at least two to three crazy stories about the administration from their time during studies,” says Leif Donbæk.
One of them is law student Helene Frausing who in 2013 reported to Uniavisen how she agreed to defer the subject of International Law, only to discover that the subject was no longer offered, and that she now only had one attempt at the exam, even though you are entitled to three:
“If someone had told me what it would be like (to study law, ed.) I had probably turned around and left immediately,” said Helene Frausing. She has now graduated.
Mikkel Wrang is a member of the study board, representing the student group Conservative Lawyers. He says the accreditation report points to a number of problems that students tried to bring up for years. But it is his impression that the Faculty is now taking the criticism seriously.
He himself has been involved in a working group to find initiatives to remedy the situation.
“Things are happening, but it’s clear that processing times are unsatisfactory, so we have asked for a status report on developments. It is just not good enough. Though we do understand that there have been cases of sick leave among staff,” he says.
“When you’ve been on an exchange abroad, you discover how things are done elsewhere. The faculty should see the students as customers who need to experience a good service” – Mikkel Wrang, member of the study board, representing Conservative Lawyers
Mikkel Wrang adds that he will not defend the Faculty. But he does not think things are falling apart.
“When you’ve been on an exchange abroad, you discover how things are done elsewhere. The faculty should see the students as customers, who need to experience a good service,” he says.
The criticism of the faculty does not stop at the administration and the lack of student contact to the research community.
David Jenkins is a former associate professor at the faculty. He lashes out at the tough management style that over the past years has challenged the faculty’s research.
“Academic freedom at the Faculty of Law is not just threatened, it has gone,” he says and elaborates:
“The faculty is top-heavy, non-transparent and characterized by a logic taken from the private sector. There is no tolerance for criticism and challenging questions. This has otherwise historically been part of the university’s management style.”
A mixture of budget cuts and unhealthy management culture has diverted the focus away from the faculty’s real raison d’être: Doing good research and training skilled lawyers, he believes.
These were the things that had David Jenkins criticizing the faculty’s management. But he should not have done so. He was fired in February, and he believes that his dismissal the result of his explicit criticism:
“I can only speculate about it, but it is my firm belief that management wanted to get rid of me because I was too outspoken,” he says.
“The faculty is top-heavy, non-transparent, and characterized by a logic taken from the private sector. There is no tolerance for criticism and challenging questions. This has otherwise historically been part of the university’s management style” – David Jenkins, former associate professor at the Faculty of Law
This is a claim that the faculty’s management has rejected in a previous article on uniavisen.dk: David Jenkins was fired because of the budget cuts.
He says he is not alone, and that he is speaking out to vent the discontent that he has shared with a number of now former colleagues for years:
“People are afraid to open their mouths, for they have seen what happens to people who criticize management. But behind closed doors, I have talked to many colleagues who complain about management. They just do not want to come forward for fear of losing their jobs.”
Stine Jørgensen, Associate Dean for Education at the Faculty of Law, has seen the criticism from former employees, but says she cannot comment on specific personnel matters. She adds that there are few complaints about the teaching, and that most complaints are handled promptly before escalating. The case that ended up in district court is unique.
The Dean’s Office takes that criticism from the Accreditation Council very seriously.
“They suggest that there are built-in challenges to admitting 800 students a year with 140 permanent employees. However the many external teaching staff we have hired means that we can have a close cooperation with the business community and the lowest unemployment rate among the country’s legal education programmes,” says Stine Jørgensen.
“The students are dissatisfied and with good reason. But we have set off a number of processes to improve service.” – Stine Jørgensen, Associate Dean for Education at the Faculty of Law
She explains that the faculty has worked out a strategy of nine focus areas to ensure that the Faculty of Law gets a positive accreditation next time, in December.
One of the points is that the Faculty now has defined which tasks we want to use permanently employed researchers for, and which tasks they want to use external lecturers for. Guidance in connection with bachelor projects should primarily be carried out by researchers. Their goal is for 69 per cent of all bachelor projects to receive guidance from an employed researcher this year and 80 per cent next year. The Faculty has also decided that permanently employed staff should teach more.
“We have started a change process as a consequence of the criticism. We are still using external teachers, but in a more focussed manner,” says the associate dean.
Stine Jørgensen can understand why many students are not satisfied with the programme’s administration.
“The students are dissatisfied and with good reason. But we have set off a number of processes to improve service. The dissatisfaction can have something to do with the physical locations, which has students separated from researchers and administration. They feel alienated, but we are working to create more personal contact and be more visible, so that students will not be greeted by a closed door,” says Stine Jørgensen.
»We process an incredible number of exemption cases, and this shows in the processing times. But having said that, we have to get the waiting times down. There are too many students who wait for more than six weeks for a decision« – Stine Jørgensen, Associate Dean for Education at the Faculty of Law
She adds that the faculty has seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications for exemption from exams from about 200 in 2009 to about 1,400 this year. The greatest increase was in 2014, probably as a result of the Danish government’s Study Progress Reform.
“We process an incredible number of exemption cases, and this shows in the processing times. But having said that, we have to get the waiting times down. There are too many students who wait for more than six weeks for a decision,” she says.
“We hold approximately 26,000 exams per year, so mistakes do happen. So we must try to learn from them. We have a complex administration, but we had major planning challenges three or four years ago.”
Is Law still an elite study programme?
“We are a mass study programme. But students come in with a very high grade point average, and we have possibly not been good enough in explaining to them what it means to study law. So we need to align people’s expectations,” says Stine Jørgensen.