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Justice as a commodity

By John Passant - posted Monday, 13 August 2012

Sometimes a book comes along which nails it. Margaret Thornton’s new book, Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (Routledge 2012) is almost that book.

This is a book for all those interested in legal education and what is happening in and to our law schools and universities.

The answer, in a word, is neoliberalism. Legal education, like its colleagues across the University sector, has become a product, bought and sold on the market. This has ramifications, all of them less than ideal, for Universities and specifically for Law Schools.


The idea of the university, a community in the dispassionate pursuit of truth, has been destroyed by the educational barbarians of government and their lacklustre lackeys in the University system.

Thornton covers it all - the inadequate funding, the increase in student numbers without a corresponding increase in staff, the mass production of ‘publications’, many of them unfit for human consumption, the dumbing down of curricula and students, the demands of students as customers, the bullying, the stress, the longer and longer hours, the dictatorial management styles, the mad hunt for ‘research’ grants linked to profit and the death of collegiality in the dog eat dog world of neoliberal legal education. On and on the list of educational atrocities goes.

While these ills occur across all universities and areas of knowledge, in law neoliberalism has almost meant the end of critical enquiry and reflective legal research. The black letter death has crawled from the putrid gutters of mediaeval backwardness to re-infect the legal academy.

Pockets of resistance remain but they are under attack from the heavy guns of neoliberalism in their own Universities and across the sector.

Neoliberalism has emboldened the legal profession to reimpose its restrictive agenda and mode of thinking on Law Schools. You are doing law to practise law and what the law is. Doctrinal dogma and rote rule learning dominate.

Couple this with credentialism – gives us our Law Degree and be quick about it; we have big money to earn! – and the idea of what should be is destroyed by the rote learning of what is.


The Weeties’ pack Law Degree cannot be far away, if it is not already here.

Thornton’s book helped me make sense of my two years at the University Canberra and the dysfunction that passes for rationality there.

In my 33 years in the workforce (including six as an Assistant Commissioner in the ATO), the Law Faculty at the University of Canberra is the only workplace where I have received a Nazi salute from a ‘colleague’, where I have witnessed a group of ‘colleagues’ remove other colleagues’ books from the Faculty display cabinet in a frenzy of factional infighting, where I have been issued a gag order for calling this cabal or clique a faction, (an action in contravention in my view of the Enterprise Agreement and the ACT Human Rights ACT) and where that faction bullies the commercial lawyers. At the same time the benefits of reductions in teaching hours for administrative and other responsibilities goes overwhelmingly to the supposedly critical stream of legal researchers and teachers.

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This is a review of Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law by M Thornton (Routledge 2012).

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About the Author

John Passant is a Canberra writer ( and member of Socialist Alternative.

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