Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

By P. B. H. Birks; Society of Public Teachers of Law (London, England) | Go to book overview

11. Lightening the Labouring Ship

GWYNETH PITT

To set up a definition of the subject matter of 'labour law properly so-called' is to invite derision. The following remarks are offered by way of providing some targets for others to shoot at. Before bidding for what should be in and what out, it is necessary to start by mentioning some external constraints (or 'challenges' in present management-speak) which are likely to have an impact on the syllabus if they have not already done so.


External constraints

Teaching on a declining unit of resource

We have all seen staff-student ratios getting much worse, and it does not seem very realistic to expect them to get better.1 This has two principal effects: reduced staff time to teach courses and more pressure on libraries.

For example, at Leeds between 40-50 students (of about 130 finalists) take Labour Law each year. We have two sets each of Industrial Relations Law Reports and Industrial Cases Reports, which is not bad, but only only copy of the Industrial Law Journal, no Equal Opportunities Review and generally single copies of all books. Thus students have reasonable resources for undertaking case analysis and problem-solving, but relatively limited opportunities for the wider reading needed for a more theoretical and contextual approach. Both factors--reduced staff time and pressure on the library--lead to a tilting of the balance of teaching towards the lecture rather than the tutorial or seminar. The lecture is a way, albeit not satisfactory, of drawing students' attention to things that they cannot realistically be expected to read; it is also a way of 'processing' large numbers of people. But while a lecture is a very efficient way of communicating information, it is not a lot of use for anything else; and while there is a certain amount of information which must be communicated and absorbed, we are probably trying to achieve rather more than transmission of knowledge.


Enterprise and Skills

A related, but less persuasive point is that we have pressures from other sources--general education developments towards student-centred learning, the Enterprise in Higher Education movement, new courses at the professional stage of training--towards teaching in a way which develops skills in the students. This generally means less is going to be covered.


Semesterization/Modularization/Credit transfer

Or whatever it is called in your institution. While widening access to universities by introducing more flexible paths to a degree is something I favour, the movement to tightly controlled modules with specific credits attached seems to call for more compartmentalized, and certainly more rigidly defined syllabuses than hitherto was the case. In some institutions the revisions to course structure caused by the move to uniformity means that students will be studying more subjects in a particular year. This too will require some trimming of syllabuses.

A wholesale rethinking of the syllabus from time to time is no bad thing given that over the years most of us add things to courses, but do not excise topics at anything like the same rate. The answer, I suggest, is to go for a radical pruning of the core Labour Law syllabus, and perhaps to find other homes for what is taken out.


What can be left out?

The following topics are some which have traditionally been included in Labour Law but which at Leeds we have been leaving out: whether they should be omitted is another matter.


Occupational health and safety

In common with many university courses, at Leeds we dropped study of the employer's duty of care and the Health and Safety at Work Act and associated legislation over ten years ago. At the time, I was delighted, because I found the whole area deeply boring.

Lately, however, I have come rather to regret this omission, because it is an area which has suddenly got quite interesting. Some of the reasons for this are regrettable. The string of disasters since the mid- 1980s--such as the King's Cross fire, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge, the explosion on Piper Alpha, the Clapham rail crash, deaths in Channel Tunnel, to name only some of

____________________
*Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Leeds.
1
See the views of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in its discussion paper, "'Financing Expansion'" with its appendix, chillingly entitled, 'How to do More with Less' ( CVCP January 1992).

-65-

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