Feature

The open units scandal: Are law students playing the system and manipulating their degree results?

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Legal Cheek investigates

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With the competition for jobs intensifying, law students know securing top degree results can be the career springboard they so desperately need.

They’ll do anything to make sure they get ahead: buying notes from successful graduates, trawling student rooms for revision hints and tips, studying past papers for exam topic patterns.

But maybe there is a way to bolster your degree result by doing, well, less work.

The intriguing approach is all about being savvy when you pick degree modules.

There are a number of compulsory undergraduate modules law students have to take if they want to use their degree to practise (tort law, contract law, EU law, all that jazz).

Beyond these, universities pretty much have free rein to set their own syllabuses; medical law, family law, human rights — these are just some of the many optional modules available to law students across the country.

Picking between them can be quite a challenge and there is, understandably, a logic to making the choice. Passion and interest for the subject, career options, timetabling and method of assessment are among the many factors to consider.

Another is how easy a subject is and, correlatively, how likely it is you’ll do well in it. It makes sense — why enrol on a transnational arbitration course no one has managed to pass in five years when you could take a criminology module for the same number of credits?

Uncontroversial so far; here’s where the modules game intensifies.

Legal Cheek has been told a number of law students have been strategically studying modules offered to them from outside of their faculty in order to work less and gain more.

Punting for these open units — or non-law modules as they’re also known — is a savvy move for a number of reasons.

First, some modules offered to law students are much easier than law school options, such as basic language courses. One recent graduate tells us:

Taking a module from another faculty made me realise how difficult law is.

Secondly, modules from other faculties are marked differently to law, where you’d be hard-pressed to score in the 70s let alone the 80s or 90s. Over in the maths or science department, for example, results in the 90s are achievable. The same is true in language faculties, where assessment can involve multiple choice exams. Our graduate continues:

I got a good mark in my open unit, having done half the work I would have done had it been a law module. Doing it this way gave me a lot of spare time to focus on my other modules, which I was very grateful for during exam period.

Take an open unit in beginner’s French, bag a result of 90 and suddenly your 52 in EU law doesn’t seem such a problem anymore. Sure, maybe a languages module doesn’t look as impressive as a high-level employment law option but, with thousands of applications to sift through, would prospective employers really notice, especially if you have a sound degree result? And — even if they did — you could always play the ‘I took this module to expand my language skills to make myself more employable to an international law firm’ card.

Whether you think this is a savvy way to boost degree results or a disingenuous way to play the system, it’s a reality in law schools across the United Kingdom. Bristol, Birmingham, Durham, Exeter, LSE, Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton are among the law schools currently offering open units to their law students.

Legal Cheek is intrigued by this open units technique but slightly concerned it may cheapen the value of law degrees. The law schools listed, however, are quick to reassure us this isn’t the case.

Some of the universities note a student would only be able to take a module if it was, in Exeter’s words, “equivalent [in] academic level” to a law module or, in Newcastle’s, one “whose assessment is comparable” to law exams. Head of LSE law school Professor Jeremy Horder uses the phrase “academically suitable”. This seems fair, but then consider this extract from Southampton’s website:

Some of our courses also give you the option of taking a language module, which can count towards your degree. These modules cover ten languages and range from absolute beginner to near-native speaker level.

Spokespeople over at open unit-offerers Southampton, Exeter and Birmingham justify their non-law additions by appealing to the value of studying from a broad range of subjects. The former adds:

Any student attempting to gain advantage [by taking an open unit] would only see a relatively small impact on their overall mark, because of the limited number of credits attached to the module.

This may too be the case at some law schools, but again, please note that in Bristol, for example, a student taking full advantage of the open units on offer would graduate with 40 credits worth of non-law school knowledge under their belt — a law school dissertation is only worth 20.

The jury is out. Is jumping on the open-units bandwagon a harmless way to enhance your spectrum of knowledge while studying law, or a sneaky means of securing top law degree grades without really working for them?

Regardless of your moral standpoint, with the demand for training contracts and pupillages outweighing supply like never before, the modules you decide to study — and the grades you get in these modules — may be an important factor for employers, so choose wisely.