An Honours degree in Law once meant something. But no more: the significance of Honours in Law has been lost.
The bestowment of an Honours degree upon a university graduate was historically something of significance, and in most disciplines that remains the case. It was and is an award that distinguishes a graduate from their peers on the basis of their academic achievements. People who graduate from university with Honours consequently wear their title as a badge throughout their career. They frequently ensure the letters ‘(Hons)’ are included in their post-nominals. It distinguishes the graduate from their peers when applying for employment or promotion. An Honours degree is needed for entry into exclusive and elite clubs such as the Rhodes Scholarship program and the Harvard MBA program. It tells a member of the community engaging the services of a professional that that professional distinguished themselves at University, and is likely to provide a better quality service.
In most disciplines, to be eligible for an Honours degree it is necessary to complete a year of additional study over and above the standard three-year degree. High-performing students are invited to undertake additional study at an advanced level, typically involving an introduction to the world of academic research through completion of a thesis or a similar project. The volume of learning, and the type of learning experiences, undertaken by an Honours student is thus very different to that undertaken by a non-Honours student.
Honours in the discipline of Law, however, was traditionally awarded purely on the basis of the grades achieved during the standard undergraduate program, and completion of an additional year of study was not required. If a Law student’s GPA was high enough, they were automatically awarded Honours. This approach to Honours in Law has sometimes been regarded with scepticism by the other disciplines. The usual argument advanced by lawyers was that the undergraduate Law degree had very high entry requirements, it involved a larger volume of study compared to other disciplines (4 years / 8 semesters of study versus the usual 3 years / 6 semesters) and the nature of the study was commensurately more advanced. This argument was not always persuasive. The undergraduate program in Medicine, for example, is just as hard to get into and is even longer than Law but they do not award Honours in this way. Nevertheless, the practice in Law continued for many years, and regardless of how it was determined, an Honours degree in Law was seen as prestigious by students, employers and members of the community.
Law’s approach to Honours began to change in 2013 when substantial changes to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) came into operation. The AQF requires all providers of academic qualifications to conform to a classification system according to which degree titles sit at various levels from 1 to 10. The AQF was actually introduced in 1995, but the Second Edition in 2013 made it very clear that an Honours degree was required to look very different to the standard Bachelor degree. A Bachelor degree is a Level 7 qualification within the AQF, and an Honours degree is a Level 8 qualification. As such, an Honours degree graduate must be able to demonstrate a more advanced level of knowledge, skills and application than a Bachelor degree student. It was no longer acceptable for Law schools to award Honours purely on the basis of a student’s academic performance. Rather, they would have to demonstrate that an Honours student had studied and been assessed at a more advanced level than a Bachelor student.
At this point, in an ideal world, the various law schools in Australia would have come together to develop a new national Honours scheme that would ensure consistency in the approach to the awarding of Honours in Law. What actually happened was that each law school sought to address the challenge presented by the new version of the AQF on its own, and as a consequence a range of different approaches emerged. Some Law schools introduced a requirement that Honours students complete an Honours thesis or research project. Other law schools mandated one or more electives – typically research-focussed – that had to be completed before a student could be awarded Honours. And some Australian law schools – currently about half a dozen, but the number is increasing – chose to simply classify their entire undergraduate program as a Level 8 Honours program; in other words, every Law student from that Law school graduates with Honours.
This has created an obvious signalling problem for the various law school markets. For a student considering enrolling in Law – to the extent that they have any awareness of or interest in Honours prior to enrolment – how can they make sense of the differing approaches to Honours? How is a school-leaver expected to comprehend why some Law programs guarantee Honours while others refer to the opportunity to deepen a student’s expertise by undertaking an advanced level of study?
More significantly, it has created a problem for the employers of law school graduates. It is a difficult task to compare the resumes of students, but in the past the award of an Honours degree was a somewhat reliable indicator of academic ability. Now, the fact that an applicant has an Honours degree in Law may simply mean (if awarded post-2013) that that they performed well academically, or it may mean that they completed an Honours thesis and advanced level elective subjects, or it may mean that they attended a Law school that awards Honours to all of its graduates. An employer or recruiter may be aware of how each law school awards Honours .. but it is unlikely. What then do they do?
My own conversations with employers about this issue have revealed a variety of responses. Some had no idea the approach to Honours had changed, and were surprised to hear about what has happened. Most had become aware of the divergence of approaches and reported that they had started disregarding whether or not the degree was an Honours degree, and instead focussed on the actual GPA. All expressed disappointment if not outright frustration at the situation.
According to Ian Humphries, partner at Ashurst in Brisbane: ‘The differing approaches to Honour is an annoyance to us as we conduct our graduate selection process. We are aware of the different approaches and try, as best we can, to take them into account when making selection decisions. As the approaches of faculties diverge, it becomes more difficult. … The award of Honours was, and from certain institutions still is, a point of real distinction and something which stands for quality and effort; something which a person could and should take particular pride in. I think there is a real risk with the way some institutions are approaching it for Honours to be devalued. This would be a real shame.’
For some within the academy, the concept of Honours is antiquated and increasingly irrelevant. But for the alumni who have graduated with Honours it remains personally meaningful, there is still a perception in the general community that Honours is an important quality differentiator, and for employers it was until recently an important mechanism for differentiating between graduate applicants. All would be, or are, disappointed with the current state of affairs.
At my own Law school, we chose to maintain an approach that emphasises the prestige and rigour of Honours: we require all Honours students to complete an Honours thesis. But as another Australian law school has recently decided to start awarding Honours to every undergraduate Law student, we are confronted with the question: do we maintain our current approach, or do we replicate the approach of the other law schools? Our decision is likely to have implications for our ability to recruit students, but it is not clear what those implications are. On the one hand the perception that our law school is one that enforces a rigorous approach to Honours could be appealing to prospective Law students, but on the other hand the fact that Honours is not guaranteed, as it is elsewhere, could be a disadvantage when attracting good students. It is also likely to have implications for the employability of our graduates, with equivalent uncertainty: perhaps our Honours graduates will be more highly regarded because the employer understands that our law school has a rigorous Honours program, but perhaps our non-Honours graduates will be disadvantaged because the employer does not appreciate that the Honours students from other law schools with whom they are competing for a position did not necessarily do, or achieve, anything different.
In my opinion, Australia’s law schools have a collective responsibility to their students, their industry partners, the employers of their graduates, and every member of the community who accesses legal services to at least try to sort this out. Hopefully it is not too late.
Professor Nick James is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law at Bond University. He is Chair of the Australasian Law Academics Association, Co-Director of the Centre for Professional Legal Education, and a member of the Australian Academy of Law.