Judges find in favour after course's early setback

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The Independent Online
University of Derby

Law Division

Higher Education Funding Council rating: Originally unsatisfactory, now satisfactory

Joan Whieldon, law lecturer, paces back and forth between the bench and witness box in the 's new purpose-built court.

With the measured speech of an advocate, she sums up the evidence - divulging trade secrets, debunking myths.

"This is not LA Law, where you look over your shoulder after making a good point, with the thought-bubble hanging over your head: `What about that then!' "

Ms Whieldon is known to undergraduates as "the football coach''. Her job is to instruct the class on the letter of the law; she must also teach them how to behave in court.

The third-years scribble madly as she instructs them on correct dress and vocabulary, making eye contact with judge and jury and reading body language.

"She makes you feel as though she can make you into a good advocate,'' whispers one student, just before he is hauled to the front, instructed to wear a lawyer's gown and argue a case.

Year one students emerging from a lecture on contract law, with printed case notes prepared by their senior lecturer, are equally loyal.

Catherine Lewis, a mature student, says: "The lecturers are well-prepared and always willing to give you time and attention.''

But in November 1993, an assessment team from the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that the quality of education provided by the law division was unsatisfactory. The inspectors said it was critically understaffed, library facilities were barely adequate and some classes "had little challenging content". The course, validated by the Law Society, had been running just 13 months.

A year later £100,000 had been spent on the library, 17 full-time staff employed, and 210 students recruited to the full-time degree course, with 60 studying part time. An inspection team returned and found it satisfactory.

The law division is now part of the School of European and International Studies.

"It was just too soon in the life of a degree, we felt it was unfair to judge a fledgling course against others that had been flying for many years,'' says Sue Wall, dean of school.

"One thing the revisit did do was help us to focus on getting improvements in place by a specific date.''

Some students are more cynical: "That poor rating gave them a kick up the backside - the course is great now,'' said one.