Hands across the Channel

The University of Kent has taken international law one step further by gradually establishing a campus away from Canterbury - in Brussels. And the benefits are now clear to see, says Arabella Schnadhorst
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The Independent Online

Matthew Cooper, a 25-year-old from Colorado, wanted a Masters degree that would combine conflict and law in an international setting. Kent Law School had the answer - an LLM in international relations, with international law at its satellite campus in Brussels.

Matthew Cooper, a 25-year-old from Colorado, wanted a Masters degree that would combine conflict and law in an international setting. Kent Law School had the answer - an LLM in international relations, with international law at its satellite campus in Brussels.

"Its great to be in an environment with people from all over the world," he says. "My aim is to get a job in an NGO in a developing country, and this course, the only one of its kind, is the ideal preparation."

The Brussels School of International Studies has been developing gradually during the past few years. It was set up by the university's politics department in 1998 and, shortly afterwards, the law school got involved. "In the field of international studies, Brussels is a very important city," says Dr Harm Schepel, one of the law lecturers. "It is to Europe what Washington is to the US. It is the home of the major European institutions and of Nato. The students feel in the thick of things here."

Schepel commutes between the law school in Canterbury and Brussels. He is one of several lecturers who makes the 90-minute journey on a regular basis. John Wightman, the head of the law department, says this has a positive impact on the school. "It has a rubbing off effect," he says. "It opens the department up to European influences and benefits all our students, not just the ones on the Brussels course."

This particular Masters degree isn't the only first for this department. It was the first law school in Britain to open a law clinic and to develop a clinical legal studies programme as part of its undergraduate curriculum. The clinic offers students a unique opportunity to practise law while still undergraduates. With two qualified solicitors on hand to give advice, the students take on real cases and real clients.

Last year, the clinic won two of the six awards at the Solicitors Pro Bono Group Attorney General's Awards for pro bono legal work. The judges included Cherie Booth QC and Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. They were full of praise for KLS's clinic: "It is of enormous benefit to members of the local community, and significantly enhances the legal education of students involved in it."

Wightman says the clinic is at the heart of the ethos of the school. "We were one of the first law schools to move away from traditional 'black letter' law teaching," he says. "We want our students to learn more than just what the law does and says. We want them to really engage with it; to question it. The clinic enables them to do this."

A recent report from the Quality Assurance Agency praised the high quality of the school's academic staff, concluding that "the school provides excellent learning opportunities for its students". Schepel believes that this, in part, is because the culture of the school is at odds with the competitiveness introduced by the university research funding process, the RAE. "There are people here who think that our job is not just to produce so many articles a year that we will come out top in the rat race for funding," he says. "Research is obviously important, but the students must remain our priority."

That is not to imply that the school is behind in research. It gained an excellent rating in the 2001 research assessment and has just opened a new centre for law, gender and sexuality. The centre is a joint venture between Kent, Keele and Westminster universities, and has been set up to "pioneer and facilitate work that analyses, investigates and deepens understanding of the relationship between gender, sexuality and the law".

David Melville, Kent's vice-chancellor, agrees that in view of all that the law school has to offer, its position at number 23 in the 2004 Times league table of UK law schools is surprising and disappointing. But he says that much of the innovative work that the school is doing, like the clinic and the Brussels campus, isn't reflected in the tables.

"What we have to remember," he says, "is that we are in a unique position here in Kent. We are beginning to be seen as the first British university in Europe, sitting as we do so close to North-west France and Belgium. That, more than any league table, speaks volumes for our potential."

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