For a socio-legal agenda

During the course of this calendar year, I have, together with a few colleagues, been pushing for a socio-legal agenda at the Faculty. I have no mandate to do so other than my personal concern for our future as a quality research unit. But I have personal experience from which to draw ‘inspiration’, if you will.

In the spring of 2007, a small delegation of Leicester colleagues approached me to ask me if I was available for Head of School beginning the next academic session. I had apparently been mentioned by many as a good candidate. This was the Leicester way. All members of staff were first consulted in person after which the results of the consultation were reported to the appointing Vice-Chancellor. I was genuinely surprised that my name had come up. But as I had just brought one research project to conclusion, and perhaps also feeling somewhat flattered to be asked, I was happy to respond affirmatively.

I took on headship a little belatedly at the beginning of 2008 after a semester’s research leave in New York. It was all supposed to be a smooth ride. My predecessor had taken care of the School’s submission for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 a year before, and we were expecting the results to be in line with the previous exercise in 2001. So I was looking forward to a comfortable three years.

When the results came in a bit later in January, it was a shock for us all. After a 5A rating in the RAE 2001 results, Leicester could fairly confidently claim to be in the top 20 law schools in the country. In RAE 2008, the ranking was closer to 35th. With this fall, I had inherited a headship that I certainly hadn’t signed up for.

The catchword for the work that began soon after the results had come in was ‘modernisation’. According to the analysis I made together with my team (particularly Mark Bell as Deputy Head for Research who I have a lot to thank for), our poor results were due mainly to our predecessors’ ill-conceived submission strategy (i.e. overestimating the quality of the outputs submitted). But partially the results were also a reflection of the type of research that the school prioritised. If we compared our work to that of equivalent law schools who had done better, we came across as an old-fashioned ‘doctrinal’ law school with too many senior members of staff focusing their research efforts on authoring textbooks. There was much less socio-legal work done which was also evident in the very modest amount of external funding that we had been able to generate over the assessment years. ‘Modernisation’, then, meant abandoning doctrinal textbook authoring and a decisive turn towards more socio-legal approaches.

Over the next few years, recruitment took on a much more socio-legal flavour. In addition, we consulted experts in the field like Professor Dame Hazel Genn and Professor Sally Wheeler about ways in which we could improve our performance. Improvement was intended to cover both the quality of publications and the amount of research income that we generated. This work continued even after I left Leicester in 2011.

And yes, there was improvement in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 results: 20th in terms of outputs, 23rd in terms of overall results. So not exactly a bonanza, but hopefully a new leaf had been turned over.

Helsinki is very much like the Leicester I knew. It’s an old-fashioned doctrinal law school where textbooks are called ‘research monographs’ and where staff are reluctant to let go of traditions that they deem valuable. But unlike Leicester that was more than ready to acknowledge its shortcomings, the research culture here is too smug to realise what needs to be done. In terms of standard metrics like the amount of quality international publications or research income, Helsinki is not doing particularly well in relation to its size (about 120 FTE), and a relatively small group of individuals carry most of the burden for the successes. It banks too much on its status as a capital city university. It adopts a few ‘buzz words’ like ‘globalisation’ and ‘digitalisation’ for recruitment purposes, but it lacks a clear vision for turning those ‘buzz words’ into results.

Hence this socio-legal agenda ‘in the broadest possible sense’. None of us involved have the institutional authority to steer the Faculty into this direction or that. We’re just opening up this avenue to anyone who feels that whatever it is that’s now on offer is not providing them with the best chances for professional development and career advancement.

Leave a Reply