Joseph Tomlinson: Ambitions and Constraints – A Report on the Second Conference on the Teaching of Public Law (2014)

JoeFollowing on from the success of last year’s inaugural Conference on the Teaching of Public Law at the University of Manchester, City Law School ably assumed hosting duties to allow the discussions to be advanced further. The enthusiasm that was so evident at last year’s event showed no sign of waning a year on, as interesting perspectives from contributors and stimulating discussion from attendees continued throughout the day’s four panel sessions. This post briefly summarises some of the key points that were raised by contributors and during discussions.

Public Law in Changing Times: Challenges Ahead

(Panel: Nick Barber, Oxford; Prof. Martin Loughlin, LSE; Dr Alison Young, Oxford; Prof. Maurice Sunkin, Essex; Dr Javier Oliva (Chair), Manchester)

The first panel was tasked with identifying what challenges teachers of public law may face in coming years. Alison Young began with comments about the nature of public law as a subject and the effects that has on the teaching of public law. A distinction was drawn between public law and other areas of law, the former being the sum of lots of interwoven ideas and the latter capable of being comprehended in a more linear, step-by-step fashion. One problem flowing from this is the difficultly of knowing the best ‘way in’ to the subject for students. In the face of the teaching challenge presented by the nature of the subject, it was noted that care must be taken to avoid a retreat into either an overly doctrinal or overly theoretical approach – both of which can lead to students attempting to just ‘learn five things about the rule of law’ for exam purposes. Continuing with the theme of how the nature of public law affects how it is taught, Martin Loughlin offered his view that public law is, in essence, a ‘label in search of a concept.’ Britain’s historical lack of a distinct public law means that, in contrast to continental public law systems, we lack clear concepts of central features within the subject. The absence of such conceptual clarity can translate into difficulties in conveying the subject to students.

Nick Barber followed those comments about the nature of the discipline by attempting to unpack the oft-heard marker’s complaint that students struggle to ‘make arguments’ or ‘lack creativity’ in assessments. He highlighted two potential deficiencies in the teaching of public law that may contribute to this complaint being so frequently made. First, was the issue of ‘coverage’: the ‘tell them about public law cases stuff’ is largely done well but the academic interest in judicial reasoning can become ‘fetishistic’ and exist at the expense of, amongst other things, looking at how institutions work, the empowering capabilities of public law, the processes of Parliament, local government, devolution and perhaps even statutes. Second, it was suggested that more could be done to equip students with the ‘tools’ to make arguments. Providing students with training on understanding and deploying statistics was suggested as one way to achieve this sort of argumentative creativity. As could the introduction of more political theory to public law courses. Overall, more could be done to give students a holistic view of the stuff that public law is made of and to provide students with the ability to criticise the content of the law.

Maurice Sunkin concluded the first panel by placing the teaching of public law in the broader contexts of legal education and university education – both of which are landscapes that are seemingly ever changing. Whilst it is likely to remain the case that all students of law will require a grasp of the fundamentals of public law, it will be of interest to see how this fits into broader institutional demands and the demands of the ‘consumer’ student. To that end, it was suggested that in the future there may be greater diversity in what is taught and how.

In discussion, it was suggested, in relation to the problems stemming from teaching a subject that can be more confusing than most on a law degree, that complexity may be a good thing when that complexity is harnessed and made constructive instead of destructive. We were also reminded of the need to be realistic about what can be covered in a first year public law course. Aside from time constraints, public law may be the first substantive law subject that students tackle and public law’s core concepts are more difficult to grasp than many of the other concepts encountered in the rest of a typical first year’s academic diet. These sort of pragmatic considerations naturally pose challenges in relation to how much of a role such things as normative political philosophy and statistics can play in a foundational undergraduate public law course public law, though such things may justify a place as part of the broader law curriculum.

Research-led Teaching

(Panel: Prof. Paul Craig, Oxford; Merris Amos, QMUL; Prof. Roger Masterman, Durham; Dr Kirsty Hughes, Cambridge; Dr Ioannis Kalpouzos (Chair), City)

The second panel saw contributors traverse the relationship between research and teaching. Paul Craig commenced the panel’s contributions on the same realistic note upon which the first panel concluded by observing that how much research-led teaching can occur depends primarily upon how much choice one has in what and how one teaches. If the opportunity exists, there is the possibility of translating a specialisation into a course – students may even recognise and appreciate the genuine interest of the teacher and feel inclined to embrace the subject more than they otherwise would. However, courses built on specialisations may be time-consuming to assemble, tricky to get approved and may only be a short-term fixture if centred on an individual’s particular interests and expertise. The solution may be found in building individual research interests into existing modules.

Merris Amos, considering the ways in which teaching can assist research, noted how gaps in teaching materials can provide a fruitful source of research ideas. Bringing research interests into the classroom can also allow for genuinely valuable student input, with a diverse student body drawing upon experiences and offering perspectives the public law teacher/researcher will not necessarily have considered. Using research activities to curate events-led teaching can also be useful but there is, of course, always the risk that events can overtake during teaching. Roger Masterman followed up with a contribution that focused on how providing students with opportunities to be autonomous researchers themselves possesses the virtue of creating more independent and critical students. Making the student the researcher also often leads to the student assuming increased ownership of their work. It may, therefore, ultimately have the effect of producing better skilled and more-employable graduates. Providing the student with opportunities to undertake research can be achieved through dissertations or other modules that place research at their core.

Kirsty Hughes, in a neat conclusion to the contributions from panel two, highlighted how research and teaching can often interact to the benefit of both. Transmitting the ideas involved in your research to students can be a good means of understanding how to transmit those same ideas effectively in your research. It may also be worthwhile – without having to circulate any drafts or other similar material – to introduce parts of your research into small group discussions. A key point was also made on the value of (teaching) textbooks as research. Such textbooks can heavily influence the shape and structure of the field yet the current REF approach to textbooks does not incentivize their production (and could even be seen to discourage their production).

In discussion, the assumption that teaching necessarily takes an academic away from their research was squarely challenged – research and teaching in public law can, in many ways, be made to work in tandem. It was noted that the interaction between the two may even become more of a necessity as student fees start to play a larger role in funding research, and students might start to ask what benefit they gain from this activity.

Assessment and Ph.D Students in Public Law

(Prof. Robert Thomas, Manchester; Dr Javier Oliva, Manchester; Ann Lyon, Plymouth; Jack Simson Caird, QMUL; Craig Prescott, KCL; Dr John Stanton (Chair), City)

Ann Lyon began panel three with a general overview of the range of assessment methods in public law – which often fit into a part of a wider assessment regime at institutions – and the familiar pros and cons of each assessment method.

Robert Thomas and Javier Oliva jointly tackled the topic of PhDs in public law. Robert started by noting the importance of PhDs in public law. Public law PhDs, of course, possess inherent importance in contributing to public law scholarship, but they also serve to launch the careers of the next generation of public law scholars (a PhD now being seen as highly desirable or necessary for most academic posts). As an academic community we must, therefore, facilitate and encourage the undertaking of public law PhDs. To achieve this we ought to cultivate an interest in both the topic of public law and the process of writing a PhD. Dissertations, workshops and one-to-one discussions can all be helpful in this endeavour. Support should also be offered in designing a PhD that is innovative but achievable. Perhaps most significantly, institutions must find ways of providing financial backing for those seeking to undertake a PhD in public law.

Javier Oliva followed on by discussing the public law PhD process. The central aim of the supervisor ought to be to guide the student to completion whilst attempting to ensure the student has a good general experience throughout their degree. Supervisors also need to be aware of the personal challenges facing students during their PhD and be aware of particular challenges facing international and part-time students. One interesting topic that was raised was whether the supervisors should be experts in the particular area of the PhD – though it is not strictly necessary, it would seem to be a good idea that at least one member of the supervisory team possesses expertise in the area of the research. On an important last note, it was suggested that universities should be honest and rigorous when reviewing students’ progress.

It was, then, the turn of the PhD students themselves to have their say. Craig Prescott astutely noted the paucity of public law-specific PhD events in the UK. As an interesting side-note, it was observed how formulating a PhD proposal is particularly difficult for those who are outside of an academic institution at the time of application, due either to a lack of guidance or a lack of access to materials. Craig also endorsed the utility of the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) method of funding research as it allows a PhD to feel part of the academic community at their institution (though research time ought to be protected from excessive teaching demands). Jack Simson Caird continued by similarly endorsing the utility of the GTA model of funding and similarly endorsing its ability to bring students into closer contact with the academic community. The paucity of public law PhD events and the distinct lack of any sort of network between public law PhDs at different institutions was again flagged as a serious deficiency.

Resources and Technology in the Teaching of Public Law

(Dr Mike Gordon, Liverpool; Prof. Andrew Le Sueur, Essex; Dr Mark Elliott, Cambridge; Brian Thompson, Liverpool; Ann Lyon (Chair), Plymouth)

Brian Thompson started the fourth session by highlighting how technology has been embraced in public law teaching and how this has been both a good and bad development. His main concern was that whilst technology may be convenient we may be deskilling students of valuable research skills through its use.

Mark Elliot, the author of the Public Law for Everyone blog, focused on the use of the blog in public law scholarship and teaching (Mark’s own full blog post on the use of blogging in public law can be found here.  There appear to be good reasons for public lawyers to get involved in blogging. It can be a good method of producing brief comment pieces, particularly on topical issues. It can also be a useful platform for posting short, abstract-like pieces about early-stage research ideas. Online discussions on blog posts can also prove fruitful (once the occasional offensive, libelous or otherwise generally unhelpful comments are deleted). Entering the blogosphere can also be a means of extending impact (not in the REF sense!) as blogs are perhaps more likely to be accessed by (and found to be intellectually accessible to) non-law colleagues than the more traditional channels of academic output. A blog may also be a useful way of reaching and assisting students studying public law. The blog, therefore, can be a useful tool for the public law academic but it has to be used appropriately. For instance, one cannot hope to be a perfectionist or seek comprehensiveness when blogging. A blog is instead a place more suited for formative ideas and is (naturally) distinct from a peer-reviewed article and should be seen as such by readers. Blogging can also become – but does not have to be – a distraction from research.

Mike Gordon then discussed (with some interactive demonstrations) how technology – particularly twitter and interacting polling technology – may be useful in engaging students in traditionally passive learning environments, such as lectures. The key task is, however, finding the appropriate role for technology in teaching. Andrew Le Sueur followed up by suggesting that some of the common use of technology in public law teaching is indeedinappropriate. In what may be a surprising turn from one of the conference’s two tech-savvy ‘live tweeters’, Andrew concluded the day by attempting to ‘roll back’ the enthusiasm for the use of technology in teaching by presenting a ‘six-point plan for recovery.’ That plan, in brief, encouraged teachers of pubic law to:

      1. Recognise the value of handwriting;
      2. Enforce the value of going to the library;
      3. Encourage students to buy books;
      4. Make tutorials and small group sessions computer-free zones;
      5. Shut down all VLE discussion forums; and
      6. Stop using PowerPoint in teaching.

Some suggestions were, unsurprisingly, more controversial than others (the idea that the use of PowerPoint facilitates ‘the trivialization of the rule of law in three bullet points’ had both its supporters and it detractors). The core of the message was, however, much like what each of the contributors suggested: technology has its place in the teaching of public law and though we should seek to embrace it for its benefits, we should be equally cautious of embracing it at the expense of the virtues of other, more traditional means.

Concluding Remarks: Ambition and Constraints

The discussions throughout the day were, like last year, very lively and the conference continues to meet a clear desire to discuss the teaching of public law. Whilst this year’s exchanges, again like last year, showed a widely-held ambition to improve the teaching of public law, there was an acute awareness this year of the potential constraints teachers of public law operate within. These constraints may flow from, amongst other things, institutional configurations, what can be expected of first year law students and even the nature of public law itself. How public law teaching can be improved within these various constraints is the continuing challenge. 


Joseph Tomlinson is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Manchester.

(Suggested citation: J. Tomlinson, ‘Ambitions and Constraints – A Report on the Second Conference on the Teaching of Public Law (2014)’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (2nd July 2014) (available at