2020: Forging students’ professional identity and assisting the community

This post has been contributed by Professor Brett Freudenberg, member of the Law Futures Centre.

In April 2021, Griffith University secured $100,000 in federal funding to continue the Griffith Tax Clinic.

This is the third year of funding, which in part represents the ability of the tax clinic to continue to deliver services to the community despite the pandemic.

Due to restrictions about human movement and interaction because of Covid-19, many universities had to either cancel their work-integrated learning (WIL) experiences or move them to a remote online platform (Sandhu and de Wolf, 2020).

Within four weeks in 2020, the Griffith Tax Clinic was able to alter its operations to be fully online allowing law and business students to continue their WIL experience.

The Griffith Tax Clinic allows unrepresented taxpayers to gain assistance from tax students under the supervision of experienced tax practitioners.

The objectives of the tax clinic are to provide greater access to justice for unrepresented taxpayers (including micro and small businesses); a rich learning environment for students; an avenue to identify systematic problems in the tax system, as well as to improve community tax literacy.

For over seven months in 2020, the Griffith Tax Clinic was able to operate online through Microsoft OneDrive and Microsoft Teams for video conference calling, including the ability to share screens and record, including the ability to invite clients to the video conference call.

Student tax advisors were divided into two teams of three, and each team would have two client meetings per day, taking on different roles in each meeting, being interview leader, note taker and observer/researcher.

The tax agent would attend and supervise each of the meetings. In this way, clients could be assisted with their tax issues, including completing their tax returns as well as objections against the Australian Taxation Office.

But what did this online environment mean for the law and business students involved in terms of developing their skills and confidence, in particular their professional identity? Pretti, Etmanski and Durston (2020) note how the notions of socialisation and meaningful work are essential for WIL students when working remotely. Looking at the literature about employees generally, remote working can raise concerns about the feeling of isolation due to a loss of communication (Bartel et al., 2012; Charalampous et al., 2019).

This potential remoteness is important as WIL can offer ‘students first-hand knowledge of people and the community and introduces them to the complexity of the world beyond the classroom’ (Miller 1997, at p 16).

WIL has the potential to enhance professional identity and knowledge, which can provide career direction, as well as students’ suitability and understanding of the skills required for their chosen profession (Patrick, Peach, and Pocknee, 2009).

Research was undertaken to consider students’ perceived development of their professional identity at the Griffith Tax Clinic when it moved to be fully online. This development was compared to prior student cohorts that participated face-to-face.

The results demonstrate that there was professional identity development for both cohorts, with the online students indicating stronger growth in a number of dimensions.

However, when looking at the online students’ comments there was a sense they wished they had the on-campus experience, even though they appreciated the valuable online learning experience.

I would not change anything. I would have loved if we had an opportunity to run the Clinic from the campus instead of online, however there is not much we could do. Being a part of this team was an amazing experience even if we had to do it online!

Part of this appears to be the difficulty for students to lead the client meetings due to the technology, or that in the online environment the tax agent might dominate the meeting more given that it was his screen being shared with the client.

This can be compared to the physical on-campus environment where generally it is the computer on the student’s desk that is used to navigate the client through any online software (even though under direction of the tax agent).

I know it was tough being online and all, but I just wish there was more opportunity to lead conversations and guide the tax return process.

When considering the professional identity development of domestic and international students, the domestic online end scores are higher than the domestic on-campus students.

For international students, the online cohort is weaker than the on-campus international students in two of the three measures.

It may have been the case that the domestic students dominated in the online environment due to higher English conversation skills, and that the online environment allowed more opportunity for shy international students to ‘hide’ and wait for someone to step in.

This ability to fall into the background appeared to have adverse influence on the development of their professional identity.

Looking at the results it appears that an important part of developing professional identity, is the socialisation that can occur at the tax clinic, and the feedback and observation, whether it be from the tax agent supervisor, fellow tax clinic student advisers or their clients.

All three sources of socialisation and mentoring appear to assist. It could be that the online environment may limit this interaction with the supervision, student and clients.

For example there were generally less client meetings per day with the online clinic compared to the on-campus.

Also, the online environment may mean some more experienced and confident students dominate.

It appears that having low confidence can potentially impede a student’s learning experience in the challenging environment of a WIL experience, particularly if they do not have the motivation and perseverance.

Overall, the results indicate that students gained a lot from still being able to assist clients at the Griffith Tax Clinic in the online environment.

However, the online environment can lack the social interaction that can be so important for students in gaining valuable feedback and being able to observe what it means to be a professional.

While technology assisted Griffith law and business students to continue to assist the community at the Griffith Tax Clinic it appears that socialisation is an important part of developing students’ professional identity.

Given the recent funding announcement, the Griffith Tax Clinic looks forward to be able to continue to assist those vulnerable in the community.

Read a paper about the Griffith Tax Clinic or go online to apply for assistance from the clinic.