Conversation: Professor Dan Hunter; Executive Dean, The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London

Professor Dan Hunter was appointed as Executive Dean of The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London in 2022. Australian by background, he is an expert in technology and the law.  On his recent visit to Melbourne, we asked about the UK’s higher education environment as well as his views on the developments in artificial intelligence.


Having spent over nine months in the UK, how would you describe the state of the UK’s higher education environment?


UK higher education is generally in fairly good shape, at least on finances. Unlike Australia, the pandemic didn’t shut everything down and so there wasn’t a huge revenue collapse in quite the same way as Australian universities experienced. The UK took a bullish approach to the pandemic—there were few lockdowns and borders remained largely open. So, the student perception was that they could still study here even though there were, of course, many travel restrictions.


In comparison, Australian universities felt cut off and had issues with continuing to enrol international students. Of course, domestic student interest in Australia (and the UK) saved the sector in general, but there isn’t the sense in the UK of having to restart international student recruitment in quite the same way as I experienced in Australia.


What do you see as the greatest challenges for the UK sector going forward, particularly in comparison to Australia?


The two biggest challenges here are industrial relations and Brexit.


Union action and strikes have been a feature of higher ed in the UK for the last six years, and the unhappiness only seems to be increasing. The main academic union called for more than a dozen strike days this semester, which has had a huge impact on academic morale, teaching capacity, and student happiness. Discussions with prospective international students often involve questions about whether their learning will be disrupted, and we have had all sorts of discussions about tuition rebates with students. And of course, it’s hard on all members of staff when there is general unhappiness about working conditions, salary, and pensions.


The industrial relations situation in the UK generally is remarkably different from Australia, and the number of sectors engaged in strikes and industrial action—transport, academia, health, etc—makes for a challenging environment.


And the ongoing impact of Brexit?


Brexit is the other big challenge for UK academia. There is still no clarity over whether British institutions will be included in EU research funding and networks. The UK government has various schemes in place to replace this source of funding and is still negotiating access to EU programs—but ongoing uncertainty makes it hard to plan.


This is reflected in academic recruitment, of course. Unsurprisingly, it’s now notably harder to attract EU academics to UK positions—not only do they have to go through visa processing and move countries, they also may have to give up their EU research funding and may not be able to access EU funds in future. UK institutions also typically pay less than their Australian, US, or Canadian peer universities, making it significantly harder to attract the best talent.


My university is highly-ranked, so we are in a relatively privileged position and can compete for international talent. But lower-ranked institutions now confront a much-diminished pool of great applicants.


Your academic research area is technology and the law. Where do you see the greatest challenges for the law with the continued growth and application of AI?


The big story at the moment is generative AI, driven by the recent release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT-4. It’s hard to overstate how much these platforms (and other machine learning models) are going to change legal practice, and the challenge is to equip law students with the skills necessary to flourish in the new world of AI-mediated legal practice. Even training our faculty members in this kind of technology is a huge undertaking. We’ve embarked on this challenge, but it’s a heavy lift.


In general, generative AI will affect lower-level legal tasks like summarising content, drafting basic advice, and the like. This will have a serious effect on the employability of certain law graduates—but not the ones with new skills in legal generative AI and legal prompt engineering.


What about implications of generative AI for higher education?


For good reason, everyone has lost their minds about the assessment problem that generative models create. But generative AI affects so many parts of the university system, in research, teaching, and so on. It will change the way that we teach, it removes any value in asking applicants to write an admission essay, and so on. We’re not ready for this change, it’s hit us so quickly and so hard.


Any university that isn’t thinking about an ‘Office for AI’ (or something similar) that reports to the Vice-Chancellor, really isn’t ready for what is about to happen!



About Professor Dan Hunter


Professor Dan Hunter was appointed as Executive Dean of The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London in 2022.  He was previously the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology and the Founding Dean of Swinburne Law School in Australia.


He is an international expert in internet and intellectual property law, AI & law, and legal tech and legal innovation. He holds a PhD from Cambridge on the cognitive science of legal reasoning, as well as computer science and law degrees from Monash University, and an LLM by research from the University of Melbourne.



Rohan A. Carr

April 2023

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