Why the new higher education bill is not the solution for improving the state of legal education

Will the negative consequences outweigh its good intentions?

higher

There is a torpedo-like public bill making its stealthy way through the House of Commons right now: it’s called the Higher Education and Research Bill.

But the Bill is intended to raise standards and make universities more accountable. So what’s wrong with that? As Alex Aldridge has argued on Legal Cheek, there are reasons to be concerned about the state of legal education, about law schools as cash cows and poor teaching standards.

So isn’t this Bill a good thing? May be; the risk is that unintended (and negative) consequences will outweigh the good intentions.

If we look at teaching standards, the Government proposes to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a system whereby metrics are used to assess the quality of providers’ teaching provision; only those universities ranking highest on the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees.

But these are the metrics: first, student satisfaction (through the national student survey), second, student drop-out rates and third, the employment rates for graduates in the first six months. Just one look at those metrics and one can see huge problems with them.

When you look at student satisfaction, it is, clearly, a very good idea to understand the student experience and to give students a louder voice. But you may also find that lecturers ‘play to the gallery’ to gain popularity rather than do a good job of teaching.

And consider timing. If a student were asked about their course just a few days after finishing it compared with, say, a few years later, would their answer be the same? Many junior lawyers may well reflect that an unpopular, demanding tutor taught them more in the long run than their more popular chilled-out counterparts.

Or take the employability point. Whether or not you get a job six months after graduating may have nothing to do with the standards of teaching you have just experienced. One of the biggest influences on your employability will be the health of the job market which you choose to go into.

The TEF will, in the words of one commentator, lead to: “the tyranny of metrics”, that universities and teaching staff will become obsessed with these indicators – and that ‘managing’ them will become a full-time occupation (just look at the ‘management’ of stats on train punctuality or hospital waiting-times).

Mike Boxall is an expert on higher education at PA Consulting Group and has analysed the Bill in great detail. His conclusion is damning:

Judging teaching quality on simplistic metrics will produce a reductionist and commoditising approach to teaching, when what is needed is more imaginative, innovative and relevant teaching.

Let’s take another of the Bill’s proposals. The Government wants to “deliver greater competition and choice” for students by reducing red tape and making it easier for new entrants to the higher education market. But it appears that we have all forgotten the debacle that market liberalisation like this produced just a few years ago.

In 2010, the Government at the time made changes designed also to encourage new entrants into the market: private colleges were to be allowed to take on students with Government loans in order to increase the choice of qualifications and flexible study. The number of providers expanded massively: within three years, the number of students claiming support for courses at alternative providers rose from 7,000 to an astounding 53,000.

By 2015, it was clear, however, that there had been a massive abuse of public money. There were scandals of EU and other international students getting student loans through these colleges who were not eligible for them (equating to wasted public money of £3.84m). The Public Accounts Committee’s report at the time reads:

Whistleblowers told us that some institutions admitted students with unacceptably low fluency in English who were therefore not equipped to pursue qualifications for which they had enrolled …

One wonders what these students would have put down in a student satisfaction survey.

The Government would argue that the drafters of this new Bill have learnt lessons from this particularly depressing cock-up. It envisages cool brands like Google or well-established private providers like BPP or Pearson expanding into the undergraduate market but experts say that there is no guarantee that these are the new entrants you’ll get.

Private providers are also more likely to cherry-pick what they teach and will be far more commercially focused. It could be that they don’t even bother to teach the non-commercial modules — or to put it in headline-speak: ‘for-profit providers may not turn out to be particularly interested in human rights law’.

This is a real concern for students whose interests are not primarily where the money is and who already feel marginalised by their university careers offices because they are not gunning for the magic circle. Universities absolutely do need to adapt to a new era of student-as-consumer; tuition fees changed the relationship between institutions and undergrads forever.

But surely Brexit has taught us one thing: that the law of unintended consequences is probably the most important law of all.

13 Comments

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

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Anonymous

The quality of teaching is imploding because Law Schools are entirely incapable of attracting and retaining talent due to low pay.

This is the reason why an increasing number of academics in Law schools do not have a legal background and cannot practice law.

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Anonymous

At my Uni none of my lecturers had the faintest idea of what being a solicitor was all about.

Law schools are not fit for purpose.

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Anonymous

I find quoting my boss is always a good way to get more work, too.

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Principal Adam Deen

I was raised in a single parent household with £9,000 a year coming in.

Also apart of both the highest unemployment rate races with English as my third language.

Yet i still went to Oxford.

Rather than teaching kids bollocks like the “nuclear subdomain that assembles ribosomal subunits in eukaryotic cells” and other irrelevant stuff that they will never use in life, How about teaching them how a credit card works? or how to properly dress for work?

School should be personalised for the individuals, with secondary personalisation on their chosen career which they could switch between.

The amount of people who walk into a TC interview saying shit like “Bacon’fookin’sandwich m8, i ‘ave 9 GCSEs at A* m8, gimme a jammie dodger sunshine” Is fucking unreal.

If you want increased employment rates, educate them for work, not for the bants.

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Anonymous

Oh so you’re one of those “we should teach our students how to calculate their tax” people

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Adam Deen

Nah, that’s what accountants are for, We should teach our students about life and the real world, it wouldn’t hurt for them to know what APR is though is it?

Relevancy is key.

If they want a career in a certain subject, secondary emphasis should be placed on specalizing them for that career.

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Anonymous

I thought you were banging on in another post that your dad was a partner in a Saudi law firm, getting down to it with trainees, etc? Must’ve been too busy doing that to have made any money if he was only on £9k per year…

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Adam Deen

I was raised by my mother you fuckwit.

How can you not calculate that?

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Anonymous

Why don’t you homeschool your children? I’m sure their knowledge of how to dress for work will really broaden their horizons.

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Lord Lyle of Statistical Analysis.

Aha D is undone again.
D is no partridge. He’s a well known tablecloth.
But I like him

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