Exclusive: Cost of law school set to plunge, but concerns about “dumbing down” persist
The solicitor super-exam that is set to be introduced in two years time will represent “real value for money”, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) training chief has pledged, as she reveals plans to make the new vocational training regime “substantially cheaper” than the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
Speaking exclusively to Legal Cheek, SRA education director Julie Brannan lamented the current high cost of the LPC when studied in London, suggesting that it would be “hard to devise an exam that could possibly cost as much as £15,000, even including training”.
She added that one of the key drivers behind the proposed super-exam — whose full title is the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) — was to make qualification as a solicitor “more affordable”, although she declined to give any estimates of precise figures as the wider costings remain “subject to a public procurement exercise”.
The proposed SQE is split into two parts — one exam before the training contract commences and the other at the end of the training contract. Part one is set to be the cheapest, and part two more expensive as it will require the testing of practical skills.
However, there remains widespread scepticism from the legal profession about the SRA’s proposals, with no major law firm yet having come out in support of them. A frequently voiced concern among law lecturers and legal graduate recruiters is that the shake-up will, after a lot of upheaval, actually produce a system that is pretty similar to the current one without any major improvements.
BPP Law School dean Peter Crisp summed up the mood as he told Legal Cheek:
The overwhelming response to the first SRA consultation from both the profession and legal educators was that the SRA’s proposals are not fit for purpose and will result in a dumbing down of legal education. The SRA is not comparing like for like, because the LPC is not an exam. Further what we deliver for the profession is way beyond the minimum requirements of the LPC. We teach a master’s degree in professional legal practice, with specialisms in corporate finance, commercial law, business finance and strategy.
Firms will not only have to fund the SQE and test preparation for it, disrupting their businesses to cope with it, but will continue to require their future trainees to undertake the training and education they need to be fit for practice.
There is also a concern among students that the SQE will involve more work, thanks to its inclusion not only of the central elements of the LPC but also the core modules of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The GDL part of the SQE will have to be studied by law graduates and non-law graduates alike, meaning that LLB students will have to pass some academic requirements twice.
The reasoning for this doubling up is that the SRA is concerned about widely fluctuating standards between different universities and LPC providers. Under the super-exam plan, the SRA will centrally assess all students — an approach followed by many legal regulators in foreign jurisdictions. In the long term, Brannan expects to see some universities rolling the super-exam into their LLB degrees, but in the short term there will doubtless be some inconvenience.
But Brannan argues that the upheaval will be more than mitigated by the drop in costs. Citing the failure of the University of the West of England’s low-cost £6,000 LPC, she told us that she reckons that “price has become a proxy for quality in the LPC market” as the dominant law school players use their association with law firms to justify high prices.
“Students think that if Slaughter and May’s future trainees go to BPP then it must be good. It may well be excellent, but there is no other information to help them choose a provider,” Brannan continued, drawing attention to the fact that at present there is no published record comparing how students at different providers perform on the course — largely because the methods of assessment fluctuate widely.
Under a centrally-assessed exam the SRA would aim to make this information publicly available. If this happened, prospective SQE students could make purchasing decisions on the basis of provider performance rather than simply perceived status.
BPP vigorously contested these further claims, with Crisp suggesting that the proposed SQE “lacks rigour to such an extent that it won’t adequately prepare students for practice”.
The SRA wants to hear from you about its super-exam plan. A second consultation is currently underway — you can share your views here.