The tuition fee backlash could spell danger for the solicitor super-exam

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By Alex Aldridge on

Design of the cheaper LPC replacement is based on undergraduate fees staying high

A growing backlash against undergraduate tuition fees, that looks set to see them reduced or even abandoned altogether, will surely have a wider impact across education at all levels. The big question for the legal profession is what the change of mood could mean for the new solicitor super-exam (aka the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)), which has been designed with a high undergraduate fee environment in mind. Could the SQE — which is due to replace the Legal Practice Course (LPC) in 2020 — be undermined by events before it has even been introduced?

Over the past few weeks cross-party support has been growing to reform an undergraduate tuition fee regime that mainstream sentiment has rapidly turned against. At the weekend Blairite architect of tuition fees, Lord Adonis, went so far as to call for them to be scrapped. Days previously, top Tory Damian Green suggested that a “national conversation” be held on the matter.

For the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), as it seeks to bring about the biggest change to legal education in a generation, the dramatic shift in sentiment potentially represents a ‘black swan’ that could undermine some of the key planks behind the grand plan to do away with the LPC.

The SQE was predicated to a large extent on bringing down the cost of vocational legal education to offset the soaring cost of undergraduate study. Until Jeremy Corbyn’s shock star performance at the General Election, the only direction of travel that most people could foresee for student fees was up. Yet here we are, post 8 June, in what feels like a very different world.

“So what?” you might say. “If lawyers of tomorrow benefit from undergraduate fee cuts and a cheaper solicitor vocational route, then that’s just good for them.”

But, alongside reducing cost, there is a further key objective behind the super-exam: to bring the training of future solicitors under the centralised assessment of the SRA (at present assessment is carried out independently by universities and law schools). This power grab could be made considerably more difficult if undergraduate fees fall. Let me explain why.

The move to central assessment has led to the most awkward part of the SQE plans: a requirement that law graduates be re-examined during the super-exam on the seven core legal subjects they are taught — and tested on — on their LLBs. This basically means that all law graduates will have to do the equivalent of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) — despite already having completed a law degree! — on top of meeting the old LPC requirements. As you would expect, students don’t like this.

But the SRA has kept the grumbles muted by indicating that it will encourage universities to roll the SQE into their LLBs to prevent doubling up. Indeed, some institutions have already started working on such plans. Over time, the SRA’s vision seems to be that this will become the norm, or close to it, with law degrees becoming ever more tailored to SQE objectives. Even where the SQE is taken separately, the message appears to be that it will be a minimalist affair that law graduates will already be largely prepped for.

Well, that may well have been the case in a world of £9k-a-year undergraduate fees where well-resourced universities compete to offer the best value for money to students. But if tuition fees are to fall, or are even cancelled, expect an altogether different dynamic to come into play. Rather than give away freebies, suddenly cash-strapped universities would surely instead find themselves looking for new things to charge for. And the shiny new SQE could quickly come to represent a very handy cash cow, to be spruced up and flogged at full whack, rather than down-played and given away as an extra.

In such circumstances we could find ourselves with a new solicitor training regime that actually isn’t any cheaper than the old one. Would the considerable upheaval of scrapping the LPC really have been worth it? Perhaps more pertinently, would the uncomfortable overlap of content on LLBs and the SQE be tolerated?

At present a change in direction of undergraduate tuition fees seems more likely than not. It is surely a matter of time before the SQE’s enemies — and there are a lot of them, because the SRA’s reforms shake up many vested interests — start asking some awkward questions.

Alex Aldridge is the publisher of Legal Cheek.

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