Analysis

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

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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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15 Comments

DON'T DO THE LPC/GDL WITHOUT A TRAINING CONTRACT.

Read my name.

(21)(2)

Anonymous

This is probably right. But it does kind of suck.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

I agree with this advice – though its hard for many to get a job as a paralegal without the LPC under their belt.

(9)(1)

Toppsy Kretts

It can be difficult, but I wholeheartedly agree. I have many colleagues who found training contracts whilst on the LPC but there are even more who don’t have anything and finished it years ago.

Personally, I didn’t start the LPC until I had sponsorship and a training contract. However this did take me 3 years after graduating from my LLB and dipping and diving into different jobs.

(8)(0)

Zyzzbrah

I got mine straight outta uni.

Sucks to be a beta like you.

(0)(9)

Toppsy Kretts

Entirely so, there are people such as yourself who have achieved this and a very well done to you for all your hard work.

I spent my entire time at Uni trying to get into the Bar, so I was grossly under prepared for the training contract process when I finished and I paid for that with time.

I wouldn’t know about “beta” though – I got the TC I wanted which is in a very niche provision of financial services, so I’ll eclipse you on qualification.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Good article, well done LC.

(6)(0)

Speedy Lorenzo Lopez

Agreed. Go get some butter for your baps, you’ve earned it.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

The focus of the SQE was about maintaining consistent standards more than improving diversity. The diversity point was just a nice sub-plot to try and convince students it was all worth it thanks to some recommendations from the LETR.

All the time the SRA don’t really want the responsibility of monitoring standards within the period of recognised training thoroughly, the SQE will still go ahead. There is a similar issue with maintaining standards within LLBs, which basically isn’t happening on any consistent level.

Plus they need a system than also integrates the apprenticeship route and the QLTS, which wouldn’t be affected by tutition fees at all, into one consistent route.

So thinking changes in tutition fees will dramatically influence the SQE is particularly naive.

(0)(0)

BAME

I want to live forever

(1)(1)

Toppsy Kretts

You and me both.

(0)(2)

Anonymous

Universities have not received more money under the fee system. The amount that is produced be fees (which actually came from the government anyway via the Student Loans Company) was offset by a reduction in the money coming from government from general taxation.

Similarly if tuition fees go down, then government will have to pay for universities out of general taxation again.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Professorial Pay at Russel Group Universities Starts at 58k.
Academics become full Professors in their 40s…15 years from PhD…

Law schools are broke.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Corbyn promised students they would all be debt free. Corbyn did better than expected in the election. So the Tories and others are also making noises about reducing student debt, purely for electoral reasons.

But Corbyn didn’t have a hope in hell of meeting his absurd promise. There isn’t enough money.

So the discussions about student funding are entirely bogus. And the bearded fool will never be elected anyway.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

My understanding is that SQE 1 is to be a series of online, multiple choice tests on the foundations of legal knowledge. If this is the case, then this part of the examination will either be extremely cheap or it will rip students off.

Most accounting bodies now use multiple choice testing for their foundation papers and the costs of buying the text books and sitting these exams is around the £100 mark. What pushes the price up is tuition, typically about £500-600 for a week’s instruction, but that tends to be optional.

The only reason I can think of that could make the SQE expensive is mandatory tuition from a limited number of approved providers. This also creates the added problem that access to the profession would actually retreat as part time students currently doing LLBs by self study distance learning might suddenly find themselves forced to attend classes either on weekdays or far away from where they live.

Hopefully the SQE will be an exam only offering with a policy of ‘study where and how you want.’ But we will have to wait and see.

(0)(0)

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