This blog comprises a panel contribution made at the Westminster Policy Forum November 11th 2020: The Challenges of implementing the SQE and the changes to barrister training so far – knowledge and skills development and opportunities offered by the new qualification
By Caroline Strevens
Chair, Association of Law Teachers, and Head of Portsmouth Law School
The aim of the ALT is to further the advancement, development, study, understanding, use and reform of the educational aspects of law and its teaching.
As such and as one of the Learned Associations in Law we are concerned with improving access to justice, encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession; and increasing public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties.
The record shows that we have contributed to the debate around the design of the SQE and we accept that as it is implemented there are opportunities and threats.
We commend the Legal Services Board (LSB) for its emphasis on the assurances and commitments provided by the SRA and look forward to responding to the reports, data and assessments as they are published.
How will Universities view the challenges of implementing the SQE and what are the opportunities?
During this period our students have choice.
How do we advise our students? The two crucial questions relate to cost and employers’ preference. As far as cost is concerned we know that the examination fees for SQE1 and 2 amount to £3980. The LSB decision notice notes that the indicative overall savings: for a law degree incorporating SQE1 prep, QWE and SQE2 prep there is a saving of £8000. A law degree that does not include SQE1 prep based upon cost indications of existing (but very limited to date) estimates provides a saving of £4500 and the same for the GDL route.
How will students judge value for money? There is no data yet on pass rates for different routes. As time goes by we may acquire a sample large enough to provide evidence to draw conclusions about correlation (but not causation).
What of employers? We have just heard from Ben Perry Training partner at Sullivan Cromwell LLP. A firm’s website can make their recruitment preferences clear. It may take a couple of years before decisions are made. The legal services market is stratified and it is likely that the high street firms will take longer.
How will University Law Schools respond?
Universities are subject to the Competition and Markets Authority regulations and this means that they must provide applicants and students with clear, accurate and timely information to enable them to make an informed decision about what and where to study. Law Schools must be clear in messages about how their degrees prepare students for SQE1.
The University has three competing objectives: creation of new knowledge through research, dissemination through education and impact through knowledge exchange. Funding flows from all three sources depending upon each institution and its unique selling points.
Research intensive universities see research as a larger and much consuming objective that not only brings in funding but underpins national and international reputation and that in turn results in strong national and international student recruitment. They also attract and retain expert academic staff.
Thus any one law school may have a different mismatch of staff expertise. Staff who have been recruited for their research profile may well not be in a position to teach practice areas. Other staff who teach employment family housing or other non business subjects now assessed within SQE1 and 2 may find students numbers selecting their options reducing.
It is accepted that only about 40% law graduates go on into the legal profession. Each Law School will have differing aims and objectives and indeed learning outcomes for their students. The employability agenda is wider than preparation for legal practice.
So this is my personal prediction.
Law schools with an LPC are likely to select SQE ready degrees. My evidence for this is that the 7 institutions who offered the BPTC have now all been authorised as AETOs. I suggest that those Law schools that currently offer the LPC will convert to offering a SQE ready law degree in order to reduce staff redundancies. In the short term I suggest that demand for the LPC will increase (and has risen this summer) as students opt for the route to qualification that is known to them and to employers.
Law Schools without an LPC have a number of options: create a new Masters offering that incorporates SQE 1 and 2 prep and which qualifies for a student loan; continue or commence offering a modified GDL; forge a link to one of the early entrants to the market such as UoL, Barbri or the College of Legal Practice.
Once we know more detail about QWE we will be able to develop our CLE offering. We will slightly increase our use of MCQ (covid has given online learning and assessment a huge push) and we will develop more options that align with SQE subjects.
I see a healthy market developing for practitioners who would like to do some teaching!
One last thought – what do we know currently about the reaction of law schools?
A study by Dr Andrew Gilbert, senior law lecturer at the Open University, found that three quarters of qualifying law degree providers do not indicate that the SQE will affect their courses from autumn 2021.
According to Gilbert’s research, which was conducted between 10 September and 24 September 2020, 61% of the 119 relevant universities do not mention the SQE on their websites. Meanwhile, 14% mention the assessment, but do say it will affect course provision.
Just 10 universities (8%) give detailed information about new courses or changes to courses in response to the ‘super-exam’.
The answer to that question is that we do not yet know much about the reaction of Law Schools to the SQE.