“Dangerous dumbing down” – academics slam SRA training proposals

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s proposed reforms to legal education are “dangerous for the solicitors’ profession and dangerous for those thinking of joining it in the future,” an academic has argued.

Professor Anthony Bradney published his views in a paper for the think tank Politeia, entitled Dumbing Down the Law.

“Evidence, careful analysis and close consultation ought to be watchwords” when seeking to reform British success stories of higher education and UK law, he writes.

“However, in the whimsical world of the SRA, things work differently. Bulls manage china shops. Guess-work and paradox appear to be seen as sound policy bases. Assertion is seen as a useful substitute for argument. Fairy stories replace the unwelcome truths of reality.”

Speaking at a Politeia round table discussion marking the publication of his paper, Bradney outlined his concerns about the SRA’s plans for a Solicitor’s Qualification Exam (SQE) that was initially proposed at the end of last year.

He argued: “Nurses and teachers need to be graduates but it seems that SRA thinks solicitors don’t. The Bar is talking about raising the standard you have to have in your degree before you can take their examinations, but solicitors will not need to be graduates. That must, I think, result in a devolution of the reputation of solicitors both in this country and abroad.”

Bradney also warned of the dangers of low-quality ‘crammer courses’ emerging. “Setting up the SQe will inevitably lead to courses that teach you how to pass the SQE. Since the courses will not be regulated by the SRA they are likely to be driven by commercial imperatives?

“How can you construct a course that will attract the largest number of students? The answer is likely to be that such courses will be relatively short in order to keep costs low. They wil be cramming courses with all that that implies. Some of them may well be successful in their aims. Students will pass the SQE even though, shortly after they have passed, they will have forgotton all that they have learnt.”

Dean of BPP Law School Peter Crisp added: “The reality is most students will to continue to elect to go to university to protect them in the marketplace as they go through their careers, but it will need to be made very clear the extent to which their degree is also test prep for parts or the whole of the SQE. Will they also have to buy a crammer course to get over the SQE hurdle?

And straight away we are calling it a hurdle, another box you have to tick. It’s not making you a better solicitor, it’s not improving your chances of getting a training contract – it’s simply a regulatory hurdle that must be passed.”

Crisp went on to say that law firms like the electives and capacity for their future joiners to specialise that the LPC currently offers – but which the SRA proposals do not cater for. “My prediction is that firms will still require some LPC-type training with some elective component required,” he said.

Crisp concluded by saying “the cost of qualification may well soar: the degree, plus some sort of LPC-style training, plus electives, plus crammer courses for the SQE, plus the cost of the SQE itself.

“A cost in the region of £3,000 or £4,000 [for the SQE] would seem to be a minimum to me because Part 2 is a very expensive process.

“Nothing in these proposals gives me any comfort that it will increase access to the profession. I think it favours those students who have the bank of mum and dad and deep pockets to reach into.”

Professor Bradney also noted that the SRA painted a picture that the 72 responses to its consultation were broadly supportive of the suggested reforms – but that in the wake of publication, participants realised their comments were not accurately reflected.

He asks: “Have the SRA misunderstood or misrepresented what is being said to them, or is it both?

“If they cannot understand responses to their own paper, how far can they be trusted to understand the evidence which they said underpinned their initial suggestions?”

Following consultation, the SRA proposed its SQE ‘super-exam’ in December 2015. The idea elicited a cautious response from law school chiefs at the time, while students’ comments on social media were generally not positive. The president of Leeds Law Society has since said the proposed reforms would “irreparably damage the UK legal brand.”

Over the next month, the SRA is to go on tour round the country in order to let lawyers and students have their say, beginning in Birmingham this evening.

What they said: selected comments

Professor Anthony Bradney, Keele University

We live in a world where in order to become a nurse or a teacher you need to have a degree. The SQE and the new apprenticeship route to becoming a solicitor says something about the relative professional standing of solicitors.

The reality in the future, like the reality now, will be that the vast majority of solicitors will have degrees.

However reality and appearances can be different. Emphasising the lack of connection between degrees and qualification, as the SRA is doing, when other occupations are doing the reverse will diminish confidence in solicitors.

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“Law degrees are successful because they feed into a variety of vocations, not just being a solicitor. The SRA has said they think universities will change their syllabi in order to fit the SQE. Educationally, there is a very good argument against doing that, but I also don’t see what the business case is for universities. If you set up a degree for solicitors you guarantee you will have disappointed graduates who cannot find jobs. Law schools in the USA went down that route some time ago and from 2011 to 2014 found themselves being sued by graduates who weren’t getting the jobs they’d been promised.

“What the SQE will lead to is ‘crammer courses’ – short courses which will be cheap and will enable students to pass the SQE. And what you all know is, at the time they pass the SQE they will know the answers. And they will have forgotten them three weeks later.”

***

“Have the SRA misunderstood or misrepresented what is being said to them, or is it both?

“If they cannot understand responses to their own paper, how far can they be trusted to understand the evidence which they said underpinned their initial suggestions?

“Finally, if they are not just misunderstanding what is being said but misrepresenting it, to what degree is this a real consultation exercise? Is there the possibility of genuine change, including the acceptance that the whole venture is misconceived, or are we in the middle of a paper exercise that will merely shift a few commas and change a subheading?”

Peter Crisp, Dean of BPP Law School

peter crisp 317“Successive governments have introduced targets around the percentage of people participating in higher education – only this week the prime minister was making a great deal of noise around the lack of BME students in certain universities.

“So the whole tenor is that we want the population to be participating very heavily and actively in higher education – but [if the SRA gets its way] not solicitors. It is odd that the regulator is going against this atmosphere and culture.”

“As it is the current system requires fewer qualifications than many other legal jurisdictions, so the UK already has a lighter touch than many. It seems to me the SRA wants to dumb this down further and all that will be required to have the label of solicitor is that you pass two tests and that’s it.

“What the SRA is proposing seems to me to be confused. First of all they say they are not dumbing down and that qualification will still be rigorous, but it’s not going to be Level 6 [graduate level] because they are not going to adopt any framework that higher education is currently familiar with in this country. Instead it’s going to be ‘graduate level’ but not directly linked to Level 6 as we understand it.

“This is incoherent. I don’t know as an educationalist how I can set an assessment at a graduate level without some reference to some sort of framework which the rest of higher education in this country actually recognise as demonstrating those attributes.

“Furthermore, there is no value put on electives or specialisation – solicitors do many different kinds of work but the SRA proposals present no opportunity or encouragement for people to specialise before they go into practice. So what they are proposing, astonishingly, is a reduction of knowledge at the point of qualification compared to the current system.

“For students it is going to cause a great deal of confusion. It doesn’t take into account that most people will still want a degree to protect them in the marketplace as they move through their careers. It may be the case that some undergraduate law degrees can adapt, but a substantial chunk what Part 1 of the new SQE will test is not taught at undergraduate level – wills and probate, for example.

“So the reality is most students will to continue to elect to go to university, but it will need to be made very clear the extent to which their degree is also test prep for parts or the whole of the SQE, or not. Will they also have to buy a crammer course to get over the SQE hurdle?

“And straight away we are calling it a hurdle, another box you have to tick. It’s not making you a better solicitor, it’s not improving your chances of getting a training contract – it’s simply a regulatory hurdle that must be passed.”