A quiet word about how to focus on student fees

I am getting a little gentle criticism on twitter for posing this question:

So is the story that law school applications have fallen or that they have fallen by significantly less than undergraduate subjects generally?

Both stories are true, although the headline writers at both the Lawyer and the Gazette appear to have opted for story one.  It’s an understandable reaction, but not – I think- the best reaction.  Here is why.

The main political story – one which should occupy the nation – is, and should be, the general decline in undergraduate applications and the impact on diversity within the undergraduate body generally.  The Coalition has opted for a particular policy and should pay some political cost for adopting that strategy.  The downsides of it need to be clearly understood.

When we come to look at this from the perspective of the legal profession, the same applies but only up to a point.  The changes will reduce diversity within the student body.  And this will impact on who is recruited to the profession.  The headline figures for the reduction in student applications for law, being considerably less than the figures for other subjects, suggests we should worry a little less but it does not suggest we should not worry at all.

There does however, ultimately, have to be a point to all this concern.  It seems to me a rational, if not entirely palatable, response to the student fees issue to say: that decision has been taken.  We should criticise its effects and do so loudly but we should look at the problem from our particular perspective and ask ourselves – what can we do about it?  In particular, if our concern, as legal professionals, is with greater diversity we need to ask ourselves this question:  what are the addressable causes of lack of a lack of diversity in the legal profession?  And by addressable I mean addressable by the professions and the Universities.  In particular, I would ask the following question, is it possible that (lack of) diversity in the legal profession is more about university and firm/chambers selection criteria than it is about student fees?

Even if the answer to that question were to be finely balanced, it is the one that it is within the professions’ and Universities’ powers to address.  Perhaps, then, it is the question which we should ultimately concentrate our energies on?  Funding is important, but there is relatively little we can do to influence it.

Let me suggest one more subtle and yet important shift caused by the changes to fees which will go unnoticed for some time as an indicator of the kind of thing I mean.  That shift is the localisation of university education: particularly among students from less affluent backgrounds.  Let me suggest also that this localisation is something which is already happening.  Some of the most talented law students will choose (are choosing) to study nearer, or at, home.  Firms and chambers with a concern to attract the best (and most diverse) students should be factoring that into their recruitment policies.  It is an addressable problem: are they tackling it?  If they are, they can improve both the quality, the diversity of the profession and the strength of their businesses.  If they aren’t, they can always blame the government.  Alternatively, they could do both.

2 thoughts on “A quiet word about how to focus on student fees

  1. Most of the decline seems to have been driven by sharp falls in subjects such as communications and business studies (-40 % and -26% respectively), which makes a drop for law of “only” -5.2% not so comfortable when compared with the average of -7.9%. Also interesting to see big rises in applications from Hong Kong, Australasia and non-EU European – are they turning away from US universities? Will be interesting too to see which are the 11 of the 26 universities covered by the figures that didn’t experience a drop (Russell group?), and where law fits in that jugsaw, particularly in the light of your point on localisation. Could this prompt regional law firms to develop closer links with local universities?

  2. Surely the elephant in the room for this discussion is that, having trained as a lawyer with a law degree and then the bar’s or solicitor’s conversion course, at distressing expense, there are few jobs on offer. The bar’s figures are something like 3,500 candidates on the course, and 450 first 6 pupillages, and although the solicitor’s figures are somewhat better there are still a lot of very well qualified people chasing a few training contracts. Isn’t that the thing that needs to be addressed? And is the answer to (horror of horrors) train fewer lawyers?

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