Quality and cost post SQE

The SRA continues to proselytise about its SQE proposals. I confess I have still not had a chance to fully digest the detail but I get a little bit more anxious with each bit of detail that surfaces. One point struck me whilst reading this rather good story on Legal Cheek. The SRA education director (Julie Brannan) says it would be “hard to devise an exam that could possibly cost as much as £15,000, even including training”. Tempting as it is to deconstruct the sentence with more vigour, or to simply chortle, Mwahahaha, I will simply say this: if the SRA is right – as it claims – that the exam will significantly drives up standards then there is at least a plausible case that both the exam and the training necessary to deliver those standards will be more expensive than currently. There are other possibilities, perhaps some of the training can be done away from classrooms, on the job, without the students/trainees being charged for it, and perhaps some of the training will be rolled up into LLBs and that will reduce cost – but I am not sure how much I would bet on it unless we suddenly magic up a whole lot of price competition where there has been little to date.

An interesting further point is made about price and quality. Julie notes in the same story that purchasers often treat price as a proxy for quality. This, she thinks, is one of the reasons behind the driving up of LPC fees. I do not know if this is true or not, but it is a plausible problem. Relatedly, The SRA are putting quite a lot of eggs in a basket marked publication of SQE results. This, they seem to be hoping, will help contribute to a better market for SQE related training. It’s not at all clear why, where prices have raced to the top in the past, they will now race to the bottom. But anyway, they want to, it seems, publish individual institution’s SQE averages for their students. This they will do, perhaps, whether or not the institutions conduct SQE training, and in situations where the SQE training may be very extensive or very lightly geared towards the SQE assessment. There are various problems with this, but a big one is that the link between the intervention (the training) and the outcome (the SQE result) maybe really rather tenuous. Imagine that Oxford changes its LLB not one bit and ignores the SQE; that Keele changes its degree programme to make their students part-SQE ready; and Northumbria preps the students for all the assessments that it possibly can. And then imagine comparing their SQE pass rates. What will they mean, and who’s behaviour will they influence?

But even putting this to one side, I found myself thinking back to when I chose to do the Law Society Finals. Then, the Law Society had a central assessment and league tables were published of success rates for each LSF provider. I remember because I chose my institution, Birmingham Poly as it then was, because it had a high success rate. This seemed the obvious, rational thing to do. I did, however, have to swim against a certain “you should choose the College of Law” tide because “law firms prefer the College of Law” even though the outcome is that the College of Law is achieving were poorer then. That tide was dominant even though there was a plausible case for saying that the College of Law was a rather poor institution then- indeed it was about to be given a good shakeup by the erstwhile head of Nottingham Law School, Nigel Savage.

Readers of the better memory may be to remind me whether there were price differentials between the College of Law and the institutions, and whether that might have influenced decisions or a suggested a healthy market in quality and cost. My suspicion is there was not, but that may have been because prices regulated? Anyway, my basic point is that in spite of a very clear link between outcomes (the exam results) and the interventions (the training provided that those institutions), a link that – for all that it was flawed – is significantly clearer than the SRA’s current proposals, we nevertheless had a reputational market which still (I think) favoured the College of Law. Why, if that were true then, would we get a more responsive market for quality and cost now?


About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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2 Responses to Quality and cost post SQE

  1. Allan murray-jones says:

    As always I enjoyed this.

    The SQE exams taken together will be quite expensive, particularly SQE2 which will be labour intensive. The interesting thing about SQE2 is how little opposition there is to it within the profession; the underlying guilty secret is of course that we all know that trainees are signed off at the end of their training contract irrespective of performance unless they have committed some criminal offence (more or less). Firms sign someone off and then do not keep them on. And of course outside the profession there is very little hostility, as the more vocal opponents of SQE are not involved with the SQE2 end. But it will cost some thousands of pounds (perhaps something like the amount now charged for the Qualifying Lawyers Transfer Test, although there might be some saving because of the increased scale). The SRA tends to discount this cost and the cost of preparation as it will not be a cost incurred for someone who does not find a training place as opposed to the still significant number of people who take the LPC with no job position in sight.

    On SQE1 the costs will be much lower, although unless something else happens, and in the short run at least, it (and the associated training costs) will be on top of existing costs. Moreover, as things stand, student loans will not be available for the costs of these exams or any training. Again, the SRA might say that even SQE1 and preparation costs need only be incurred if a training place is available (but see the point about the LPC above).

    So equality and diversity are major issues.

    From the time that the SRA started down this course they have, at all levels, told me that this will be offset by the improvement of standards you refer to. Like you, I find this a difficult argument, although the world is a different place now to when you and I qualified and perhaps it will a bit. As possibly will Government attempts to improve standards of teaching etc across the University sector.

    This is all preparatory to telling you about one possible development. The City firms, who send a fortune on training staff, are all upset about paying the apprenticeship levy, and many of them are looking at ways to get some of the money back. If you could have graduate apprenticeships at law, firms may be able to pay for entrants to study and take these exams, and offset the third party costs agains their levy payments. Or, for smaller firms which do not pay the levy, get those costs paid. I know some firms are talking to some training providers about just this.

    The other thing, given that the SQE will happen in some form, is surely to look for positives in it (even if like me one is an SQE sceptic (in private)). I used to teach remedial classes in contracts law at my firm, because contract law is invariably a first year subject at University and a lot of it was forgotten by the time people started work. The SQE will help remedy that. And it may well mean people starting work have a more integrated view of land law. So it will not be all bad.

    Best wishes


  2. ltarget@waitrose.com says:

    The University of Oxford first degree in jurisprudence is BA; the BCL is a degree for graduates.
    In 1986 I chose the City of London Polytechnic for my CPE and LSF on the grounds of cost. It was the cheapest within reach. I suspected that the quality of the teaching might have been better if staff had not visibly spent so much time correlating the poor results with the relatively poor academic achievement of most candidates when they started the courses.
    Reputation then favoured the College of Law, certainly amongst expensively educated candidates whose parents were still paying. There were few, if any, other Oxford (or Russell Group) graduates with other professional qualifications and degrees amongst my classmates at CPL. Few of us seem to have gone on to do their articles at City or other expensive firms.

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