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?