‘A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own’ – says Wikipedia. Well today I found myself in one. The escalator from the ground floor to the basement of Kings Place in London is a portal between universes. That really is the only explanation for what happened today – at least the only one that makes any real sense.
I was at the Legal Cheek event: The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference. I was already irritated by the 8.30am start and the fact that all the breaks were termed ‘networking breaks’. I can’t get to London for an 8.30 networking breakfast. I got there and sat down just in time for the intro from Alex from Legal Cheek who really just plugged their exclusive survey saying that students are skeptical of the SQE and want more law tech included in their programmes. Well, from the brief bits he presented I doubt it’s that simple. Who exactly was asked what exactly and did they really understand what they were being asked? Some of the answers reported suggest that perhaps they did not. In fact a lot of what was said today suggests that the people who really ought to understand it (like the people invited to talk about it) don’t understand it. I could go through presentation by presentation and summarise it all for you but I value my mental health and my heart rate profile for today is quite erratic enough so let’s do this thematically. Here are the things that jumped out at me
- There were important voices missing. What we saw and heard today was a particular vision of law and lawyering which is not the law or the legal services that most of us (and certainly not most of the general public) engage in or come in contact with. It is rich mans law, it’s corporate, commercial and fundamentally about making already filthy rich clients more money. It is not about justice, it’s not about people, not about the social or the political, not about making the world a better place, not about harnessing the power (symbolic or otherwise) of law and lawyers to solve the big problems of the world. It was everything that makes people hate lawyers. I think it is what caused that flicker of disappointment in my mum’s face when I told her I wanted to study law and become a solicitor. It’s everything so many students think they should want even when they don’t.
- The SQE or at least the impact it is already having on universities and will certainly have on legal education is really poorly understood. Let me be clear. The SQE is an exam. It is not a programme, course or anything of that nature. It’s an exam. It therefore cannot deliver, in its own right, things like greater innovation, incorporation of tech, greater variety, cognitive diversity, any sort of diversity, thinking skills, improved written communication skills, resilience, creativity, project management and self management skills or commerciality. The only thing the SQE can do is test someones ability to pass the SQE. The preparation for the SQE might attempt to encourage some of those things but of course only if they are part of the SQE – which they are not. Many speakers made the assumption that legal knowledge would still be gained through law degrees and conversion courses – but why would that be the case? No law degree is required and many law schools will be under huge pressure to provide an SQE focused degree for fear of not recruiting students otherwise.
- There is a fundamental mismatch between what employers appear to want and say solicitors need (what they say they want – I’m not always convinced that they know what they mean when they say these things though) and what the SQE tests. There was much talk of creativity, thinking critically and differently, problem solving, managing yourself and learning how to fail and being more resilient. The SQE cannot test those things and other than for a small number of elite and very brave non-elite institutions the SQE means a move away from those things and towards learning to pass the multiple choice tests
- In spite of all the work done by the learned associations, all the SQE rhetoric is still operating on the assumption that what we do in universities is somehow not relevant to practice, can’t be quality assured and is not to be trusted. Varying pass rates, different curricula, different approaches and different assessments are presumed to mean that standards cannot be guaranteed. The problem about fitness to practice which is what regulation ought to be concerned is avoided and instead turned into a fundamental distrust of academics. But I agree with Richard Moorhead on this – the problem is more likely to be at the work place training end. The ridiculous consistency of people passing their training contracts is far more worrying than different institutions having different pass rates at LLB and LPC to me.
- There are apparently still people who think the SQE can deliver equality, diversity and inclusion benefits. There’s no evidence of this. If it reduced the cost of qualifying dramatically, maybe, but it can’t do this – you still need a degree, you’ll have to pay for the test, you’ll have to prepare for the test, you may fail the test and have to do it again… This cannot be significantly cheaper than degree plus LPC and funding option may disappear (for example the availability of loans for Masters degrees means that many LPCs are available in LLM versions so funding is available). The type of assessment has diversity implications and I just don’t see the SRA taking this seriously. They say they will fully test and analyse the statistics including by protected characteristics… but the fact still is that if you can pay to practice repeatedly then you are more likely to be successful. AND THAT IS NOT NEUTRAL
- Obviously we did not really talk about the ghettoisation of legal service provision and how the SQE might widen the gap between magic circle and high street. I can’t help thinking about the careers adviser I had at my school. When she saw my choice of A-levels and what I wanted to do with my life she said, well you won’t get into vet school – why not be a vet nurse? I said that I wanted to go to uni though and she asked me what for and why I’d want to waste my time doing a degree if I could get a job. I wonder what she will be telling kids at that school about becoming a solicitor, whether she understands the differences between solicitors and different firms and that the cheapest, most obvious route via an SQE ready degree might look great for these kids but is likely to funnel them into dead end paralegal jobs. I can’t help thinking about the girl at that same school who wanted to be a human rights lawyer but didn’t think she would be accepted anywhere because she came from the council estate down the road. Her teachers were telling her to stay local because she’d fit in better. I told her to be bold, that it would be awful at times, that it was a different world but that as much as I love working for the sort of institutions that I have worked for and now work for, they are sometimes just not good enough – she went to an elite uni- hated it but got to where she wanted to be. I can’t help thinking about the countless conversations with students about what they want to do, about repeatedly having to say – great – but you will have to do more and be better than those at Russel Group institutions, you will have to work harder and you will have to be lucky. And that’s without creating a real division in types of programmes. With the introduction of the SQE those who need the rigorous academic degrees most to help them to get to where they want to be are even less likely to access them. I feel utterly defeated by this.
- Of the lawyers or former lawyers who spoke, all totally normalised long hours. There was talk of 90 hour weeks and it was framed in terms of work ethic and being ambitious. I’m sorry but working 90 hours a week is not ambitious, it’s not having a good work ethic, it’s, pardon the language, fucking stupid! Maybe the perceived competency problem and consumer complaints are actually problems of exhaustion and not being able to function and of burn out and having been ground down. This is insanity! And no resilience is not about learning to deal with that shit. That’s not resilience. You have not failed if you can’t work those hours – you are human. Oh and maternity leave – it’s for baby things (what do I know!) and having coffee with your friends etc – it is not for re-training, setting up your business, working yourself to death… and if you take a part time job 4 days a week you don’t have the other 3 days to work on your business. Just stop. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
- There are people who see the SQE as a massive opportunity and apparently think that it will free law schools from the shackles of regulation to be free to innovate. No no no just no. This is just so naive. The SQE will have a huge impact and makes it more difficult to innovate not easier. The SQE can actually only deliver on some of its promises if law schools take on the role of training students for it. The SRA is banking on this happening. (I say let them bank on it and screw them, let’s just collectively decide we’re not doing that and instead uphold the integrity and rigour of our programmes). So what happens to in depth teaching of legal subjects? Family Law? Social Welfare Law? International Law? Anything Socio-legal? The underlying assumption here is also really problematic. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers happily doing what has always been done. We are constantly thinking about how we can change things, teach differently, engage our students, help them achieve those light bulb moments…
- Who chose who was invited to speak? Why weren’t the learned associations asked? Why not those who actually research these issues? With one or two notable exceptions is was an impressive line up of non-experts, people sort of wheeled out as representing something when in fact legal services weren’t represented well, law schools weren’t and in spite of Alex’s insistence that the student voice was really important to Legal Cheek there wasn’t a single student speaker.
I could probably go on and on and on but this gives you a flavour. I’m still a bit confused by it all. And I’m exhausted from trying to understand, from trying to work out what it is I’m missing, from forcing myself to have the confidence to know I’m right on this because the thing that perhaps took me by surprise the most is how easily my confidence in what I know and believe can be rocked by a bunch of men in suits spouting utter nonsense. After all, what could a girl from a small town in West Yorkshire possibly know about this? It took a two mile people and cyclist dodging run to clear my head and restore some sanity.
This conversation is going to continue and I’ll be back to participate but for now please do chat amongst yourselves while I re-charge.
I attended an event at Northumbria University today. It was titled Brexit and the Law School and I was asked to contribute some thoughts on ‘Learning, Teaching and the University: The Changing Shape of the University Community’. Below is a summary of my brief talk. I’ll try and summarise the rest of the day’s discussion in another post
- Law Schools are, in my view, distinct little communities within the wider university community, within the wider local, regional and national communities and, again in my view, communities are shaped by those who inhabit them. Therefore, to understand the impact of Brexit on Law Schools we need to understand how Brexit might change the make-up of the Law School and university communities and what that change might mean on the ground
- So how will the make-up of Law School and University inhabits change post Brexit? We don’t know!
- Here’s what we do know
- UCAS figures show that applications from UK students for Law Courses for 2017 entry are up by 7% whereas applications from EU students are down 3%
- UCAS figures also show that applications from UK students across the board for 2017 entry are down by 4%, whereas applications from EU students are down by 6%
- The proportion of EU students studying law is relatively small when compared to the proportion of EU students studying some other subjects
- The number and proportion of EU students varies quite dramatically between institutions
- There is lots of anecdotal evidence that EU national academic staff are considering or actively looking to leave the UK and work elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world
- There is also anecdotal evidence of EU nationals discounting the UK as a possible destination for work
- However there is also anecdotal evidence of EU national colleagues making plans to stay in the UK long term and also of some recruitment of EU national staff since the referendum
- The UCU survey about academics’ views on Brexit suggests that 76% of non-UK national academics are considering leaving the UK. That’s pretty damning. However, I would urge caution over that figure because ‘considering’ is very different from ‘planning to’ and the considering may be the result of quite significant uncertainty. Thing may change as we get clarification on what rights exactly will be available to our EU colleagues
4. This leads me on to what these figures don’t tell us
- Whether they are a trend or a blip. The applications for Law from EU nationals are still higher in number than for the 3 years running up to 2016 so was 2016 just a bumper year and we are returning to ‘normal’?
- What will the figures be over the next 5-10 years? Only once we know that can the data really tell us something about whether Brexit had a significant impact on the number of EU national (law) students in the UK
- If it is more than a blip, is it really Brexit or the uncertainty around Brexit that has caused the drop?
5. In short we don’t know how the make-up of Law School inhabitants might change. We really don’t. But let’s assume the worst – that we will loose the majority of our EU students and colleagues and that we will loose access to the Erasmus+ programme and research mobility/exchange programmes – what would the impact of that be? Well I think it would be devastating. I think we could see
- a shift on who and what is valued in Law Schools
- a more inward looking and insular approach to scholarship and teaching
- less engagement with EU and international issues and in particular with non-common law issues and approaches
- less well rounded curricula -explicit and hidden
- a reduction in the opportunities to learn from each other and a loss of the sort of creativity that happens when you tackle a problem together with people who bring different ways of thinking and doing things to the table
- less tolerance for different ideas and approaches and ways of thinking
- less well rounded lawyers – whether academics, practitioners or ‘just’ citizens of (a possibly much more narrowly defined) world
So my question really is – how do we make sure that we don’t become insular and inward looking law schools that irrelevant to the rest of the world or possibly just irrelevant?
It is A-Level results week. But then if you have any interest in universities or schools you will know that. This week always comes with mixed feelings for me. I remember the disappointment of not quite getting the A-levels I was hoping for, the heartbreak of not getting into my first choice uni (Sheffield if anyone cares), the panic about not being able to find a place and the excitement of eventually securing a place to study Law at Leicester. It’s also a week of mixed feelings because this week I have to make decisions which change people’s lives.
Anyway, CLEARING. I was there once. It is awful. I got my results, I missed one A grade by a tiny margin and didn’t meet my offer. I called and was rejected. I cried. I had my heart set on going to Sheffield. In those days you had to go through the newspaper to find institutions with place available. I called Leicester because I had actually been on an open day there and liked it a lot – I’d just liked Sheffield more at the time. I also phoned the University of Sussex – my Mum went there as a student – that was the extent of my knowledge. Both institutions took my details, both said they’d phone back. I waited. Leicester called first and offered me a place on the LLB. I accepted and then I cried – a lot, mostly with relief. I was going to Uni and I was going somewhere I’d seen and I’d liked and it was all going to be fine.
What’s my advice to anyone facing this possible scenario tomorrow? It’ll be fine, don’t panic. Breathe. My institution offers some advice (as do most others I would imagine!) – it includes thinking about where else you might want to go and make a list of alternatives. Do that now. Did you like the look of any institutions you visited for an Open Day but didn’t select in the end? That might be a good candidate to phone – you already know something about them. Think about how far away from home you want to go, if you’re going to live at home then that limits your options, if not, how easy to you want to make it for your parents to come visit or for you to nip home? Put the list in order of preference and then, if you have to, you can start at the top and work your way down.
On the day make sure you have your phone fully charged or access to a landline (ideally both so you can use one for calling out, leaving a line clear for call backs) and make sure you can access your email. Also have pen and paper ready so you can easily take down any reference numbers.
Take your time over making the decision. This decision will change your life. The university and the course have to be right for you. If you don’t know the institution, ask if you can go visit, speak to an academic if possible, ask questions, see if it feels right. This is about your future after all! Listen to those around you offering advice but remember that ultimately it has to be your decision!
And if you just haven’t got the grades to do what you really want? Well that can happen. Get advice. Maybe there’s a foundation year you can do, maybe your College can offer resits or further study or maybe you’re just not as suited to your chosen subject as you thought and it is time for a re-think. Talk it through, think it through, don’t do anything in a panic
Good Luck. I feel for you, I really do. I’ve been there. I will take up my duties on our Clearing helpline tomorrow morning with a knot in my stomach. I will remember my 18 year old self and I will try and handle any of your calls with the same calm and reassurance as the admissions team did at Leicester all those years ago (thank you – whoever it was!) and I really do hope I’ll be able to say ‘yes, please join us for your student journey’.