Nearly four in five Bar students still regard their courses as unaffordable despite an average drop of £4,700 in fees, research for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.
In an interim evaluation on the BSB’s Future Bar Training reforms, AlphaPlus Consultancy found that course providers welcomed the opportunity to provide greater flexibility and reduce costs.
There was a wide variety in fees charged, ranging from £1,575 to £5,000 for the first part of the two-part vocational course.
However, despite the lower fees charged by providers compared to the old Bar professional training course, 78% of 483 Bar students on the traditional, most popular, ‘three-step pathway’ to becoming a barrister (degree, followed by vocational course followed by pupillage) found the fees “fairly” (34%) or “very” (44%) unaffordable.
The smaller number of Bar students who were studying part-time or taking the vocational course in two stages (knowledge and then skills, making it a ‘four-step pathway’) were more likely to be happy with the cost of their course.
AlphaPlus noted that there have been “mixed levels of success” with the two-part vocational stage. Some providers reported a low level of demand from students or low numbers of students passing part 1 assessments, and as a result two of the five institutions offering it were dropping the option.
Restrictions imposed by the pandemic were a “major influence” on the experience of students, particularly in the 2020-21 cohort, but some expressed “ongoing concerns” about the standard of teaching and learning on their courses.
The most frequent criticisms of online learning from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 cohorts were issues with the learning technology or platforms used to deliver the online learning, which providers had to introduce quickly, including “allegedly poor choices of platform”.
There was a “perception that online learning is not well suited to teaching and learning certain skills (advocacy skills were frequently mentioned in this context)”.
Online learning could also lead to a “lack of interactions with other students and teaching staff both within and outside of formal teaching sessions”, along with “inadequate support from some staff, and not feeling confident about their own professional skills and abilities due to the absence of in-person learning”.
Researchers said there was a variety of responses from students on course quality, with some who “spoke highly of the standard of teaching and learning”, and others who felt the “entry requirements at some providers were set too low”.
Students often described their courses as “content-heavy”, with a “large amount of content to learn in a short time”.
Meanwhile, the separate BSB report Bar Training 2023 showed that the average training cost for each Bar student, adjusted for inflation, was £14,000 in 2021/22, compared to £18,700 in 2018/19.
The research also found that the proportion of UK-domiciled students from a White ethnic background decreased from 76% in 2011/12 to 58% a decade later.
The proportion of students from a ethnic minority background rose to 42%, with 22% coming from those with Asian British backgrounds and 10% from those with Black British backgrounds. The remainder came from mixed ethnic backgrounds (7%) or other ethnic backgrounds (3%).
In a further report from the BSB on the Central Examination Board exams in civil and criminal litigation, researchers said the pass rate for 929 civil litigation candidates in December 2022 was 56% and 594 candidates in criminal litigation 50%.
The average pass rate for ICCA, taking into account all exam attempts, was 91%, followed by City Law School with 62% and Cardiff Unviersity with 57%.
They were followed by the ULaw Group (56%), BPP Group (49%) and Northumbria (46%).
Hertfordshire University, which entered candidates for the first time in December last year, achieved only 21%.
Oliver Hanmer, director of regulatory operations at the BSB, said the reports had demonstrated that the reforms were making Bar training “more accessible, flexible and affordable, while maintaining high standards of quality”.
Penny Carey, dean of Hertfordshire Law School, said: “Since becoming the first university provider of the Bar course in 25 years in 2022, our priority has always been widening access to law and diversifying the bar.
“We are extremely proud that our cohort of students are a mixture of international, widening participation and Black, Asian and minority ethnic background students, and that we provide an accessible, flexible and affordable pathway into this profession that is helping the Bar to diversify.
“We always knew these first set of exams would be challenging for this group but are confident that through the high-quality teaching provided at Herts, they will reach the level required to pass them and graduate ready to begin long and successful law careers.”