There is a risk that the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) plans for education reform will do little to disrupt the privilege of students with access to funding and other advantages, according to an independent report commissioned by the regulator.
While it acknowledged that the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) – the proposed centralised test for anyone wishing to qualify – was “highly likely” to widen the availability of training providers and may lower costs, the report warned that it could create a multi-tiered system because legal employers continued to favour trainees that followed a traditional route to qualification.
The report, Monitoring and maximising diversity, was produced by the Bridge Group, a charitable research organisation aimed at “promoting socio-economic diversity and equality” based at King’s College, London.
It was commissioned by the regulator to look at ways the authority could monitor and improve the impact of the SQE on diversity.
The researchers reviewed the results of an SRA consultation on the SQE and interviewed a representative range of 25 employers and training providers.
The report said the SQE could “increase the number, and broaden the range, of training providers in the market, and provoke new models of training including online provision”.
It went on: “This wider range of choice should promote diversity, since it will enable students to chart more flexible pathways.”
The pathways could be more affordable, since the proposals were “intended to introduce competitive pressures, and the expectation is that this will drive down costs”. This was important, since “the cost of the LPC [legal practice course] is prohibitive, or a major deterrent, for many talented students”, the report said.
However, interviewees told the researchers they feared the new system could “make the routes to qualification harder to navigate, especially for those students without access to good advice”.
A multi-tiered system could “become quickly apparent… that continues to favour… students with access to funding, networks, experience, and privileged information about the best pathways to pursue”.
The report explained: “This is perceived mainly because elite employers are likely to continue to favour trainees who have undertaken a traditional (and likely more expensive) route to qualification.”
A similar tiered system could also develop in a more liberalised work experience market, the report said. While it should encourage diversity, it could equally result in employers putting an increasingly high premium on the least available experience, and differences between trainees could even be exacerbated by some students paying for ‘top-up courses’.
Further, according to interviewees: “Traditional training providers in the university sector are more likely to maintain existing curricula, with SQE preparation as an optional add-on.”
This could change over time, but the report concluded: “Our experience is that demand-led changes, especially at the most competitive end of the higher education market, occur slowly, if at all.
“The potential implications of this are that… additional training is likely to incur significant additional cost, which could reinforce existing financial barriers.”
A multi-tiered system was “not inevitable” and would depend on how the training providers and employers responded: “It is within the gift of training providers to craft the cost and shape of these pathways, and the prerogative of employers to resolve how each is differentially valued.”
Meanwhile, the SRA should gather accurate data and ensure that students had the resources they needed to “to navigate the increasingly complex range of qualification routes”. These should include detailed information about the profession and example routes to qualification.
The report concluded: “There is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession, because lack of diversity is constructed of a complex range of factors at every stage on the journey to the profession. It follows that diversity implications cannot be precisely predicted, given the variety and multiplicity of these factors…
“Reforming solicitor qualification may make a significant contribution to improving diversity, but it is not a panacea for diversity.”
Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director for education and training, welcomed the report, adding: “While our proposals to introduce the SQE are not a magic bullet, we would hope they can contribute to a more diverse profession, through addressing some of the barriers within the current system and creating a more transparent legal training market.
“We recognise the need for students to have access to reliable, independent information about the outcomes they can expect from pursuing different routes into the profession, and for employers to have access to information that could help support diversity in recruitment.
“Should the SQE be introduced, we would work with all partners to provide guidance and support on the changes to help entrants to the profession navigate the new system.”