Access, Attainment and the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
The past academic year has seen a number of publications designed to expose the problem of race inequality in Britain’s higher education institutions. Among these publications are two which have been reviewed on this website, Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British Academia, 2017 and Decolonising the University, 2018. These publications, and other heavy weights like Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, 2018, are notable not least because of the absence of contributions from legal scholars or from other academics with an intimate connection with the university law school or with other providers of legal education and training. However, it must not be supposed from these oversights or deliberate omissions that law schools, and legal education/training providers more generally, are not as deeply implicated as are other disciplinary schools in what is arguably the most pernicious manifestations of racial inequality in higher education: the expansion of higher education institutions, substantially on the basis of recruitment of black and minority ethnic students (BME), whose material experiences of the institution (including in terms of degree and other qualification outcome) are significantly reduced in comparison to the experiences of their white counterparts who enter higher education with comparable qualifications.
On the face of it, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), that bastion of the British legal establishment, is the very last organisation one would expect to be willing and able bravely to embark upon the process of “decolonising” an important area of higher education – the legal education and training of solicitors – this to be achieved through a radical revision of the qualification requirements for entering the solicitors’ profession. Nevertheless, among the SRA’s many ambitions for the new SQE is precisely the goal of improving “...access to the profession...” (SRA, 8 November 2018), and access of BME students is among one of SRA’s pressing challenges.
There is no doubt that the path to qualifying as a solicitor on the current arrangements is a costly and frustrating one for all students, but it appears to be particularly so for black and minority ethnic students. Under the present scheme, students will study for a qualifying law degree, which in most university law schools will cost 9k a year over a three year period, coupled with what the SRA stated is “...up to £16,700 for a Legal Practice Course (LPC)...” (SRA, 8 November 2018). In January 2018, the Law Society Gazette reported that whilst 80% of white students pass the Legal Practice Course (enabling entrance, in principle, to the profession), only 40% and 53% of Black and Asian students, respectively, successfully complete the vocational programme. The Gazette’s report is indicative of a declining trend in terms of the BME attainment gap. In 2015, the SRA published a report on its student attainment monitoring statistics, which informs us that:
...[t]he completion rates between male and female students is consistent but as between students from different ethnic groups, black students perform less well on the LPC. Asian/Asian British students accounted for 20% of the students attempting assessments and within that group had a completion rate of 59%. Students of Black/African/Caribbean/Black British ethnicity accounted for 6% of students but within this group the completion rate was 49%. White students accounted for 59% of the cohort and achieved a completion rate of 80%” (SRA, 22 May 2015).
It is SRA’s claim that SQE will improve the somewhat dismal picture painted in its 2015 monitoring report (and bring about other advantages, the details of which are beyond the scope of this blog post) by removing from universities and other providers autonomy over assessment, and by effectively replacing the costs of the LPC (up to £16,700) with a total average examination cost of between £3,000 and £4,500. In Decolonising the University, John Holmwood and Pat Lockley indicted the practice of directing BME students to cheap, usually for-profit, providers of higher education, ostensibly with the aim of improving access, whilst white students, in the main, are left to enjoy the benefits offered by more traditional universities (see Holmwood, 2018: 47 & Lockley, 2018: 147). However, SRA’s cost saving SQE scheme is intended to operate in relation to all aspiring solicitors, and, therefore, does not evidently invite the dangers of a racially hierarchical legal training terrain. Instead the potential of SQE to close the BME attainment gap, partly by controlling costs, (if such potential ever existed) is unlikely to be realised because (as I observed in my post on SQE published here on 9 January 2018) SRA has grossly (and, it must be said, somewhat arrogantly) underestimated the degree of its reliance on university law schools and other legal education and training providers – without whose cooperation it is difficult to see how the teaching and learning framework which must underpin any student’s success in the SQE is to be delivered.
I have not here touched upon the content of SQE 1 and 2 and what that content reveals about the SRA’s vision of the solicitors’ profession. Others have addressed this question eloquently and persuasively – most recently in a collection published online by the Association of Law Teachers. That the implementation of SQE is now to be deferred until September 2021 might well indicate that the entire scheme will ultimately fail, but its failure will not remedy the BME attainment gap in law.
Jason Arday and Heidi Safia Mirza, Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nisancioglu (eds.), Decolonising the University, Pluto Press. 2018.
Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate (eds.), Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia, IOE Press, 2017.
Solicitors Regulation Authority, SQE to be introduced in autumn 2021, SRA Press Release, 8 November 2018.
Solicitors Regulation Authority, Education and Training: A report on authorisation and monitoring activity for the period 1 September 2013 to 31 August 2014, 22 May 2015
Max Walters, Minority ethnic students lagging behind in LPC success, The Law Society Gazette, 4 January 2018.