Thursday, May 24, 2018

The SQE is like Brexit. Public didn't ask for it, it promises everything but hasn't existed yet - and might not even happen

This is a sketch of my TED talk for Legal Cheek's Future of Legal Education Conference delivered in London on 23 May 2018:

Like Brexit, the SQE is causing upheaval. It could make things worse rather than better and may not even happen.

There are many parallels between Brexit and the SRA's SQE.

The decision to hold a referendum was not driven by public demand. Leaving the EU was not one of the top 10 demands by the public prior to PM Cameron calling a referendum. It was mostly about an internal matter of keeping Tories unified and killing off support for Ukip which was hampering Tories at the polls.

Likewise, neither firms nor universities asked for the SQE. This is mostly about an internal matter about the SRA and its own perception of how it plans to regulate in future.

We know more about what Brexit is not than what it might do. But what it might do is anything and everything that sounds good. More freedom, greater sovereignty, taking back control. How? Well, there's nothing yet to point to as it hasn't happened nor is there a deal.

Likewise, the SQE is claimed to improve access, raise standards, etc. But no exam has been written or even provider chosen to write the exam which doesn't yet exist. Much of its justification rests on its effects - and without anything in existence it's all question begging. No wonder the LSB has refused to approve its use before it exists. The many promises need to have some evidence first.

The more we learn about details concerning Brexit the less appealing it looks to even many of its original supporters. Details around Customs and the Northern Ireland border a case in point.

Likewise, the SQE is supposed to be raising standards missing in young trainees. But what of the QLD did the SRA not like? I know of no reports of anyone seeing a lecture, reading a module guide or even taking a look at a hand-out. There is little to no knowledge about what's actually happening in our classrooms which makes the certainty for a change all the more suspicious.

Since the BSB is keeping the QLD, many law schools will keep teaching the QLD subjects so students can qualify to train for the Bar. But with the SQE demanding different content from the QLD, this means that a degree programme already about 50% fixed becomes even more fixed with additional required content. This content will concern more practical, and it seems less academic, issues. And it will drive out areas like comparative and international law modules precisely at the time our students need to be ready for a global world.

(It is also revealing in new research discussed at the conference this morning about what law firms most want but don't get that none of this covered by the SQE - despite the fact the SQE is supposed to ensuring this gap is covered by it. In fact, the opposite.)

While there is a kind of inevitability about Brexit, much could cause it to go off the tracks or stop. We hear of transition periods and they get longer and longer.

Likewise, the SQE's roll-out changes again and again. Just before I spoke, we've heard the SRA claim that the transition period looks set to grow longer again now too. But what if it didn't happen? It seems to me this would do no harm - and probably a lot of good.

If we want to raise standards or improve diversity, we don't need a multiple choice exam to achieve it. In fact, such an exam might undermine doing so. It can be far easier to use the existing framework which looks at widening participation, employability, salaries, etc than creating an exam from scratch.

If only the SRA would have the leadership to think again. There is a constructive dialogue waiting to happen between the SRA, BSB, firms, universities and more to ensure the UK continues to have a global leading legal educational system. But proceeding with a SQE for internal SRA-related reasons doesn't improve things for students learning law, for universities educating students, for firms hiring graduates or the profession in the long-term.

END

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