Regulators should flood legal practice course (LPC) providers with crack teams of monitors to boost teaching standards, says a leading academic amid fears that quality is slipping and students are being shortchanged.
The call from the head of the University of Law coincides with a riposte from the two biggest LPC providers to claims from the Law Society that as many as 3,000 course places should be shed to prevent a glut of graduates hunting in vain for training contracts.
Nigel Savage, the president of the University of Law, used publication earlier this week of the legal education and training review (25 June 2013) as a platform to call on the SRA to beef up its focus on LPC delivery.
“It’s all well and good focusing on outcomes,” he said referring to the SRA’s overriding strategy. “But what the SRA needs to do is have a greater focus on how those outcomes are delivered. They need to get back into law schools with greater quality assurance schemes to ensure students are getting the right quality of eduction to deliver those outcomes.”
Savage pointed out that the solicitors’ regulator had in the past run a programme of monitoring visits, but it was ultimately suspended. He said the visits ”were very uncomfortable” for the institutions, “but they made sure providers didn’t take short cuts”.
He singled out law schools in the public university sector for criticism, labelling some as having “failed to keep up with investment in legal education over the years and just seeing the LPC as a cash cow”.
Savage continued: “The universities will say that they don’t need any more quality assurance – but that’s wrong. If there isn’t more assurance, all the providers will do is prepare students to pass an exam – they won’t prepare them to be lawyers. And ensuring that quality is down to the SRA.”
Meanwhile, both Savage and his counterpart at the country’s other leading LPC provider, BPP Law School, lashed out at Law Society chief executive Des Hudson in a row over the number of course places on offer.
According to the academics, the society bases its argument that there is an over-supply on “erroneous” figures, failing to differentiate between validated places and those actually taken up by students. They claim regulator figures show that last year 6,230 students sat the LPC exams, while the number of training contracts on offer stood at 4,869.
In addition, they point out that after accounting for an average annual failure rate of 10 per cent, the shortfall of training contracts drops to less than 750. “That doesn’t look to me to be a market that is over-supplied,” commented Savage.
BPP dean Peter Crisp also responded forcefully: “It is not my function to encourage or discourage someone from trying to become a member of a profession. You would have thought that the Law Society would want to encourage people to become lawyers.”
But Hudson was unrepentant, despite acknowledging his argument was based on “estimated” figures. He claimed that a serious backlog of LPC graduates without training contracts exists and that course providers should take more responsibility for supplying realistic information about the job market.
“We are not calling for a regulator-imposed cap,” he said. “We are simply saying that we want people to be in a position to make informed decisions. I don’t believe the quality or range of current information is as good as it should be.”
A spokesperson for the SRA said: ”Monitoring visits to LPC providers ceased in 2009 reflecting the fact that the LPC regime has been in place since 1993 and is a mature programme. The SRA continues to use a range of quality assurance mechanisms to assure the standard of the current LPC award and the quality of the student experience including robust validation and revalidation processes and the appointment and training of highly qualified external examiners.”