Learning law

There is no lessening in the pace of change in higher education. The rapid expansion in provision and in the increasing number of institutions offering degrees is set to continue until the end of the decade – at least that is the message from the Government's recent white paper 'The Future of Higher Education (2003)'. All of these changes have implications for the law degree as part of the process of training for the legal profession. There are more than 50 institutions offering law degrees and the number of law programmes being offered is approaching the 300 mark.

The consequence of this massive expansion is that the professional bodies can no longer exercise the same amount of control and influence over the content of law degrees that they could in the past. This has made it necessary for the Bar Council to look at how it can ensure that upon graduation students have the skills and knowledge necessary to move smoothly into vocational training on either the LPC or the Bar Vocational Course.

In July 2002, the Law Society and Bar Council embarked on an extensive consultation with universities, law schools, law firms and chambers on quality assurance and related matters in respect of the qualifying law degree. The consultation was prompted in part by the decision of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to abandon periodic reviews of degree courses which they had been expected to undertake. There was a good response to the consultation and an analysis of the responses can be found on the Bar Council website www.legaleducation.org.uk.

The Bar Council has considered all the responses and has also taken account of national developments, such as the proposals contained in the education white paper and the changes to the QAA's inspection regime. The conclusion is that the existing and proposed obligations of universities with respect to quality assurance can also be used to achieve the council's objectives, without the need to make changes to the present regulatory framework between universities and the professional bodies, known as the joint statement. The council believes that by working in partnership with universities and making use of its existing mechanisms it can produce an effective framework for quality assurance for qualifying law degrees that satisfies its requirements, but is not unduly burdensome to them.

The Bar Council published its proposals for quality assurance in March in a report to universities entitled 'Quality Assurance and Qualifying Law Degrees – The Way Forward'. We are planning to implement these from next September.

All universities will be asked to provide the council with basic information about their law degrees, these are called programme specifications, which are now required to be published.

The council will be asking universities to invite it to nominate someone to participate as an external member in the periodic reviews of law degrees and will be asking them to send a report of any review and the council will offer guidance on what it wishes it to contain.

The council will provide material for universities to use as part of the training programme they are being required to introduce for external examiners. It will also be preparing guidance to universities on resources that it considers desirable for a law degree. Occasionally, guidance will be issued to universities on course content.

University law schools will not be bound to adopt what the council says, but will be expected to take it into account. It will take three years to put this new scheme in place, but the council is confident that it will work effectively and will not be too intrusive or burdensome for universities.

In another move, the Government is proposing to expand the provision of a new higher education qualification, named a foundation degree, which is set at a level just below that of an undergraduate degree and has a strong vocational orientation. It is hoped that these degrees, as well as being able to stand alone in their own right, will offer a new pathway on to the traditional degree course. It is likely that foundation law degrees will be developed for those who work as paralegals. The Bar Council is consulting with law schools and others on these developments and is examining how the opportunities that these new degrees offer in terms of access and entry to the legal profession can be exploited, without undermining the traditional standards of the law degree. The council expects to publish a policy document before the end of the year.

Nigel Bastin is head of education and training at the Bar Council