While solicitors have been squabbling over the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, a quieter battle has been taking place between bar training providers. In May, the Inns of Court waded back into the training market, promising a cheaper course for aspiring barristers. Their college, they declared, would charge 30% less than other universities, giving a bigger pool of graduates a better chance at the bar.
The announcement sparked a price war among the other training establishments, which started slashing their prices. Last week the University of Law cut its London fees by almost a third, from £18,735 to £13,000, while students at the City Law School will pay £14,000 in 2020, as opposed to £18,500. BPP is expected to follow suit.
The speed at which universities cut their prices raises an uncomfortable question: how much were they overcharging former students if they can lop a few thousand off the fees at the drop of a hat? To quote a Gazette reader, the cuts seem ‘cravenly cynical’.
What’s more, at £13,000 the course is still far from cheap – and funding options are limited.
While solicitors firms often recruit talent early on, and sponsor students through their legal training, it is rare for hopeful barristers to have secured a pupillage before they start bar school, let alone to have secured funding. They are expected to go it alone, with the help of a few fiercely fought-for scholarships.
Then there is the risk. According to figures from the Bar Standards Board, just 41% of students who enrolled on the bar course from 2013/14 to 2017/18 have commenced pupillage.
With around 1,500 people taking the course every year, that’s 4,425 students since 2013 who have wasted their money – almost £80m worth of fees.
Combined, the system means that efforts to diversify the bar face serious challenges. Only graduates from privileged families can realistically gamble tens of thousands of pounds on a course which, more likely than not, won’t get them the job they want.
There is no obvious solution, however. Indeed, when you grapple with the issue the more slippery it gets.
Take government funding. If hopeful barristers could take out a student loan – thus deferring repayment for a long time, perhaps indefinitely – more people would have a shot at the bar. However, the tax payer would be forced subsidise thousands of students who never make it in the profession.
Meanwhile, if universities accepted fewer candidates, fewer people would waste their money. However, law graduates and Oxbridge alumni might be favoured, denying other students the chance to develop their skillset.
Any solution that addresses the existing problem seems to spawn a host of other issues.
Nevertheless, while scholarships and lower course fees are a step in the right direction, it feels like structural change is needed to make the bar genuinely accessible. A radical re-think of bar training is needed and barristers should start squabbling more loudly about entry to the profession.