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There are many reasons why people might choose to study the law – some find creative pleasure interpreting it, some are passionate about the rule of law, others are attracted to its prestige and power. More than a few have no doubt been lured in by the prospect of wearing a barrister’s wig.
But do people really pursue a law degree purely to land a job at the end of it?
In today’s jobs market, the answer is a resounding yes! Employability is a key component for students choosing a degree – and with COVID-19 and Brexit only adding fuel to the fire, who can really blame them?
The UK’s unemployment rate currently stands at 5%, and could rise as high as 7% by the end of the year, once furlough schemes end. Almost half of job losses so far have been among the under 25s, and unemployment rates among young people aged 16-24 is much higher than average, at 15%.
It’s no wonder, then, that the National Union of Students found that 81% of students are concerned about their job prospects and 71% about their employability.
The emphasis on employability has been growing for some years. The three leading domestic rankings providers (The Times, The Guardian and Complete Uni Guide) all use employment outcomes as one of their key criteria when compiling their rankings.
This is recognised by academics as well. According to senior university leaders, employability “is moving from the marginal into a defining role” when proving the ROI of degrees.
This general sense of the employability of Law students is borne out by the facts. Employment outcomes from Law degrees are strong, with an average employment rate of 74% within six months of graduation. After 15 months, 95% of Law graduates are employed.
Unsurprisingly, student demand for employable skills is matched by market demand for employable graduates. After the ‘08 financial crash, 64% of employers sought employability skills above academic performance. Those universities that weren’t teaching these valuable skills were letting students down.
Law degrees equip students with a number of highly desirable skills. A 2015 report by Universities UK asked law undergraduates to self-assess their own skills – they ranked themselves highly for communication, critical analysis, ability to apply knowledge, logical thinking and problem-solving.
Law degrees are also easy to deliver remotely – a crucial capability, as remote and blended learning will no doubt remain a reality for the foreseeable future. Unlike medicine and dentistry, which require expensive equipment, access to labs and lots of hands-on practical work, Law students typically only require research software and lectures, which can be adapted to remote settings.
In a recent LexisNexis UK Employability Forum, Ria Hill, Lecturer in Law at Wolverhampton Law School, talked about how her Law course has adapted to COVID-19. Communication tools, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, combined with the already embedded Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) all helped to maintain the delivery of courses.
Indeed, the University of Law (ULAW), one of the two largest legal education providers in the UK, has offered its principal courses (including the LLB and LPC) online for several years. In many cases, online courses have been seen to deliver significant benefits, especially in terms of improving accessibility.
According to HESA, universities can save between 25 and 30 contact hours per year without affecting the quality of the course delivered.
In fact, a pre-pandemic study found student satisfaction with blended courses in law to be higher than average. Offering more blended courses could also help close the gap between law applications and offers, so faculties can better capitalise on the consistent demand for their subject.
It’s in the interests of law faculties – and universities more generally – to capitalise on the rising demand for law courses.
While applications to UK universities from abroad have dropped during the pandemic, applications to study law have returned to growth (3% in 2021 vs 2020, vs -4% across all subjects).
The gap between annual applications to law degrees and the number of places awarded is significant. Even with rigorous entry criteria, there is still substantial room for growth. Law faculties could be making more of the sustained demand for their subject.
Law degrees don’t just offer a short-term salve, but a long-term solution to the current challenges facing UK universities. On the supply side, they are easy to flex to blended models, cheap to deliver and promise strong profit margins. On the demand side, good employment outcomes and a resilient legal industry make law degrees a consistently attractive option for undergraduates.
Universities are in a tight spot financially and need to think strategically about where best to invest their now-limited budgets. Law faculty leads should be the loudest voice at the table as those conversations take place. By making a strong business case for more investment, they can not only grow their own departments and improve outcomes for students – but be the saviour of struggling universities.
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