The SQE: Why is it controversial and what’s the alternative?

The SQE: Why is it controversial and what’s the alternative?

Written by: Dr Jessica Guth, Leeds Law School, Leeds Beckett University

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is changing the way solicitors qualify by introducing the Solicitors Qualify Examination (SQE). This means instead of doing a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) or conversion course, like the Graduate Diploma in Law followed by the Legal Practice Course and a Training Contract, there will instead be a four-stage process. This brief piece provides some information on what we know about the SQE so far and why it is potentially problematic. It then seeks to offer some thoughts on a possible alternative.

What do we know?

As the cornerstone of a new pathway towards qualifying the SQE is due to launch in 2021. The examination will be part of a four-stage process of qualification as a solicitor. The SQE itself forms one of those stages with SQE 1 testing legal knowledge and its application, and SQE 2 testing more practical lawyering skills. The other stages involve passing the SRA’s character and suitability requirement, and having a degree or equivalent level qualification (in any subject) and finally undertaking a period of supervised work experience. The SRA maintain that the four stages can be taken in any order though that seems logically implausible—most likely, people will have a degree first, then take SQE 1, then a period of work experience and then SQE 2 with the character and suitability requirement being signed off during the process.  

We also know that Kaplan are the approved provider for the administration of the test and that there will be several test centres across the nation where the SQE 1 can be taken, which entails a series of Multiple Choice tests, with a smaller number of venues available for SQE 2 as it is more logistically challenging because of its practical nature. The knowledge to be tested in SQE 1 is that covered in the Statement of Legal Knowledge published by the SRA and essentially covers: company/commercial law, dispute resolution, contract law and tort, property law and practice, wills and the administration of estates, equity and trust, criminal law and practice, public and administrative law, EU law and the legal systems of England and Wales.

We also know that the SRA’s best guess at the cost of the SQE stands at £4500. This is the figure suggested for the test only and does not include any preparatory courses. In a recent event held at Coventry University, Julie Brannan of the SRA confirmed that the new route to qualification is not likely to be significantly cheaper than current pathways although it may be so in some cases.

Issues raised and possible controversies:

  1. The SRA is, though not explicitly, clearly assuming that universities will take on the training for the SQE. In more recent discussions they suggest that the SQE is cheaper but the training will cost significant amounts unless incorporated into a degree thus shifting the blame for the higher cost to universities.
  2. Degree courses are not at all suitable for preparing students for the SQE. The SQE model is built on an entirely different model of learning and assessing than law degrees (or indeed any degrees). Even if it could test solicitor competence, it would require an entirely different style of preparation and degree courses would have to change dramatically—and not for the better—to accommodate SQE preparation.
  3. Whatever sort of degree candidates choose to take, a preparatory course of some description will be required. One which helps students cram a huge amount of knowledge into their heads and one which helps them practise answering MCQs on differing topics in very quick succession. Many of these courses will be unregulated and likely highly exploitative.
  4. The SQE includes no requirement to know anything about or have ever studied some of the areas of law that are really important in many of our lives and because of this there is a real risk that they will be pushed out of the curriculum entirely. Students interested in social justice, family law, immigration or employment law might find they are limited to a small number of institution offering these.
  5. The SQE is already having an impact on the curriculum in some law schools. Creative assessments are being replaced with MCQ style exams, content is being added and discussions are being had on how the SQE syllabus can be covered. This is devastating for law as an academic discipline and for our students.

There is much we still do not know about the SQE—we still have not seen actual SQE sample questions as the ones presented by the SRA so far have been questions from the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Tests; we still have no answers on exact cost; on dates for sittings or how these match up to the academic year nor what data will be collected and how it will be used or published. All of this is worrying.

What’s the alternative?

The academic community in particular has been quick to criticise the SQE but slow to offer solutions. Our critique has often been dismissed as us either not knowing enough about legal practice or what practitioners want or, more insidiously that we simply want to protect our jobs. However, neither are accurate nor address the toll these proposed changes will have on our students. While Luke Mason and I have recently argued that the SQE does significant violence to law as a discipline, and I for one would much rather continue to teach my students how to think, enjoy law, problem solve and be creative. We do not think the SQE us fit for purpose on any level.

To be clear, my objection to the SQE is not an objection to a centralised assessment for admission as a solicitor per se. My objection (which is shared by the Learned Societies) is to this particular centralised assessment because I do not think that it measures the competencies it purports to test, is sufficiently rigorous, useful or fair. I am confident that experts in assessment working together with experienced legal professionals could, if working in genuine collaboration, design an entrance exam that would be far less objectionable.

However, I am not sure that this change is warranted. The legal education and training review did not find too much wrong with the current system. The Undergraduate Law degree seems to be functioning well and the restrictions placed on a qualifying law degree are minimal and allow for diversity in approach and content across the curriculum. While there were some issues identified with the vocational stage of training (such as the variance in levels of competence between providers and the excessive cost) the overall system was not fundamentally broken. The SRA seems to fundamentally distrust universities, their quality assurance systems, staff and students.

In my view, we need to rip up the madness that is the SQE and start again. We need a genuine dialogue between the profession, the academy and students which is not mediated and distorted by an SRA agenda and which allows us to explore exactly what the issues are, and to understand each other better. Only then can we consider a way forward which keeps the integrity of law as an academic discipline intact, allows universities to meet the Quality Assurance Agency Benchmark Statement for Law, and meets the needs of our students and the professions. 

Many of these issues have been explored in a recent issue of the Law Teacher: the International Journal of Legal Education. 

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