by Dr Lisa Whitehouse, University of Hull
As I get older (or perhaps wiser?) the gravitational pull of progress seems to bear more heavily on me. Given I am aware of my wariness of change I try to approach it with an open mind but I have to admit that I am struggling to see the benefits of the SQE. While I understand the SRA’s motives in trying to create a more uniform measure of the skills of graduates, brandishing a very large hammer to crack this specific nut seems unnecessary and unwise. I would say that though wouldn’t I? As an academic lawyer I am naturally concerned about the SQE’s potential to sound the death knell for law as an academic subject. An overreaction you might say but the proposed response of a number of higher education institutions is to offer of an optional pathway to the SQE. This has the potential to result in a diminution of academic autonomy and the creation of a one size fits all approach to educating nascent legal thinkers. However, while some may, for this reason, view the SQE as a threat, others will see it as an opportunity. In many ways, ‘teaching to the test’, particularly someone else’s test that requires students to know the what and the how of law, is simpler than trying to persuade students of the value of understanding why the law is as it is. The SQE will, in effect, make those teaching the pathway to it equivalent to driving test instructors, teaching students not to be ‘good’ drivers but simply good enough to pass the test. Similarly, consumers (sorry, ‘students’), will choose their provider, not on the basis of the student experience or the expertise of those teaching them but, on the pass/fail rate of previous students who went on to take SQE1.
I have started to wonder whether my concerns regarding the proposed changes arise partly out of my being a land lawyer. I do not think that I am giving too much away when I say that Land Law is not a universally loved subject. The mere mention of it to anyone who has ‘had to’ study it is likely to result in a look of consternation followed by the recounting of unhappy memories of trying to understand a bewildering array of archaic terms, complex rules and statutory sections. While students have tended to view Criminal Law as the equivalent of a James Dean character, all edgy and sexy, and Jurisprudence as Sartre, smoking in horn-rimmed glasses, Land Law is perceived as John Major, quite clever but achingly dull. Given its reputation, I have fought over the years to ensure that Land Law is taught in a way that makes it relevant to the lives of those studying it, to invest it with colourful examples and to inform it by reference to my research. Despite my concerns regarding the potential for the SQE pathway to focus on the doctrinal content of law and its practice, I am not averse to inviting legal practitioners to speak to my students. The aim however is not to reveal to the intricacies of the White Book but rather, to hear stories of hawks and doves within the judiciary, eccentric clients and, how the law in books does not always reflect the practice. I take delight in the fact that a number of students have told me recently that, despite having been told how difficult Land Law is, it has turned out to be their favourite subject. While its only competition may be EU Law and Public Law that’s still an achievement! I wonder whether a move to teaching the pathway to the SQE will allow me to continue teaching my students in this way.
I wonder also (sorry, just putting my rose tinted spectacles on here) whether the SQE pathway has the capacity to engender in students the same level of passion for Land Law that was ignited in me during my university days (if I had been able to carry Elements of Land Law around with me as a badge of honour then I would have done, but it was too heavy). Will lecturers have room, as my lecturers did, to cast enchantments littered with Latin and equitable maxims that imply that everything will be fine provided you clean your hands before doing what ought to be done? Or will it simply be a matter of students learning by rote the statutory provisions and Civil Procedure Rules prescribed by the SRA?
While I may be holding on to an age that has passed, I have to continue to believe that higher education is not about producing clones but rather facilitating students to be inquisitive, critical and adaptable learners. If, despite the ever changing nature of legal education, I can continue to do that then I will be content that I have done justice, and not by halves.