Will the new SQE really promote diversity?
The SRA can't be expected to come up with a fix for all social justice issues but its current proposals are removing some important safety nets, says Jessica Guth
The SRA's revised proposals on 'A new route to qualification: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination' develops its plans for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) which is intended to replace the currently available routes to qualification. There is much in the consultation which warrants comment but I was particularly struck by an SRA tweet claiming the SQE would help aspiring solicitors from diverse background qualify.
On 3 October, the day the new proposals were published, the SRA tweeted: 'Paul Philip: #SQE will reduce cost of qualifying & help aspiring solicitors from diverse backgrounds to qualify #CPC16'
The consultation document at paragraph 141 states: 'While we recognise that the SQE cannot solve wider issues of social justice, we believe that our proposals could promote fairer access'. This belief seems to be based on the fact that the SQE itself has been tested and equality impact assessed and that this route to qualification is likely to be cheaper than the current degree, LPC and training contract route.
This assertion is, in my view, misleading. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding about equality and diversity issues in the professions and the barriers to entry faced by 'aspiring solicitors from diverse backgrounds'. It also ignores that in a profession that is already fragmented and which remains extremely elitist and homogenous at the top level this approach is more likely to increase that fragmentation than it is to allow access to non-traditional students.
Students seeking entry to the profession are subject to a series of events which '“ while perhaps not pre-determine '“ significantly impact on their chances of success. The school or college they attend determines the A-Level or equivalent qualifications they can study. These impact on the university they go to and on the sorts of experience they bring to their studies. Their chosen university and formal and informal networks determine the sorts of opportunities they are able to take advantage of.
Top law firms have relationships with certain universities, presumably because there is a perception that the brightest and best students are to be found there, but this ignores the set of cultural and societal factors which shape where students end up.
The proposals do not engage with any of this. They also do not address how students gain work-based experience or training contracts. A-Level results and university attended are still used as a proxy for merit, and while it may be the case that firms in future will place more emphasis on SQE results (although I have reservations about this, too) this will not help those from diverse backgrounds. The test itself may not disadvantage certain groups but this presumes that all candidates have the same access to preparation for the exam. There will clearly be courses, crammers or otherwise, and they will vary greatly in quality and possibly in cost. They will be unregulated courses, courses for which candidates are not likely to be able to access loans, courses which do not guarantee success.
Candidates coming to this new route to qualifying with less human and social capital, with poorer or maybe no networks and with far fewer opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills required are always going to be at a disadvantage. They will also have paid tuition fees for their degrees and will have to pay for a SQE preparatory course and the SQE. The cost of qualification is not going to be significantly lower than it is now and this new route removes some of the safety nets and support systems the current systems can offer aspiring solicitors. I don't expect the SQE to deal with issues of social justice but I do expect a full engagement with equality and diversity, not simply an equality impact assessment of a test.
Dr Jessica Guth is senior lecturer in law at Leeds Beckett University @Jess_Guth