The future of legal education – Part 1: the drivers for change


As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Keele at the beginning of last week for the first two days of the Centenary Conference of the Society of Legal Scholars. It was a good event – a high quality Practice, Profession and Ethics section meeting organised by Hilary Sommerlad, and socially too an excellent conference.

I was invited by Fiona Cownie to be part of a plenary panel on the future of legal education. It was quite a lively event, which generated a lot of questions. I’m unlikely to publish my presentation elsewhere, so I thought I might as well summarise it here – and develop a couple of the points that I left underdeveloped in the ten minutes I had available.

The brief we were given was to consider where we thought legal education would be in 20 years time – 2029. Not an easy brief at all! If we look back at the last 20 years, the changes have been substantial – in the UK we have moved from an elite to a (more or less) mass system of education; we have generated a substantial expansion of academic postgraduate education, experienced the creation of an audit-led research culture, and, in England and Wales particularly, seen a significant relaxation in professional control of the undergraduate law curriculum. Over that same time I think the basic level of teacher competence has improved, though whether there has been a commensurable increase in the quality of the student learning experience as a whole is much more moot, not least because of the research focus created by the RAE.

In this post I’ll focus briefly on what I see as the key drivers for future change, in the next I’ll say where they lead me.

Economy: we are receiving significantly different readings of the economic tealeaves – from those who suggest we are already starting the climb out of recession, to others who say that the worst is still to come, and that it could be another two to three years before we see a return to growth. There is no doubt that the recession will have a direct and probably sustained impact on HE spending for some years to come (HEFCE has already been required to excise £189 M from its 2010-11 spending). Ongoing changes in the financing of tertiary education may make HE less affordable and so potentially reduce access. It is likely that government will increasingly expect the sector to fund widening participation from fee income. It seems likely too that demand for traditional LLM courses has plateaued. Legal education will also be impacted by continuing changes in the professional services market – segmentation and casualisation of the market, hastened by the emergence of alternative business structures, will almost certainly help exacerbate existing status distinctions between educational providers at both academic and vocational stages.

Environment: we need to think of climate change as the one issue that has the potential to impact everything we do. As Prof Tom Burke has observed – “It is a systemic problem – it is one that touches all the others. It will stress all the other stresses in the world. We cannot look at it in a silo… All the pillars of prosperity are being undermined.” Most experts agree we are reaching a tipping point; the longer we leave it to initiate deep change, the more radical the surgery will need to be, the less likely that market mechanisms will be sufficient. On balance I am not one of the optimists, here. Climate change will, I suspect, demand some radical interventions. Fuel poverty will become a growing global problem; economic and, indeed, legal constraints on mobility will become more common; we may by the early 2020s see a return to greater protectionism/state corporatism as the environmental crisis places an increased strain on existing regional and global institutions.

Demography: Concerns have been expressed about the impact of projected demographic changes on HE, in terms of both an aging population generally and a specific decline in the numbers of 18-20 year olds. Government thinking (and the recent IUSS Select Committee report) both point to a need to look to part-time provision and workplace learning to maintain participation levels. The immediate problem is, as the Select Committee noted, current funding differentials provide little incentive to expand p/t provision. It is probably easy to make too much of the demographic risks, but it does seem likely that demographic changes will have at least qualitative effects on the diversity of paths, provision and institutions in future higher education.

Technology: from my relatively non-technical perspective the role of technology is a difficult issue – will it be a driver of change, or more a tool which may help us respond to change? I suspect the answer will continue to be a bit of both. That said, in terms of learning and teaching, certainly, we tend to be behind the curve and that may have to change if we are to respond effectively to the other challenges I have identified.


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One response to “The future of legal education – Part 1: the drivers for change

  1. I think the technology issue is under-rated in the UK, maybe as a result of Blunkett’s disastrous experiment some years ago. However, newer and better thought out initiatives are showing us the way. Three come to mind. One is MIT’s decision to put all class materials online for open access. If you want a degree you pay. Two is Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard which is now online for all at http://justiceharvard.org/. This is highly praised and is damn good also. He gave this year’s Reith lectures. Three is the new University of the People (http://www.uopeople.org) which is offering courses free of charge online. It’s new and early days but it is collecting plaudits in the right places. It has the potential to grow.

    I’m afraid I don’t see the same kinds of creative thinking in the UK academy and especially not in law schools. But it will become increasingly important and be a key way in dealing with economic uncertainty.

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