The future of legal education – part 2: gazing in the crystal ball

So, where do my musings, based on the previous post, lead me? Let’s start with the biggest change. I anticipate that we will see the gap between elite and local institutions widening, with a greater degree of mission and market differention than at present. By 2029, what we might think of as the modern ‘compleat university’ will I think be the preserve of a few elite institutions.Why?

First, I think it will be recognised that the demand for graduate employment has been misjudged and that the HE sector has become bloated (in crude economic terms, and, sadly those seem to be what counts), particularly in its ‘production’ of social sciences and humanities graduates. In law, whether we like it or not, changes to the market for legal services, which are already having profound affects on the shape of the legal profession, will have an impact on legal education, and not just in terms of demand for and design of vocational training. We reckon that, today, somewhere between 30-40% of law graduates in England and Wales actually enter the profession, though about 60-70% of them probably still want a career in law. One particularly important facet of this changing environment will be the impact of alternative business structures, increased legal process outsourcing and other forms of de-professionalisation on legal education and training. Even putting the recession to one side, we will, I think, see a further reduction in the number of traditionally qualified lawyers and a significant increase in paralegal work. Even if we do not regard professional education as the primary function of academic legal education, there are plenty of our students who do, and there will be a growing disjunction between their aspirations and the reality of the marketplace. That could start to have an impact on recruitment, and almost certainly will have an impact on what universities, and particularly the ‘recruiting’ as opposed to ‘selecting’ universities, need to do to address the employability of their students.

Secondly, resource, technology and sustainability factors will combine to influence how and where people study. The emphasis on work-based and workplace learning will increase, and the epistemological gaps between academic, social and technical/vocational knowledge will continue to be eroded. Traditional, full-time f2f, tuition may become increasingly outmoded and outpriced as technological enhancements improve, and constraints on mobility increase (due to fuel poverty and/or environmental protection policies), or it may simply become, once again, the preserve of an economic elite. Distance and technology-enhanced learning will become much more the norm, and learning will also become separated from processes of assessment and certification, with some universities becoming primarily assessment and certification hubs for learning that is undertaken through a distributed network of local and workplace centres.

It follows also that we may see fundamental and continuing change to the academic role. If we have fewer ‘compleat’ universities, we will probably have fewer ‘compleat’ academics. We can expect, perhaps, a greater premium on the effective delivery of learning and teaching, especially in those institutions that become more exclusively teaching-led, but also more generally as funding becomes tied more closely to teaching quality evaluations. At the same time, in most disciplines – even law – as successive research impact assessments re-define what counts as appropriate research activity, campus-based research will give way to more flexible approaches. These will increasingly utilise independent research facilities and groupings, often funded directly by the commercial and state sectors. In short, research and teaching functions will become disaggregated, work may become more casualised and competition for ‘traditional’ academic posts will be greatly increased.

For most of us, this probably looks like a pretty dystopian future, despite some glimmers of light in terms of what could be achieved, eg, in terms of widening participation and educational innovation in a more flexible environment. UK universities, including their law schools, have been, for the most part, a success story, and that is not alway an easy position from which to anticipate the need for change. Rather like Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas, I am not here to tell you what will come to pass, merely what might be, if we don’t start to anticipate the need for deep change in both organizational and sustainability terms, and provide leadership (at all levels) accordingly:

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”

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.