Law Students Council Responds to Scottish Parliament Debate on Access to the Legal Profession

The University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council, supported by other student representative bodies and MSPs from all parties, has been campaigning for the extension of the undergraduate student loan to cover students on the DPLP.  The issue was debated today at Themed Questions in the Scottish Parliament, with Roderick Campbell MSP (SNP) and Jenny Marra MSP (Lab), putting the case for living cost funding to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mike Russell MSP.

Speaking after this afternoon’s exchange in the Scottish Parliament, Tim Haddow from the University of Edinburgh’s Law Students’ Council said:

We are disappointed that the Scottish Government has maintained its line that extending the fees loan to more DPLP students can have a significant impact on access to the legal profession.  The lack of living costs support means that almost all students who could not previously afford to study the DPLP still cannot do so.  Ironically, this means that the additional money the Scottish Government has provided will almost all go to those who could afford to do the course anyway, regardless of their actual need.

In contrast, we are asking the government to extend to DPLP students the same loans from which they benefited as law undergraduates.  These loans are means-tested and will cost the Government relatively little but will have a much greater impact in widening access to the profession.   We urge the Government to reconsider their position on this issue and do their part in avoiding further entrenchment of privilege in the legal profession.

Background

Law graduates wishing to qualify as lawyers must find £11,000 to £13,000 to fund their fees, course materials and living costs before they can undertake the required postgraduate course, the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice.

Although the Scottish Government recently extended the availability of partial support towards the cost of fees (a loan of up to £3,400 is available to all students, covering around half the cost of the fees), the funding gap of £8,000 to £10,000 must be made up by students or their families.  This represents an insurmountable barrier to the legal profession for those from less-privileged backgrounds.

More Information

More information, including profiles of students who are affected, is at the LSC’s campaign website, or contact Tim Haddow on Twitter @TimHaddow.

Written Question from Sarah Boyack MSP and Answer from Scottish Government

Sarah Boyack MSP, one of the regional MSPs for Lothian, has been supporting our campaign.

She recently asked a written question of the Scottish Government on issues surrounding PG funding.  The question, and the response, is reproduced below:

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Scottish Labour): To ask the Scottish Executive how much has been spent on targeted financial support for postgraduate students in each year since 2007-08, broken down by discipline.  (S4W-07141)

Mr Michael Russell: There are several funding options for postgraduate students.  Support for postgraduate research students is generally provided through the Research Councils with support for vocational taught postgraduate courses provided largely through the Student Awards Agency for Scotland  (SAAS). Postgraduate initial teacher training is supported through the main undergraduate student support programme and social work qualifications receive support through the Scottish Social Services Council.

SAAS does not hold information on which academic disciplines students study at postgraduate level.

The total spend on postgraduate students supported through the Postgraduate Students’ Allowances
Scheme (PSAS) was £10.1m in 2007-08, £10.7m in 2008-09, £9.6m in 2009-10, £7.7m in 2010-11 and £7.6m in 2011-12.

The living cost element of PSAS was discontinued in academic year 2010-11 to fund an increase in the number of students eligible to receive tuition fee support. The number of places available increased from 1,820 to 2,700.

The most interesting aspect of this answer was the confirmation of the discontinuation of the living cost element of PSAS, which was more recent that I had expected.  It was also interesting to see quite how much money has been taken out of the PSAS scheme over the past few years – basically around 25% or £2.6m.

Edinburgh University Announces Top-Up Bursaries for Most-Disadvantaged DPLP Students

Writing to all applicants to study the DPLP at Edinburgh University’s Centre of Professional Legal Practice, the Director, Ms Caroline Colliston stated:

In addition to [the Scottish Government’s loan worth £3,400, which covers half the cost of the fees] the University is making available 100 Postgraduate Bursaries of £1000 each.

We are now pleased to announce that recipients of the PTFL and University Postgraduate Bursary who have previously studied at Edinburgh Law School and who were members of the LEAPS or Pathways Plus Schemes or in receipt of an Access Bursary will be entitled to apply for a top-up bursary that will cover the remainder of the tuition fees and the materials cost for the Diploma. This additional bursary will be up to £2250 and further details of how to apply will be sent with offer communications. We would therefore encourage all eligible students to apply for the PTFL and University Postgraduate Bursary as soon as possible.

This is clearly welcome news to the students who will be eligible for these bursaries.  The LEAPS and Pathways Plus schemes are those that identify and support candidates for undergraduate study who would otherwise be unlikely to attend University.  So this scheme will benefit many of those who would find it most difficult to undertake the DPLP otherwise.  Further details on the £1000 University Postgraduate Bursary is here, although it is noted that the 100 places is not just limited to DPLP students.

However, the positive news must be balanced against the fact that students are still required to self-fund their living costs and are not eligible for student loans for living costs.  This still represents a massive funding gap.  Also, it is not known whether other Universities will be as generous as Edinburgh appears to be.  Finally, there will be a significant number of students who do not meet the requirements to qualify for the top-up bursary, and for whom the costs of studying may well still be prohibitive.

But at least it can’t be said that the Universities (or at least Edinburgh University) are not doing what they can to help.  What we really need to see now is the Scottish Government acting to extend means-tested loans for living costs to DPLP students.

LSC Letter Published in Scotland on Sunday (13 May)

In response to the Scotland on Sunday article in last week’s paper, I wrote back to the paper pointing out the difficulties – not mentioned in the article – caused by the lack of living cost loans for the DPLP.

My letter was published in today’s edition of the paper (link here to online version).   The text of the letter is reproduced below:

IT WAS encouraging to see Scotland on Sunday (News, 6 May) cover the problems faced by graduates wanting to become lawyers in obtaining the required traineeship with a law firm.

As stated in your article, the trend for unpaid traineeships clearly entrenches privilege by choking off access to the profession for those whose families are unable to support them whilst they work unpaid. The Law Society’s policy to eliminate unpaid traineeships is therefore a welcome step towards ensuring access to the profession is based on an individual’s ability, not on their families’ financial resources.

However, your article did not highlight an even more significant barrier to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds. The need for students to find £8,000 to £10,000 to fund their Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP), a compulsory requirement for gaining a traineeship, is a potentially insuperable barrier for those without the ability to risk a commercial loan or rely on family funding. This cost takes into account the availability of a small loan from the Scottish Government towards fees.

The University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council, with the support of a number of our local MSPs, has asked the Scottish Government to extend the living costs loans provided to undergraduate students and some other vocational postgraduate students, such as those undertaking teacher training, to students on the DPLP.

Extending the existing means-tested student loan system scheme to DPLP students would reopen the route to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds, whilst ensuring support only goes to those who most need it. This change could be implemented very quickly and certainly in time to prevent another year passing with bright and capable students having to decide not to pursue their ambitions of a legal career because they and their parents cannot afford it.

The Law Society’s new policy on traineeships is important in ensuring a level playing field for those competing for the limited traineeships available. But without support in the form of living cost loans, many potential lawyers will find they cannot even make it on to the pitch.

Tim Haddow, Law Students’ Council, University of Edinburgh

Access to the Legal Profession: Scotland on Sunday article (6 May)

Update: 13 May.  My letter, on behalf of LSC, responding to this article was published in today’s Scotland on Sunday.   See link to SoS website (here) or text of letter (here)

Prompted by the Law Society of Scotland’s announcement that, as of this year, Training Contracts would only be registered if they paid at least the national minimum wage, Scotland on Sunday ran an article entitled: ‘Unscrupulous legal firms ordered to pay trainees’.

Although the journalists concerned did speak to us in preparing the article, it was disappointing to note that it did not really touch upon the impact of the DPLP costs on deterring people for applying for training contracts in the first place.

The article is not online.  However, it did contain a few helpful quotes, including from Liz Campbell, Director of education and training at the Law Society of Scotland:

What we are concerned about is a situation in the future where someone who has family backing has that option [taking an unpaid traineeship] and others don’t.  We want access for all.

Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland, was also quoted:

The fundamental problem with unpaid internships and traineeships is that they entrench privilege, as only a small group of people can afford to work for free to gain the experience needed to get a paying job.

Clearly, these quotes apply equally to the issue of the funding gap for undertaking the DPLP.

Why paid traineeships aren’t enough…

Update (11 May 2012): A revised and updated version of this post has now been published here as a guest post on Scotland’s leading legal blog, the award-winning ScotsLawBlog.   

Law Society abolishes unpaid traineeships

The Law Society of Scotland recently announced that they would no longer register training contracts unless the national minimum wage was paid.  For clarity, this refers to the national minimum wage (currently £6.08 / hr, or about £12,500 for a 40hr/week job) rather than the Law Society recommended wage for trainees (£15,595 for first year trainees).

This followed reports of a growing number of  people asking whether they could undertake their traineeships without pay.  This no doubt reflects the increasing difficulty being faced by graduates from the DPLP seeking traineeships but constantly being met with the response that firms were unable to afford trainees in the current economic climate.

The announcement was covered in this weekend’s Scotland on Sunday (p7; no online version of the article currently available).  In the article, Liz Campbell of the Law Society of Scotland said:

What we are concerned about is a situation in the future where someone who has family backing has that option [of working unpaid] and others don’t.  We want access for all.

Robin Parker, from NUS Scotland, is also quoted:

The fundamental problem with unpaid internships and traineeships is that they entrench privilege.

The Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association also welcomed the new policy.

Why this isn’t enough…

The Law Society’s new policy is a positive step towards ensuring access to the profession is based on an individual’s ability, not on his or her family’s financial resources.  But there is an even more significant barrier to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds.

Figures from the University of Edinburgh Law School reveal that around 10-15% of law undergraduates are identified as coming from a background under-represented at University.  These students are encouraged and supported throughout the process of moving from school to University.  They will also generally be supported by the Scottish Government through the absence of course fees and the availability of means-tested student loans.

But what happens when these students (and others from less well-off backgrounds) reach graduation?  They must to find £8,000 to £10,000 to supplement the small postgraduate fees loan in order to fund their Diploma in Professional Legal Practice before they can even start to think about completing a traineeship.  Clearly, this is a potentially insuperable barrier for those without the ability to risk a commercial loan or rely on family funding.

Many of those who cannot afford to undertake the DPLP will simply not apply, and never compete for a traineeship. This represents an unmeasured loss of talent from the legal profession.  A loss that will be felt for many years as, in 30 years time, these are people who will not be diversifying the profession at the level of senior partners, QCs, Sheriffs or Judges.

The Law Society’s new policy on traineeships is important in ensuring a level playing field for those competing for the limited traineeships available. But without support in the form of living cost loans, many potential lawyers will find they cannot even make it onto the pitch.

Why living cost loans will help

In the long term, other solutions should be developed.  But in the meantime, extending the existing means-tested student loan system scheme to DPLP students would re-open the route to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds, whilst ensuring support only goes to those who most need it. This change could be implemented very quickly and certainly in time to prevent another year passing with bright and capable students having to decide not to pursue their ambitions of a legal career because they and their parents cannot afford it.

Report of meeting with EUSA and NUS Scotland

At our meeting with Marco Biagi MSP, he suggested we try and link up with Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) and NUS Scotland.  We met on 1 May.  Present was Russell Gunson, the Policy and Public Affairs Officer at NUS Scotland, Matt McPherson, President of EUSA, myself plus additional staff members and the EUSA postgraduate students convener.

We had some productive discussions although our agendas are different. LSC is trying to keep the focus as narrow as possible, making a special case for the DPLP on a basic ‘fair access to the profession’ basis.

Understandably, NUS and EUSA are arguing on a much broader basis, linked into the benefit of postgraduate education for the wider economy or even just for its own sake. Obviously, there is much common ground, but LSC is keen to keep the emphasis on the Scottish Government being able to address the specific issue for law without any fear of ‘opening the floodgates’ or setting a precedent directly applicable to the wider postgraduate support question. Whilst it’s a worthwhile aim to have much greater access to postgraduate studies all round, it is a very much bigger discussion and based on different considerations – and, of course, much greater funding implications.

Despite the differences in our approach, Matt McPherson undertook to mention our campaign again in the margins of a meeting he has planned with the Cabinet Secretary the week after next, which I’m sure will help visibility of the issue. However, LSC would still be keen to keep narrowly focused on the living costs for DPLP aspect and not get caught up in a wider review of PG funding, which will inevitably be at least a few years – and no doubt much politics – before we see changes.