The Bridge to Nowhere: Tuition Fee Loans and Fair Access to the Legal Profession

Photo "Pont D'Avignon" (c) Andrei Zmievski from Flikr

From Flikr (c) A. Zmievski (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Law Students’ Council campaign for fair access to the legal profession has focused on the non-availability of student loans for living costs to students on the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP).

In their responses so far, the Scottish Government has constantly reiterated that recent changes to the availability of funding represent an adequate (or at least significant) measure to address the need for fair access to the legal profession.  This post will examine this claim in detail and show why the recent changes are, at best, ineffective and wasteful.  They may even be regressive.

Changes to the DPLP Funding Arrangements for 2012/13

Previously, the Postgraduate Students’ Award Scheme (PSAS) provided 300 grants of around £3,400 for students undertaking the DPLP.  It seems that, originally, the value of the grant more closely matched the actual cost of the course, whilst the number available meant nearly every DPLP student could obtain one.  More recently, the costs of the course, and the number of students taking it, have risen significantly, outstripping the available funding.  By 2011/12, course costs above £6,000.  Well over 600 students competed for the available grants, with the Universities allocating the grants to the 300 students with the best academic record.  Prior to 2010/11, a small grant for living costs was also available through PSAS, although its value had been heavily eroded by inflation.  This living costs element was scrapped for 2010/11.

For 2012/13, the PSAS partial-fees grants are replaced by the Postgraduate Tuition Fee Loan (PTFL).  The loans are cheaper for the Scottish Government, allowing at least part of the money saved to be reinvested in increasing the number of loans available.  All eligible DPLP students will now receive a PTFL, representing 600-700 students.  However, the amount has remained the same at £3,400.  This is around half the total cost of the course (£6,300 plus £400 for compulsory course materials (figures the 2012/13 University of Edinburgh DPLP)).  There remains no support for living costs.

The Scottish Government’s Claim

The PSAS scheme is intended to bridge the funding gap for postgraduate courses and therefore widen access to postgraduate courses for students of all socio-economic backgrounds.  Refering to the PTFL, the Scottish Government claims that:

“The new loan scheme opens up eligibility to a much wider group of students “

(Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Scottish Parliament, 31 May 2012)

This is true if by a wider group you mean more.  Clearly more DPLP students benefit from 600-700 loans than 300 grants.  But fair access to the legal profession is not about more students having access to the profession.  The profession is already over-subscribed.  It is about ensuring that those from less well-off backgrounds are able to compete equally with their more privileged peers.

From this perspective, increasing the number of loans available without increasing the amount of the contribution is almost entirely ineffective in widening access.  The funding gap for DPLP students is £11,000-13,000 for the year of study.  The government contribution to bridging this gap, the PTFL, is £3,400.  Students will fall into one of three groups:

  • Those who can fund the full costs of the year of study.  In past years, these students may or may not have been awarded a PSAS grant, but were able to undertake the course regardless.  Historically, this was the vast majority of DPLP students.  Now, they will all receive the benefit of a £3,400 PTFL even if they are in the bottom half (by academic merit) of applicants.  Those who are sufficiently rich to fall in this group, but less academically able, will no doubt welcome the extra assistance but PTFL loans to these students do not improve access to the profession.
  • Those who cannot fund the costs of the year of study even with the PTFL .   Students who cannot afford (or who cannot call on parental support) to bridge the funding gap remaining after the loan (£8,000 – £10,000) will be unable to complete the DPLP regardless of the availability of PTFL.  This is likely to be a sizeable group.  For instance, those students (such as those profiled here) who have benefited most from fee-free undergraduate degrees and the availability of means-tested student loans for maintenance costs are unlikely to be able to produce the £8,000 – £10,000 they will need to gain any benefit from the PTFL.   Despite PTFL, these students  remain cut-off from the legal profession solely by their inability to pay for their training.   (The reasons why commercial Career Development Loans are unlikely to be much help to many of these students are discussed elsewhere).
  • Those who can fund £8,000 but not £11,000.  In principle, there is a small group of students for whom the £3,400 loan will be the difference between whether they can afford to study or not, or for whom it reduces the financial risks to a level they are willing to take.  These are the only students for whom it could be said the PTFL has successfully “widened access”.  Unless the PTFL keeps pace with increases in fees, this group is likely to shrink each year as course fee increases widen the funding gap.

There is no shortage of applicants for the DPLP.  Historically, the vast majority are in the first group and do not require government assistance to undertake the course.  Yet for most students from less well-off socio-economic backgrounds, the costs of studying are prohibitive even with a small contribution from government.  The new PTFL does not alter this situation.  Those who do not need the help get it anyway.  For the vast majority of the rest, the PTFL is a bridge to nowhere.

Are the changes actually regressive?

By making more money available in a way that means it overwhelmingly goes to well-off students who would have undertaken the DPLP in any event, the PTFL is wasteful as well as ineffective.  But is it also regressive?

The Scottish Government has argued that the previous system of awarding grants by academic merit tended to disadvantage students from non-traditional backgrounds as there was some evidence to suggest they did less well in the first two years of University, when academic suitability for the DPLP is judged.

There may be some truth in this argument.  However, any beneficial effect of removing the cap on funded places must be balanced against:

  •  Any advantage bestowed by academic merit has been eliminated.  The funding gap is now equal regardless of academic merit;  the ability to bridge it is dependent solely on ability to pay.  This disadvantages academically able but less well-off students when compared to less-able but rich students.
  • It seems the PTFL will fund as many DPLP students as the Universities will train.  By reducing the financial risks for those students who can afford to bridge the funding gap, the PTFL will encourage a greater number of better-off students to undertake the DPLP whilst making little practical difference to less well-off students.  This will only increase competition for already over-subscribed training contracts.
  • To take advantage of the increased availability of support, any student must still find the £8,000 to £10,000 needed to undertake the DPLP in the first place.  Even if those students from non-traditional backgrounds benefit most from the changes in principle, they are also the least likely to be able to afford to do the DPLP even with the PTFL.

On balance, it would seem likely that any beneficial effect of the changes to PSAS will be more than cancelled out by the regressive effects of the remaining funding gap.

What should be done?

The changes to PSAS have been ineffective in providing fairer access to the legal profession.  If the government contribution towards the costs of studying towards the DPLP is to genuinely promote fairer access then it must meaningfully help the least well-off students bridge the funding gap.  The contribution must therefore be a much more significant portion of the overall costs of the course.

Given that there are already too many people undertaking the DPLP and that those from well-off backgrounds are over-represented, any non-targeted assistance will be inefficient and only serve to encourage the over-supply of DPLP graduates.  Any government contribution must therefore be targeted by means-testing.

The Law Students’ Council is proposing that the existing student loans scheme for living costs is extended to DPLP students.  These are means-tested, so will only go to those who need them.  This change could be implemented quickly and easily, following the pattern established for other postgraduate courses, such as the Postgraduate Diploma in Education or the postgraduate qualifications required for qualification as an architect.

The maximum student loan is £5,570 (which the Scottish Government are committed to increasing to £7,000).   Taken with the PTFL, this would reduce the DPLP funding gap to under £3,000.  Clearly, this does not solve the problem entirely, but it does bring the funding gap down to a level which will mean almost all students can afford to study.  This would also ensure that the benefits of the increased availability of the PTFL are also felt by those they were intended to help.

Other proposals – such as moving to a larger, but means-tested, fees loan, would also assist fairer access to the profession.  In the longer term, the government must work with the legal profession to re-design the route to the profession, to eliminate financial barriers.  But immediate action is needed to prevent another generation of talented students being lost to the legal profession: the extension of living cost loans to DPLP students would achieve this.

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