The Bar professional training course (BPTC) has evolved through natural forces, and also by the application of more direct pressure. Breaking the monopoly previously held by the Inns of Court School of Law started a process of sustained development of the sector. Every provider of the BPTC has been harnessing the ideas of its faculty, academic council, students, external examiners and regulators. The environment has been competitive and innovative. The providers of the BPTC have amongst them both charitable sector public universities, and private training companies that have acquired university status following rigorous quality assurance processes. The private sector (which has attracted all the ‘magic circle’ law firms’ business) has breathed new life into the competition on innovation, pedagogical pedigree, research, scholarship and pricing.
Addressing the debt problem
The Bar Standard Board’s consultation on the future of Bar training has led to some clamouring for radical change, with further evolution of the current programme now one of three potential models (‘Option A’). Why? The advent of university tuition fees, greatly reduced public funding, and a decade of economic hardship, are factors that have led to students accumulating too much debt with insufficient prospects at the Bar. The profession is understandably uneasy about the morality of such a situation. The providers of the BPTC feel keenly the need to reduce the financial burden on students. However, they also understand that junior barristers need to be able to sell specialist services by exceptional standards of work from the outset of their careers. It is quite clear that the top law firms are in no mood to cut down or dumb down the training they sponsor for their recruits. Their training is already longer and more organised than it is for those coming to the Bar. If we cut any more corners on Bar training we risk conceding our unique expertise. Why not then simply accept a fused profession and call time on the Bar?
There are advantages in the current system that alternative models might endanger. Evolution of the current system can create significant changes in a controlled, targeted and risk-free way.
The right pedagogy
The first, and perhaps primary, point in support of evolving the BPTC is that the current scheme is based on the right pedagogy. That has not been questioned in decades and, frankly, is not questioned now. Only the cost of it is. Students have only really covered the black letter law prior to the BPTC. They have to learn ethics and procedure, and the written and oral skills of a barrister. Each of these component parts is virtually valueless in isolation. The value is in the blend. A well-designed programme can achieve a strong degree of beneficial integration between teaching some of the components, and have students spending as long as possible seeing how they come together. Any ‘pathway’ that breaks the learning and teaching into sections and has isolated and disconnected delivery will yield vastly inferior returns for any student.
Secondly, the current system has transferable value. The BPTC is a higher education programme with sufficient credits to award a diploma. This diploma is easily upgraded to a Masters degree and provided, in some cases, free of charge. The upgrade could be to an LLM or an MA, and some providers, (those with business schools) are offering the option of business modules for the upgrade. A Masters course covering law and business which trains high quality advisory skills is hugely portable. All providers of the BPTC could give impressive lists of the career destinations of their BPTC alumni – careers in fields such as banking, finance, media, politics, human rights and management consultancy.
Thirdly, the system is geographically accessible, with modes and locations to choose from. This is only possible due to the popularity of the training to a global market. Nearly half of all BPTC students are international. The international students get visas for the BPTC because it is a nine-month programme that results in a higher education (HE) award. Modularised and disconnected training that does not result in an HE award (such as the COIC ‘Bar Specialist’ model) would exclude all international students. The COIC model would cause volumes to reduce so drastically that providers will leave the market, and all out-of-London programmes (where international students sustain providers) would be threatened. We would be left with a small, London and insufficiently diverse cohort.
Evolution to date has been restricted by the volume of regulation – which has all been targeted at quality, without consideration of cost. The BSB has just stripped back large amounts of regulation, and now providers have a freer and more creative environment within which to work. Some economies may now be found and, without destroying the work of decades, the BPTC is entering a phase of cost efficiencies. Our ‘evolutionary’ goal is progress on cost without sacrifice on standards.
Contributor James Welsh, Director of BPTC, BPP
COUNSEL POLL: Do you think the BPTC is fit for purpose?