But every once in a while, along comes a paper upon which we should all of us express a strong view: the Consultation on the Future of Training for the Bar: Further Routes to Authorisation – prominently the reform of the Bar professional training course (BPTC).
You should all be aware of the drawbacks of the current BPTC. It is offered by eight providers at 13 locations, at costs ranging from £15,000 to £19,000. Those costs are compounded by extraordinarily high failure rates (virtually unique among post-graduate courses). Example: of the 2012/13 students, 30 months after completing the taught course, 15% had failed and 7% had exams outstanding, a total of 375 people who had not passed the course two and a half years after it had ended. If we assume, at today’s course fees, they had paid an average fee of £17,000, that represents £6,375,000 in completely wasted fees. Yes, that is £6.3m, much of it funded by debt that will have to be serviced for years to come. Worse, of the students who pass (some 1,300 in 2013), only 400 or so obtain pupillage. So, for many students each year, the BPTC is an expensive failure, with no career at the Bar to follow.
Proposal for new two-part course
The Bar Council and the Council of the Inns of Court have for years been trying to persuade the Bar Standards Board (BSB) – which regulates the BPTC – to do something about this sorry state of affairs. Our proposal may be read in brief but compelling detail. Essentially, we propose dividing the BPTC into two: (1) evidence and procedure, which we propose be taught online at modest cost (much as Oxford University proposed last month for its economic development course); and (2) a shorter skills course (advocacy, drafting, opinion writing, conferencing, ethics), which could be taught over a four or five month period (with innovative providers offering two such courses a year). Net result: those likely to fail will do so in part (1), thus avoiding the wasted costs of part (2); and those who pass will do so at lower cost, and without their further tuition being burdened by those likely to fail. We need hardly press home the advantages for access to the Bar that our model will entail.
In separating learning from skills, some will say that our model is retrogressive. We disagree: many students will welcome the chance to study evidence and procedure at their own pace, inexpensively, at home – but we are not forcing our model upon anyone. Those favouring ‘blended learning’ will be able to resort to the traditional model.
In an article in the December 2016 issue of Counsel, the director of one provider offered a defence of the current BPTC (see “BPTC futures”, p 27). While noting that the providers ‘feel keenly the need to reduce the financial burden on students’, and expressing the wish that the costs of the current model might decrease, he was not able to point to any particular measures that might achieve that aim, or to give assurances that the cost of the traditional BPTC would be substantially lower in the future. Nor does his proposed modified BPTC do anything to address the pressing question of risk. The majority of students would still need to sign a contract, committing themselves to pay the fees for a year-long course, facing the very real prospect that they could either fail the course or fail to secure a pupillage. They will join an advocacy group, typically taught in groups of six students, one (or more) of whom will fail the course outright and only two (at best) of whom will secure pupillage.
We expect that those providers with the interests of their students at heart will rise to the innovative challenge posed by our model.
Silence is not acceptance
Lastly, you busy people may well ask – isn’t responding to such consultations what the Bar Council is for? The Bar Council (and your Inns, and your SBAs, and your Circuits) will be responding to this consultation. Let’s call that what – 15 responses in total? Not enough. During the last consultation exercise – on CPD – only 80 barristers (out of 15,000 or so) voted, and the BSB took that low level of response as approval by the silent majority of its plans. Please don’t let your inaction this time saddle generations of future Bar students with more of the status quo – a hugely expensive course with low prospects of acquiring pupillage at the end of it. Please read the consultation paper, and in particular the Bar’s own addendum which it and COIC persuaded the BSB to add. And please respond yourself, to the BSB. You have until 31 January 2017 to do so.
Email your views by 31 January to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributor Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC, Chair, Bar Council Education and Training Committee