Politicians mulling over the prospects of a more student-led higher education market may find the training debate currently preoccupying the legal profession instructive. Law graduates preparing to embark on the vocational stage of their training have to face a growing risk that, after investing thousands of pounds in course fees, they will not find relevant employment.
Rapid growth in the number of law students has outstripped the supply of apprenticeship places in solicitors offices' and barristers' chambers, leaving both the Law Society and the Bar Council searching for ways of choking off demand without jeopardising access and equal opportunties.
Student groups have campaigned vigorously for better financial support to prevent the law from becoming a profession for the rich, as the number of bursaries and discretionary awards dwindles. They have also constantly lobbied for equal opportunities for certain groups of students, such as those from ethnic minorities, which have found it harder than others to secure traineeships. They want the right to compete without the risk of debt being added to career uncertainty.
From within the profession things look different - even to the most liberal minded. The new Young Labour Lawyers group is arguing this week for access to law courses to be limited "at source". In its response to Labour's Access to Justice consultation paper, the group argues that: "Institutions are training far more lawyers than there are jobs. Students should have a right to know whether they have a future before they spend the money, rather than having to spend the money to find out."
The interests of institutions are different again depending on whether they are already in or hope to enter the training market. Responses to the Bar's consultation on proposals to end its school's monopoly on training for barristers indicate that while around 30 universities and colleges would like to offer the Bar Vocational Course, most think only around five institutions should be allowed to do so. They are worried about repeating the "mistakes" made by the Law Society when it opened up the market for the vocational training of solicitors, resulting in an over-supply of candidates and vacant places on a number of legal practice courses.
Here then is a market sorting itself out like markets do, bruising some folk on the way. Students want a chance to enter what has been a lucrative profession. Lawyers want to protect the price for their services. Institutions want to offer courses which bring in fees but must keep entry standards high.
Does this mean the market should be capped? Almost certainly not. Manpower planning does not work. Students denied the opportunity to go for a legal career because places have been limited will rightly argue that the restriction is inequitable - especially if they are from a "disadvantaged group". As the American Bar Association has discovered (see page 10) and as the Young Labour Lawyers themselves admit, a wide choice of training institutions can keep down fee levels thereby increasing opportunities.
But if the market is to be left to operate so that students can take their chance, they will need a number of things: access to loans for professional training; reliable information free of marketing hype about their subsequent job prospects; and assurance that the courses they join are properly accredited.
The qualifications on offer are probably the key and here the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee seems to be heading the right way with proposals for a more flexible training system with more "exit" points and choices for students about the direction of their career. It is just a pity that the committee has apparently so far overlooked the recent development of National Vocational Qualifications for paralegals - surely a new "exit" point worthy of serious consideration.