The rising cost of law conversion courses is a major barrier to students from low-income families hoping to join the legal profession, one of the UK’s most high-profile lawyers, Cherie Blair, has warned.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, the wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and a QC since 1995 said that the chances of a young person from a working-class background such as herself succeeding as a lawyer were “worse” than in the 1970s when she graduated from the London School of Economics.
Speaking at a summit in Hong Kong to mark the inaugural Yidan Prize, an education award worth $7.7 million (£5.8 million) annually, Ms Blair told THE how she might have been prevented from becoming a barrister if current conversion course fees had been in place.
Research published by the Sutton Trust in 2015 said that 50 per cent of partners at “magic circle” law firms and 74 per cent of judges attended private schools, despite the fact that just 7 per cent of children go to private schools.
“I got a full maintenance grant to the LSE, my fees were paid and Lancashire County Council even paid the fees for my Bar finals,” said Ms Blair, whose mother Gale Howard worked in a fish and chip shop to support her family after her husband, the actor Tony Booth, left home when Cherie was eight.
“Three years after my sister went to train as a solicitor, they had stopped doing that – I was working by that time, which is just as well because my mother couldn’t have funded that,” she added.
Speaking after Alan Milburn, the former Labour health secretary, quit as the government’s social mobility tsar over Prime Minister Theresa May’s “lack of leadership” on this agenda, Ms Blair said that she often advises students to study law as an undergraduate to avoid the cost of converting.
“The expense is great, [so] whenever I go to schools and talk to [students] about law [I] encourage them to do law because at least they save [the] expense of a conversion course, which is a lot of money if you don’t have parents who can pay for it,” she said of the two-year scheme, which can cost up to £16,000 unless students win a training contract. The current system is set to be replaced for solicitors by a new “super-exam” after two years’ relevant work experience in 2020.
“Schools often discourage them to do it [this way and] instead [recommend] the conversion course, but schools don’t take into account the cost of the conversion course,” she added.
However, Ms Blair, who has been chancellor of the Asian University for Women, in Bangladesh, since 2011, disagreed that the current tuition fees of £9,250 a year would have deterred her from attending university, pointing out that “someone from my background would have qualified for maintenance so that would have made a difference”.
Asked if she regretted the Labour government’s decision to increase tuition fees to £3,000 in 2005, Ms Blair said “the answer is not to go back to full grants [as it was when] only 5 per cent of students went to university”, adding that “not very many were working-class children”.
“We have to work out how we afford tertiary education – people who benefit from tertiary education should…shoulder that burden, rather than those who do not directly benefit from it,” said Ms Blair. “Why should someone like my mother pay to educate the children of someone like me, as I am now? Because that is the issue.”