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20th May 2020

Impact of COVID-19 on legal education

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As a result of COVID-19, universities, colleges and schools across the country have closed, teaching has been moved online, and the repercussions for students and their families are just beginning to be felt. The lives of many students across the country have been disrupted, with many returning to their family homes probably, it seems, for the rest of the academic year. At the same time, staff at education institutions are rapidly having to decide how they will continue with teaching and are exploring new options for remote learning. These institutions will need to consider the many possible pitfalls arising ranging from the lack of face to face contact to the technical issues that can occur.

In an already increasingly competitive market, law students across the country will be concerned about how their final semester of the academic year can be completed, and final year students will be concerned about completing their final exams. These exams must be completed before they can embark upon the next stage of their legal career, with many of them planning on either starting the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course in September. For them a cancellation or delay in exams could negatively impact on the rest of their career and therefore is not a decision that should be taken lightly by universities. Students due to begin their Training Contract in September will be reassured by The Solicitors Regulation Authority who have relaxed their rules and allowed LPC examinations to take place online.

Whilst many students may adapt easily to online learning, consideration must be given to the accessibility of remote working, in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and disabled students. For many such students, on top of the forced disruption to their studies, there will be further issues for them to consider. They may find that, unlike their peers, they do not have a stable internet connection, therefore hindering their participation in online classes or even impacting their ability to sit their exams. Access to a suitable laptop or computer also cannot be taken for granted. These students may have relied upon their university or local libraries to access these devices and will now find themselves having to somehow manage without these facilities. In addition, without a reliably stable working environment, the scope for stress seems clear, with the ‘double whammy’ of reduced access to counselling staff whose services have already been cut back because of stretched resources.

Not every home has a space for students to work in, and some students may find themselves working or even sitting remote examinations in bedrooms that they share with their siblings or in a busy communal area. With all but essential public spaces being closed it means that these students cannot access places, which if open could have provided them with the facilities that they needed as an alternative. Tensions rising in households where different members are struggling to complete work seems a very real problem. Legal education courses are generally highly intellectually demanding and a quiet space for learning is essential – but for some in the current crisis this will be impossible to achieve.

Where examinations are going ahead, students with disabilities may not be easily catered for in a wholly remote setting. For example, some students dictate rather than type their answers to questions in examinations and they may not have the facilities at home to accommodate their usual methods of completing examinations. Universities and colleges will have to consider a range of alternative arrangements in order to ensure that these students do not miss out – not only on completing their exams but also on fulfilling their potential.

The legal sector is extremely competitive and privileged students who have parents or family members who work within the legal sector may enjoy further advantages to which less advantaged students have no access. Some students can benefit from their own family contacts to provide them with academic support and help with career progression, for example in completing application forms. Students who find themselves isolated at home without easy access to lecturers or others who can support and understand their learning and career aspirations are likely to find themselves further challenged if they have more limited access to their university or college career departments.

For these reasons, universities will need to carefully consider what decisions they make regarding the teaching and examination of students. None of these decisions should be taken lightly and consultation with students across the board, in particular with those who may be most severely impacted should take place.

In such uncertain times, one certainty is that the outcome of the decisions that universities make will have lasting repercussions on a whole cohort of students; a cohort of students who will be entering an even more uncertain job market at the end of all of this, whenever that end may be.

For more information please contact Saffa Mir or 01604 233233 or email Saffa by clicking here.