Cost should not be a ‘prohibitive barrier’ to entry into the professions, says regulator in tender document for exam assessment body
15 June 2017
The assessment body selected to deliver the Solicitors Qualifying Examination will be required to charge candidates a ‘fair’ fee, according to tender documentation just published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
‘We require that the fees charged to candidates for taking the SQE represent value for money,’ says the SRA’s invitation to submit an outline solution. ‘This is for reasons of public policy and to ensure cost is not a prohibitive barrier to entry into the profession.’
The tender document sets out a number of mechanisms to monitor the amount of fee charged to candidates. The initial level of candidate fees will be agreed between the assessment body and the SRA, and any future changes will be subject to the regulator’s consent.
‘While we are open to discussion with the assessment supplier about incremental changes to the candidate fees, we require fees to be broadly stable over time, as otherwise there may be a perception of unfairness among past or future candidates,’ the invitation to tender says.
A steep rise in fees, the SRA goes on, would ‘reflect poorly on a regulator seeking to ensure a level playing field for entry into the profession’.
The regulator also makes clear the fee level should not be driven primarily by the assessment body’s commercial interest and that any excess should be re-invested to improve the SQE process.
‘We fully understand that the SQE needs to be a profitable activity for the assessment supplier. However, we need to ensure that the assessment supplier is not charging candidates excessive fees in order to increase its profits.
‘For this reason, we are proposing that, once the assessment supplier’s profits in a year exceed a specified margin, such profits will be paid into a ‘re-investment fund’.
‘The SQE is not an income generating exercise for the SRA and we do not wish to retain excess profits for ourselves. We will decide how this money is spent either in connection with the improvement of the SQE or to provide financial assistance to candidates.’
The document, however, remains short on a controversial point that only emerged fully earlier this week during a panel session at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar chaired by the writer.
Asked to clarify whether the SRA would allow a training provider to be the assessment body, education and training director Julie Brannan said the regulator was fully aware of the possible conflict of interests and would put in place mechanisms to ensure the training market would not be distorted.
The explanation caused consternation but Brannan said there would be benefits in appointing an organisation with a track record of organising exams in the sector, and said this would be detailed in the tender documentation.
The invitation to tender however merely says the SRA ‘will only contract with an assessment supplier who is either not engaged in the delivery of preparatory training for the SQE or who can assure us that there is a separation of these activities to avoid any perceived or actual conflict of interest or distortion of the training market.’
The proposed SQE service agreement, cross-referred to in the invitation to tender, only contains a general clause that the staff and contractors of the assessment body do not ‘directly or indirectly organise, run, participate or otherwise be involved in any training or preparatory courses for the SQE for the duration of the Term without the prior written consent of the SRA.’
It also implies that the organisation should have ‘sufficient information barriers, checks and balances, ethical walls and other controls mechanisms in place’ keeping it separate from any related SQE training business.
SQE has been slammed by most legal education providers. Most recently, the Association of Law Teachers accusing the regulator of putting a positive spin on the result of its consultation.
But two months ago the University of Law and BPP Law School, currently the two largest providers, brought their support to the new exam.
The assessment body will be expected to deliver SQE both possible routes to qualification: the traditional graduate route as well as the new apprenticeship route.
Interested bidders are invited to return a non-disclosure agreement by midday on Thursday next week (22 June). This will be followed by a launch meeting with the SRA the next day.
The closing date for bids will be Friday 1 September and first interviews with bidders will be held on 27-29 September.
Second interviews – with short-listed bidders – will take place on 6-7 February next year (2018), with a view to awarding the contract on 1 March 2018. The contract itself is scheduled to start in early April 2018.
Bidders will be expected to demonstrate their commitment to core values including ‘delivering a high-quality service in the most efficient and cost effective way’ and ‘a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion’ along with ‘a strong focus on transparency in all aspects of delivery’.
This story was first published on Solicitors Journal on 15 June 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission