Reflections in Times of Covid: Change in Higher Education

In the first of two articles, SCR President Richard Roberts offers some reflections in times of Covid.

Richard Roberts graduating in June 1979.

As many of you know, I live in The College, that splendid collection of houses at the back of the Cathedral accessed via the mediaeval archway with its huge red wooden doors, which on 23rd March 2020 were ceremoniously slammed shut at the start of the first lockdown. They remained firmly closed for weeks and weeks.  

Multiple lockdowns and increasing immobility caused by osteoarthritis of my left hip meant that I have spent much of the last two years locked in, and on reflective mode. There is something about the atmosphere of The College – a serenity, a calmness, an ‘at one ness’ that provokes thought. These are personal reflections as I approach the 40th anniversary of being admitted as a solicitor.  

Let me begin with the start of the legal sausage factory – the student life. I came to St John’s College Durham in March 1976 for an interview to read law and politics. I was unsure about my long-term career path – politics was a significant option, but so were other things. By sheer coincidence as I was being interviewed in Durham, my parents were in conversation with a solicitor in our hometown of Penrith, and cheekily (as my father was wont to do), he asked if they would have any summer jobs for me. Again, by sheer coincidence the law firm concerned, Little and Shepherd, did indeed have a vacancy because the office junior was taking the summer off on parental leave. 

I returned from Durham unsure as to whether I had a place but with the certain news that I had a summer job for as many weeks as I wanted in a substantial and well renowned local law firm who could trace its roots back to the 1700s.  

I set the scene because those three months I spent with Little and Shepherd in the summer of 1976 were pivotal. Of course, I did all the basic tasks like delivering post, answering the telephone and hunting for packets of deeds in the strong room, but I was also blessed in that every fee earner in the firm took time to talk to me, often a great deal of time. We all know how irritating it is to have a work experience student in the office, but I have never ever forgotten the myriad kindnesses that the partners of Little and Shepherd showed me both that summer, and I soon realised that a career in law, not politics, was beckoning.  

I got my five A levels and so my place at St John’s College and arrived in October 1976 – Northerner, Oxbridge reject, first generation student, from a particularly good state grammar school, and in receipt of a full government grant. For the next three years I lived in College completely, with three meals a day seven days a week and made friendships that have lasted a lifetime. The politics components of the degree were fun, a counterbalance to the intensity of law topics, but most of all my time in Durham was stress free. Little and Shepherd were kind enough to take me back on year after year for continuing summer vacation work – life was good.  

Over the ensuing 40 years I have never lost touch with St John’s College, so returning to live within the grounds of the Cathedral and to see my old College out of my apartment windows was a dream come true.  

It did not take long after moving in for me to realise that the students – and the University – of 2019/20 bore little resemblance to the that of 1976/77. Students were now consumers; they were paying for their education and that has a significant effect on how they approach their studies. Living out of college and fending for yourself was the norm. The University had mushroomed to almost 4 times the size it was in my day. Everything is much more competitive – even the intercollegiate and University sports. This was a vastly different educational beast.  

Looking back to 1976 our then Head of the Law School, Professor Dowrick, held the firm belief that one came to Durham to study law as an academic subject, not as an easy gateway to professional examination exemptions. It seemed to me that in 2022 nothing could be further from that tenet. Nowadays it all is about choosing options that make you more marketable and make you the most marketable to the highest paid roles within firms, or within the right chambers.  

I look down the list of subjects offered now and see such subjects as intellectual property, media law, counter terrorism law and policy, and Chinese law. The range is huge; the decision making for second- and third-year options is reduced to a massive spreadsheet computing academic effort in with ultimate salary achievement out.  

Recently I attended a formal dinner at John’s specifically to bring together Johnian law alumni with current students. The first-year student opposite me kept apologising for yawning heavily but explained that he had been up all night preparing a summative.  I discovered this was not an occasional issue but a regular issue.  

A photo from the Law Formal 2022.

From the moment they arrive students are under intense pressure to perform. There is a constant drive to achieve the ‘right’ degree to impress prospective employers. There is huge stress is choosing the ‘right’ options which is coming at a cost of student mental health.  

I was surprised recently when a prize-winning law student and aspiring barrister wanted to talk to me not about anything legal or academic but whether they should take accent reduction classes. They feared that their very distinctive North Mancunian accent would place them at a real disadvantage in applying to London chambers.   

One of the other curious by-products of the pandemic was a realisation on my part that we now have many students who have no clear or safe space to return to in vacation time. I was genuinely surprised at the number of students who chose to remain in colleges or in Durham not only during the various lockdowns but also in vacation simply because they did not have a safe and adequate space ‘at home.’   

Study drugs are increasingly common; indeed, one only has to google the term and discover numerous articles on the availability of study drugs and the profusion of use. A recent article in The Times alleged that 1 in 5 students take study drugs to enhance their performance. 75% of students do not believe using study drugs would be cheating. Once students become reliant on study drugs to what extent – if any – will it then feed through to using recreational drugs later in life to get through stressful periods?   

Study drugs aside, the more I interact with the students, the more I become concerned at the levels of poor mental health. They tell of imposter syndrome, deep feelings of anxiety and lack of worth. I also learned that despite widening participation programs here in Durham, first generation students, students from less privileged backgrounds, care leavers as well as students from BAME and LGBTI communities all felt disadvantaged and at times very marginalised. Yet those students could offer so much insight and perception into those communities and the problems they face with cultural and religious overlays. Insight that any firm – be it law or not – should welcome.  

When I came to Durham, I was lucky enough to get two significant grants; one from the Lowther Endowment Fund (created by funds stemming from Lord Lonsdale, he of the boxing belt fame) and the other from the BBC War Memorial Scholarship fund (simply because my father had started his lifelong employment with the BBC in 1942). Those awards enabled me to buy all the books that I needed for my entire three years, and my ensuing one-year solicitors training course. Those trust funds no longer exist, as the ravages of time, demands and inflation have closed them.  

According to UCAS, on average, students spend £2,113 at the start of their university course in equipping themselves with the necessities for student life. Next academic year, to equip one law fresher with a suite of books sufficient to cover their first-year courses will cost close to £250.  

Despite all the advances in making law materials digitally available it is still the case that students want physical books, and they want personal copies that they can access when they want, where they want, and can (heaven forfend) annotate. As we all know, the law changes rapidly, so second-hand copies have limited shelf life.  

I am pleased to say that from September this year St Johns College will be offering awards of a full suite of first year law books to some of its freshers. With the on-going and increasing support of Johnian alumni, the aim is that within 3 years every law student at Johns will have all their books provided for all three years of their study.  

Of course, there will be those reading this article who already make gifts, but times are tough now for students, so might I invite you all to help in widening participation by annually funding a suite of books for a fresher – after all, with Gift Aid relief, it is little more than a dinner for two at a decent restaurant!  

Half of all new solicitor admissions now are to those with non-law degrees and here in Durham, we have an active ‘Non-Law Into Law’ student society who are always happy to hear from those who have gone into law by a different degree route. Personal experience from different role models is of huge assistance to undergraduates who face so many options.  

Lastly though, can we all just give some of your own time; if it is impractical to help your old law school, you may have a local university law school: contact them and offer a little of your time. Some years ago, I was asked to give a lecture here in Durham and entitled it ‘Is it ever right to inherit?’ To my surprise I had 150 students turn out on a snowy February morning to listen very attentively to my analysis of Jewish, Islamic, Roman, and other inheritance traditions. I then posed the question ‘how would they feel if inheritance tax were 100% with no tax-free band?’. That certainly provoked discussion!  

Over the past months, I have often thought back to my time as a student here and reflected on which would I have preferred most – the monetary awards from trust funds to enable me to buy books, or the time generously given by the partners of Little and Shepherd.   

I could have managed – just – with fewer books and juggled library times and borrowed from fellow students. I could never replicate the wisdom of five partners of a substantial law practice. They taught me the importance of listening, the importance of accuracy and most of all the importance of client care. I remember with great affection their generosity of time, and in turn I try to give my time.  

I am proof reading this as the last of the Summer Graduations emerge from Durham Cathedral into the glorious late afternoon sun. I look out onto be-gowned and be-hooded newly minted graduates, full of celebration, of eagerness, and of potential. All the colours of the rainbow are on show in gowns and hoods – a rich diversity in every sense. The diversity of life. A diversity of life that needs to be nourished.

I hope that this article has entertained, and provoked thought. It is a very personal set of reflections from the serenity of my modern day Barchester theme park, but I hope each one of you that reads this article will pledge to do one thing as a result – nurture the lawyers of tomorrow in whatever way you can. 

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