Ministry uses rankings to cull eight UK law courses

Law degrees from eight universities in England will no longer be recognised for admission to the Singapore bar, according to an announcement by the Singapore Ministry of Law last week, in a move seen by some as protecting graduates from Singapore’s own universities in an over-supplied market.

International rankings were used to decide which ones to cut.

On the recommendation of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, Singapore’s Ministry of Law said on 24 February that the universities of Exeter, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, University of London will be dropped from the list of 19 recognised universities, starting from the 2016-17 intake.

It will leave just 11 British universities on the list of overseas institutions recognised for admission to the Singapore bar.

There would be no change to the ten Australian, four American, two Canadian and two New Zealand universities on the list.

A joint degree run by New York University and the National University of Singapore awarding a joint master of laws degree, which attracted students from some 20 countries, was scrapped last year, just seven years after it was started.

The review follows the recommendations of a special committee on the supply of lawyers, which in 2013 noted the rising numbers of Singaporeans going to law schools overseas and then returning to practise in Singapore.

The aim of the review was to ensure “quality control”, the committee had said.

It proposed that the list of UK law schools be “reviewed and updated to better reflect the current rankings of UK law schools”, revealing that it had used international university rankings lists to cull universities in a bid to manage the supply of legal professionals despite a stated aspiration to becoming a hub for international legal services in Asia.

Higher ranked universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College London, the London School of Economics, University College London and a number of others, continue to be listed by the Ministry.

The committee said it had used law course rankings published in British newspapers including The Times, The Guardian and The Independent. However students noted big swings from year to year between the different rankings lists.

‘Bizarre decision’

Paul Kohler, head of the school of law at SOAS, University of London, said removing his institution from the list was a “bizarre decision”. SOAS takes some 5 to 8 Singaporean students a year onto its course and “they are some of our best students”, he told University World News.

Basing the review on rankings was “simplistic and does not look at the particular focus of the university”, Kohler said, as law students at SOAS study the legal systems of Asia and Africa, compared to other UK institutions which only teach British law.

Kohler said the review used rankings from around five years ago and did not reflect the rise of SOAS in recent years. “In the most recent rankings, in the past year, we are ahead of some of the ones they have kept [on the list].”

It is particularly disappointing as SOAS was in negotiations with Singapore Management University to introduce a four-year law course which would include a year in Singapore, giving students a grounding in more than one legal system, he said.

“I would have thought that such a course would be perfect for Singapore,” he said.

Manchester University, currently with 101 students from Singapore, 98 of them on the undergraduate LLB programme across all three years of study, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” to be one of the eight, “as we have a long history of working with international partners in this area”.

“We will continue to offer the highest quality teaching, and wider experience, to all our current students from Singapore, as well as those who have applied to join us in September 2015, who will all be eligible for admission to the Singaporean bar,” the statement said.


The Ministry of Law said the total number of Singaporeans studying law in the UK had more than doubled between 2010 and last year, when it was 1,142. Another 386 Singaporeans were studying law in Australia, the second-largest destination for law courses.

However, the Australian universities’ list is linked to Singapore’s free trade agreement with Australia and is difficult to change.

Meanwhile the number of training contracts is around 500 a year, while local universities produce some 400 law graduates.

Singapore’s Law Society said on 25 February that the removal was due to law graduates outnumbering training contracts available and the change was “only logical”.

Law Society President Thio Shen Yi said a regular review is "important to ensure that we continue to get top-quality entrants to the Singapore bar".

"In any review process, one can expect some universities to be added or removed. In an environment where there are far more law graduates than training contracts on offer, it is not surprising that this review contracted the existing list," he said.

“The reality is that it is going to be a very competitive job market for them if they all want to become lawyers; there simply aren't enough training contracts on offer."

‘Harder to find jobs’

The eight delisted universities over the last three years accounted for 30% of the 729 Singaporean graduates from British law schools.

These graduates are often the ones who find it harder to get jobs, claimed Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore faculty of law, as a member of the committee that drew up the recommendations to the ministry.

"The message to parents and students is that instead of spending tens of thousands of pounds on a law education at a lower-ranked school, they could be better off pursuing other degrees locally," Chesterman was quoted last week as saying.

Last August, Law Minister K Shanmugam said the number of Singaporean law students going to the UK more than tripled from 350 in 2008 to 1,142 in 2013.

This made it harder for returning overseas graduates to get a six-month practice training contract at a law firm – a requirement for entry to the bar. Last year, nearly 650 graduates competed for about 490 practice training contracts.

Chesterman had said last year: “Setting aside institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, both our local law schools provide better training for the practice of law in Singapore than second-tier English institutions and their Australian counterparts.”

He said around 70% of Singaporeans who go abroad to get legal qualifications succeed in getting law jobs in Singapore, compared to over 90% of graduates from the two local institutions, the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University.

Raising the bar

However, the decision was criticised by some lawyers as “blatant protectionism” in favour of Singapore’s own university graduates, saying a preferred option would have been to accept only those with higher class degrees or to raise the pass mark for the bar exams which would mean a level playing field for all those applying for the Singapore bar.

In Japan and South Korea, law examinations pass rates are around 25% and 5% respectively.

President of the UK Singapore Law Students’ Society Kok Weng Keong, a second-year law student at King’s College London, said in a statement that law firms should hire on the basis of "careful well-rounded assessments” of ability.

“Law firms are ultimately looking for good lawyers when [hiring] and an employee’s ability to adapt to the high-pressured environment of private practice ought to be a greater consideration than how highly ranked his or her law school may be,” he said.

Kok said he hoped the delisting would not reinforce "second-tier" perceptions when assessing candidates: “Each one of the eight delisted law schools have all produced successful lawyers who are currently partners and associates in various firms today.”

The delisting might have been partially based on UK rankings, which are “prone to fluctuation” and it is impossible to quantify a school’s quality by such rankings, Kok said.

“With the international direction that the Singapore legal industry is progressing towards – be it the Singapore International Commercial Court, the Republic as an arbitration hub, or Singapore’s increasing prominence as a global financial centre – more UK-educated lawyers will definitely be an asset,” Kok said.

The Ministry of Law said it will work out provisions to ensure that those who have secured a place in the delisted universities before 2016 "are not adversely affected by the change".