Another check of the temperature of tax teaching in the UK

Stephen Daly (Senior Lecturer, King’s College London) and Amy Lawton (Lecturer in Tax Law, University of Edinburgh)

Ash Wheatcroft, in 1959, lamented the gap between the popularity of taxation law as a subject in the UK, where at the time it was taught in just one university, and in the US, where it was said to be one of the most popular subjects in law schools.[1] In 2002, Angharad Miller found a decline in the number of UK law schools teaching tax (although this was nevertheless a significant improvement upon the situation in Wheatcroft’s heyday).[2] The popularity of taxation has never been such a problem in University accounting departments – the major supplier of tax specialists in the Big Four Accounting firms. Instead, these departments are faced with different challenges, such as the restrictions teachers have felt in needing to comply with accreditation requirements – what can be termed the “accreditation constraint”. 

By the summer of 2021, it had been almost 20 years since the last empirical study of tax teaching in the UK was undertaken. Further study was timely and to that end we set out to take “another check” of the health of UK tax teaching in law schools and business schools. To do so, we distributed a survey to university teachers to explore the extent and nature of their tax teaching (assisted in no small way by the helping hand of the TRN, which used its mailing list to recruit participants). The results of the survey were presented at the TRN’s annual conference at Aston University in 2022 and, buoyed by the positive responses, we combined these results with an analysis of previous studies and publicly available information in order to write up a full-length article. 

In this blogpost we provide a short synopsis of that article and a summary of our findings. Readers are encouraged to read the full article in order to see the full breakdown of our findings along with our contextual analysis, which has now been published in Issue 2 of this year’s British Tax Review (Stephen Daly and Amy Lawton “Another check of the temperature of tax teaching in the UK” [2022] 2 British Tax Review 202, available here).

Where tax is taught:

Tax is not taught particularly widely in law schools in the UK. Indeed, there has been a decline in the number of law schools offering tax courses compared to 20 years ago (28 as opposed to 49). That is not to say that the decline is total: some institutions have picked the subject up in recent years, with some tax teachers noting the introduction (or reintroduction) of tax teaching within the last five years. This is positive growth and offsets the overall, more worrying, decline in law school tax teaching. Another balance to the decline is seen in more concentrated populations of tax academics at a smaller number of institutions. These institutions with a richer community of tax scholars are able to provide a greater number of tax courses. This is a nurturing, collaborative tax environment, but does mean that there are nuclei of tax teaching in the UK – added to which is the fact that these tax-rich environments tend to be at institutions in the ‘golden triangle’. Beyond that, tax teaching is less concentrated; it is not taught in law schools in Northern Ireland or Wales at all. 

There are myriad reasons to explain the limited role that tax plays in law schools, though we suggest the “self-perpetuation problem” should be taken seriously as a potential explanation. In a nutshell the problem is thus: the fewer individuals who study tax during their law degrees, the fewer will go on to teach tax in law schools. This is a vicious circle, with fewer tax teachers resulting in fewer tax courses, limiting the opportunity for students to engage with tax. That is not to say that students would not begin a tax career (and specifically an academic tax career), but it is fair to say that this is would be less likely where they have not enjoyed inspired and innovative tax teaching during their undergraduate studies.

There is much more tax teaching taking place in postgraduate taught law degrees. Whilst this concentration of tax teaching is a positive, it introduces its own difficulties. The postgraduate taught law degree is a different beast to 20 years ago and Miller’s study. Fees for LLMs have rocketed: with course fees often falling between £20,000 and £35,000. There is also not the comprehensive state support that is seen for undergraduate law degrees (in that the student loans would not cover the fees), and postgraduate taught scholarships are few and far between.[3] As a discipline, we therefore run the risk of limiting tax education to all but the wealthiest of students should we prioritise, place a reliance, or limit teaching to masters’ courses.

The impact of accreditation:

This decline is not seen in business schools, which tend to teach large modules with higher numbers of students. This lack of decline seen in law schools is perhaps a result of the accreditation requirements of the accounting profession, where tax is a compulsory subject. Should a business school wish to offer accounting exam exemptions, then they need to provide tax teaching to students: something that is not required to obtain a qualifying undergraduate law degree (and so enter legal practice).[4] This contrast between business and law schools, and the requirement to provide tax teaching for accounting exemptions may create an illusion that tax is simply a business school subject.[5]

Whilst the accreditation requirements ensure that tax maintains a stable presence in business schools, it is a significant driver of the shape of tax teaching. Our survey determined that accreditation requirements stifled innovation and limited the projects that tax teachers in business schools wanted to or could engage in. This is not helpful and limits the pedagogical development of tax as a subject. We would suggest that the professional bodies and senior management consider an alternative approach: to encourage a critical perspective and broader skills development rather than a focus on substantive, technical content. This will help universities work towards wider goals of employability, as well as develop desired skills and characteristics in future tax employees.

How tax is taught:

The decline in law schools and accreditation limitations in business schools do not mean that there is no innovation in tax teaching in the UK. The Oxford MSc in Taxation is highlighted for its unique, interdisciplinary approach to teaching tax law,[6]whilst with respect to business schools, the accreditation constraint was not found to wholly stifle innovation. Reintroduced in 2018, the TRN Tax Education Day has allowed the sharing of new and best practices in teaching – including teaching tax through lego[7] and the introduction of virtual reality to help explain complex tax concepts.[8] These developments demonstrate positive progress in UK tax teaching.

Concluding thoughts:

It is unlikely that we will see a sudden increase in the number of tax positions being created in law schools (particularly those that do not already teach tax). It is also unlikely that the culture of accreditation in business schools is going to change overnight. For law schools, the self-perpetuating decline in tax teaching might be overcome by reflecting on our current teaching approaches. Perhaps a greater dialogue needs to begin with business school tax teachers and the professional accounting bodies but there is still space for tax teachers to consider how they convey the accredited material. For both schools, greater interest in studying, practicing and researching in tax might be generated by developing more innovative tax courses – such as tax clinics, new forms of assessment, or other non-traditional learning environments. 

This material used in this blogpost was first published by Thomson Reuters, trading as Sweet & Maxwell, 5 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5AQ, in the British Tax Review as: Stephen Daly and Amy Lawton “Another check of the temperature of tax teaching in the UK” [2022] 2 British Tax Review 202 and is reproduced by agreement with the publishers. Available at: and on SSRN.

[1] G.S.A. Wheatcroft, “Taxation law as a University Subject” (1959) 5 Journal of the Society of Public Teachers of Law (New Series) 11.

[2] Angharad Miller, “Taking the Tax Temperature in our Universities” (September 2002) Tax Adviser.

[3] See for instance UCAS, Student Finance in England [Accessed 6 April 2022]. It is also important to note, for example, that the state support for postgraduate programmes starting from August 2022 is £11,836.

[4] This process differs between the different legal jurisdictions in the UK. The Solicitors Regulation Authority covering England and Wales no longer requires a qualifying law degree to become a solicitor but the Bar Standards Board does to become a barrister. The routes are different in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

[5] Wheatcroft, “Taxation law as a University Subject” (1959), p.11.

[6] See University of Oxford Faculty of Law, “MSc in Taxation (Part Time)”, [Accessed 10 April 2022].

[7] Nicola Thomas, “Tax Research Network 2021”, [Accessed 17 March 2022]. 

[8] Published subsequently as Tanya Hill and Hanneke du Preez, “A longitudinal study of students’ perceptions of immersive virtual reality teaching interventions” (2021) 7th International Conference of the Immersive Learning Research Network 1.