Positioning itself as cool, unfussy and cheap — by, for example, being based in Peckham rather than Borough — would have made the doomed Kaplan Law School Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) less vulnerable to competition from bigger rivals.
In hindsight, it was never going to work.
But back when Kaplan entered the legal education market in 2007, the idea of creating the Oxbridge of BPTC providers seemed to be a clever one.
By introducing a rigorous aptitude test in order to gain admission to the course, Kaplan at a stroke achieved the twin aims of attracting the cream of wannabe barristers and taking the moral high ground above its rapacious BPTC rivals.
Not for Kaplan the dubious practice of offering the Bar course to anyone with a 2:2 and a spare £16K, regardless of their ability to actually secure a pupillage (which most BPTC graduates, of course, don’t). The new kid on the block’s charming campus, bordering Borough market and overlooking the Thames, underlined its elite appeal.
With top students flooding in and positive media coverage abounding, the likes of City Law School, BPP and the University of Law looked on nervously as Kaplan’s other courses, the Graduate and Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC), basked in the glory of an increasingly impressive brand.
The problem was that high overheads meant that Kaplan wasn’t actually making any money from the BPTC, which from 2009-2013 was indeed the best in the business, lovingly tended by founder James Wakefield, a former barrister. To bring in the cash, Kaplan needed to increase student numbers. Cue phase two of the strategy. Wakefield left, moving on to lead the Council of the Inns of Court. And Kaplan went about trying to build on his good work by increasing the scale of its BPTC operation.
Approval was obtained from the Bar Standard Board (BSB) to increase validated course numbers from 90 to 120. Staff members prepared themselves for a busy year. And then something unexpected — but not entirely unpredictable — happened. City Law School, the country’s biggest BPTC provider, whose top GDL students Kaplan had been pinching, hit back. A discount was offered for GDL students to continue with City for the BPTC. There were also rumours of other rival course providers offering scholarships to students who otherwise would have chosen Kaplan.
Now, if Kaplan really were Oxbridge, the value for students of having its name on their CVs would have trumped these extras from rival institutions. But, as the law school was to find out, the cachet it had built up would only take it so far.
What Kaplan failed to factor in to its calculations is that top wannabe barristers have extremely glittering CVs, featuring many things that prove how good they are — such as first class degrees, advocacy prizes and, perhaps most importantly, scholarships from the Inns of Court (which are, of course, a form of Bar aptitude test). While these achievement junkies enjoyed bagging another award in the form of a Kaplan BPTC aptitude test pass, it was a luxury.
That meant that when other law schools came calling with discounts, many decided to forgo the Kaplan experience. And so Kaplan began its 2013-14 BPTC significantly below its allocated numbers. Given the timing of last week’s announcement of the ditching of the course, it seems that something similar may have happened this year, although rising rent on Kaplan’s premises — which it is to leave this summer — played a part.
The moral of the story? That the only way for law schools to gain a lasting advantage in what is a steadily shrinking market is to battle over price. But Kaplan also showed how powerful the (very rapid) building of a brand could be in influencing student’s choices. Now, if it had gone budget, but in a cool way, and set up out of, say, a warehouse in Peckham, things might have been different.