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The university law faculties that have lost their way

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Combine research rankings with teaching satisfaction data and you can see which law schools are floundering

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The much-awaited university research rankings have been published, with Legal Cheek reporting the eye-catching law faculty results — in which King’s College came out on top — yesterday.

For some law school deans the so-called Research Excellence Framework (REF) meant that Christmas came early. But for others it meant cold turkey — and perhaps not just for this year but for a few Christmases ahead. These results form the basis for subsequent league tables and, for the winners, access to a £1.6 billion pot of taxpayers’ funding.

The results for law reflect the headline figures for institutions as a whole — namely a loosening of the Oxbridge grip in favour of the London elite of King’s, LSE and UCL. Indeed the trade mag for universities, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), ranks King’s, LSE, Durham and York ahead of Cambridge (7th) and Oxford (10th). Leeds (8th), Bristol (9th) and Sheffield (10th) have also put in good scores and clawed back their relative decline of recent years. The success of the capital’s institutions may well be the pull of London in attracting the top international research talent.

Another surprising feature of the research is the abysmal performance of law schools at some of the other big provincial universities, including Russell Groups. Considering the premium they place on research, Birmingham (21st), Manchester (23rd), Liverpool (28th), Newcastle (33rd), Southampton (38th) and Hull (46th) have all performed very disappointingly.

So what are this lot good at? Well, it doesn’t seem to be teaching: they all performed pretty poorly in the annual National Student Survey (NSS) published earlier in the year, which assesses key indicators on teaching quality in respect of LLB courses. The results: Birmingham 59th; Manchester 49th; Liverpool 91st; Newcastle 16th; Southampton 60th and Hull 71st. Accordingly, serious questions must be raised about the management and leadership of these law schools and the value for money they deliver to their students. The law firms which recruit graduates from them may also have cause to reflect.

Speaking anonymously, a senior academic put these law schools’ problems down to a “pile them high” mentality, telling Legal Cheek:

“The huge numbers of undergraduate LLB students that they recruit nowadays could explain the decline of the provincial law schools — the removal of student number controls and the fact that each student brings a cheque for £9,000 is a great temptation to pile them high. Such large numbers and the generous time off teaching concessions given to underperforming researchers may also explain the poor performance of these law schools in the NSS.”

But what of the disconnect between research funding and teaching excellence? Ivory tower legal academics are always arguing that well-funded excellent research informs teaching and learning. But if that’s the case how come the research law schools perform so badly in the teaching quality-led NSS? With the exception of Cambridge (which comes in at 6th place in the NSS teaching survey), the winners of the REF all perform badly in the NSS, with Kings at 74th, LSE at 83rd and UCL 63rd. Durham, meanwhile, comes in at 47th, Oxford 37th and Bristol 51st.

Law student ‘cash cows’

The total scores for the REF are based on the quality of research output, which accounts for 65%; the research environment (largely a function of size), which accounts for 15%; and the impact of research, which makes up 20%. The latter is a new measure of quality-based on feedback on the “relevance” or impact of the research. This in itself poses the question of why would a law school engage in — and the taxpayer fund — research that has no impact or relevance, except maybe the self indulgence of the individual researcher? Research outputs are rated as: category four (“world leading”), category three (“internationally excellent”), category two (“internationally recognised”) and category one (“nationally recognised”).

Not only do the research ratings influence the wider overall university league tables, but they also carry cash rewards. In reality the bulk of that funding will go to the top research intensive schools (largely in category four) — the rest will get very little in the way funding. What does that mean? Answer: recruit more undergraduate students to subsidise second-rate research. In the past, law schools have tended to be used as “cash cows” by university leaders — LLB students being perceived as low cost to service but bringing high A-level scores to maintain other league table quality indicators.

In common with all such exercises, much hinges on tactical decisions — not least the number of staff that a school enters for consideration in the research rankings. Schools are not required to enter all staff, so if you have a small group of researchers in a sizable school you just enter them and thereby have a disproportionate impact on the pure rating. For example, Ulster has appeared from nowhere this time at 4th place but they only entered 19 staff of which 44% were in grade four and came out top of the impact rating. Likewise Durham, a very old established brand, which entered 24 staff of which 53% were in grade four. Both are impressive performances, but how do you compare that with Oxford, which entered 109 staff of which 40% were category four? York also put in a good performance considering they have only had a law school since 2008. When combined with their innovative LLB that is beginning to attract attention from the City, they are one to watch for the future — even if they only ranked 35th on the NSS scores.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the post-92 universities (or former polytechnics) all perform badly in the REF (with the exception of Ulster). Even the big ones such as the University of the West of England (UWE) and Nottingham Trent (NLS) which have tried to stake out a claim for research excellence alongside their traditional perceived strength of good teaching don’t do well. UWE comes in at 51st and NLS 52nd. What is really worrying, however, is that such institutions, which have developed brands based on teaching excellence, are also performing badly in the NSS. UWE comes in at 66th, NLS at 36, and Northumbria 53rd in the teaching rankings, which are topped by the much less fashionable Anglia Ruskin, followed by the universities of Salford and Chester.

And what of the law schools-turned-universities that dominate postgraduate legal education and are now making a play in the undergraduate market? The University of Law (ULaw) and BPP make a virtue of not engaging in any research, but it doesn’t seem to impact on their business models and ability to attract the most exclusive teaching and learning deals with the big City firms. There may be a lesson in this for the poorly performing post-92s, which have drifted away from the teaching agenda towards research — arguably taking their “eye off the ball” in their traditional teaching strength.

Both ULaw and BPP have large and growing LLBs, but only ULaw figures in the NSS and creams all the major players coming out the 7th highest law school and top for academic support and learning resources. BPP does not appear in the NSS, choosing to opt out of the system until they are required to participate next year.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this data? The large law schools seem to have drifted and lost their way. One might even argue that they seem to be run very largely for the benefit of the staff and their pursuit of irrelevant research to feed the egos of university leadership rather the students. Maybe some of them have just got too big and reflect the legal profession’s well-documented inability to manage change. There are some emerging little gems that the keen observer will note — for example, UEA is a relatively small school but comes out 21st in the REF and 7th in the NSS.

While we mustn’t lose sight of the excellent research that is going on amongst a small group of research-led schools, and some unpretentious newer schools delivering to their teaching agenda, the bulk of law faculties don’t appear to be delivering value for the money that the students are paying.


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King’s crowned top uni law faculty for research ahead of UCL, LSE and Oxbridge [Legal Cheek]