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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]

25 Comments

A Drunk Man Looks At A Thistle

And the Scottish universities?

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Anonymous

Hull isn’t a russel group uni

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Anonymous

The passage doesn’t expressly say it is….

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Richard Moorhead

Interesting detailed analysis Alex. Its worth paying attention to the detail when damning or praising some of the law schools here. Birmingham and Bristol, for instance, do much better in the REF when you weight their ratings by the proportion of academics they entered. Kings and Durham do significantly worse on that basis. My recollection is Ulster do quite well either way, but I don’t have the data in front of me. The NSS data is interesting – and I agree concerning but bear in mind that small differences in percentage scores -within statistical error margins- can lead to big jumps up or down the table.

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Tim Collins

I understand a number of universities are chasing foreign students and as a result requiring all their future lecturers to have Doctorates – not sure they make the best teachers?

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ChloeR

As a 2nd year undergrad at UEA, I can vouch for the excellence of the Law school. It says a lot that our lecturers regularly win faculty prizes for excellence in teaching. #OhUEAiswonderful!

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Anonymous

Cool hash tag. Speaks volumes of your character

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ace frehly

I was at UEA Law school. On the most part, very well run with passionate tutors. We always knew there were top level researchers around too – like with the Centre for Competition Policy where a professor would disappear to for 6 months.

UEA always comes out well in student satisfaction surveys and rightly so in general too (not just Law).

Shame the 400-odd year old Earlham Hall started collapsing in my 3rd year – had to take most classes in an old primary school…

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Clapham Omnibus Fare Dodger

I had some ‘world leading researchers’ as professors and they always found a way to shoehorn their completely irrelevant hobby horse topics into the readings and lectures at the expense of the actual material we were meant to be learning. The only good thing about them was the high marks you could always count on just by spewing back some of the drivel in their papers… like a bird chewing up worms and regurgitating them back at the nest.

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Crux

All very interesting stuff, but do we really think that recruiters at City firms give a toss?

So Manchester comes below UEA in the rankings, but I’m sure a UEA application is always going to come below one from Manc.

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ace frehly

I don’t want this to become a university-off –

But Manchester currently ranked below UEA in Guardian, Times, also http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings

Caveat – it’s general – not just for law. But still – if a recruiter looked at those tables – it may make a difference.

Also my favourite/strangest one – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/419908.article

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Niteowl Attorney

You actually pay attention to the THE? The survey that always mysteriously ranks Oxbridge at the top or near the top.

The ROW knows how to read the THE rankings, or, more accurately, how to line the canary cage.

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Lawst Cause

As far as recruiters are concerned, most of these metrics and league tables are pretty useless in ranking applications from different universities.

Do they care about the research the uni does? Nope, for the reason Clapham Omnibus Fare Dodger raised.

Do they care about student satisfaction? Nope, why would they? Just to use Manchester as an example, a lot of the low satisfaction concerns guidance given to students about what will be on the exam. In that instance, it is better from a recruiter’s point of view that the student be dissatisfied, so they study more areas rather than cherry picking just the topics they know for sure will come up.

Do they care about the entry requirements? Well, in a sense yes, since that means the university will be building on a more talented pool of students. But at the end of the day, a lot can change in three years of an undergrad degree and so it’s only of fairly limited use.

How about using graduate prospects as the basis of deciding which universities to favour recruiting from? Well that’s just a very circular logic which leaves little or no opportunity for any institution to ever do much to increase or decrease the desirability of its students.

A standardised exam across all Law undergraduate courses would be one way to better compare students from different universities, but I can’t see that happening any time soon, even in the core areas which are required to making it a qualifying law degree.

In the absence of something such as that, recruiters have to rely largely on historical views of universities, which may bare little correlation with the current standard of students emerging from those institutions. It works well for me as someone who went to a Russell group but it doesn’t seem very fair or efficient.

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Apex Predator

The title of this article could just as well be “The University of Warwick”

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Quistclose Lover

Most of the LLB curriculum is standardised so won’t involve groundbreaking research. Unless Gray teaches you land law, or Treitel taught you contract law, your researching lecturer is likely to bore you with his latest titillating work entitled ‘Towards a new understanding of the Printers Imprint Act 1961- new social forms or social norms?’

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Anonymous

All these polys and third rate unis like UEA can do as well as they like in these totally flawed and ridiculous league tables (some of the things they take into account are quite ridiculous) but the fact is when it comes to recruitment you are not going to see the top firms or chambers taking someone with such woeful judgment that they attended one of these institutions. If we ever start taking poly trainees I know it’s time to retire…

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Richard Reynolds

Its time to retire. Your position is based on nothing other than snobbery and superstition. I sincerely hope you are not in any way responsible for recruitment or if you are you, at least, resign that position immediately. It would be nice to know who you work for (or are a partner of) rather than dishonestly hiding behind the “anonymous” handle while saying such. I also hope, for the sake of your clients, your legal work is better researched.

Before I begin your most basic factual error is that UEA is a 60’s uni, and a fairly good one. Its part of the group known as the glass plate universities (the others being: York, Warwick, Sussex, Essex, Aston, Kent, and Lancaster. It is also a former member of the ’94 Group* of smaller research intensive universities, whose other members have included: LSE, Bath, SOAS, UMIST (one of the constituent parts of what is now Manchester).

You may have been thinking of UWE or Anglia Ruskin, which are ex-polys, whihc is not to say their teaching of law is poor. Certainly I know UWE’s law school is quite well regarded locally.

Both the RAE (now REF) data and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings focus on research impact (although the THEWUR do cover teaching but international teaching quality comparisons are necessarily based upon limited data.) A big problem in ranking institutions is that reputation, and therefore history, is a unscientific metric to use but it is so widely used by so many people it still produces a degree of measurement bias (its analogous to, and you should read up on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, teats if you do feel like extending your education beyond your, fantastic I’m sure, degree.) This is why a lot of rankings, though not the RAE/REF, still use reputation as part of their ranking. THE-WUR only use reputation data from academics themselves, and use it to a lesser extent than many. No table is perfect, this is partially for the the reasons I’ve already given, partially because no one actually has a perfect model of a good university to measure against and partially because the available data is limited and subject to a great deal of “gaming” by the institutions themselves.

The other tables are often guilty of basing a large part of their scores on graduate income (which is regionally distorted) and input grades, which is like basing your judgement of a hospital on taking less ill patients.

THE-WUR is probably the most authoritative ranking within the higher education systems of the world i.e. among academics (like measuring a hospital on what the doctors say – perhaps a better measure?)

There are a range of reasons people attend universities, many are not able to travel or live away from home, some may not like the snooty attitude that they see from graduates, like yourself, of them.

In short: if the best thing one has to say for themselves is which uni they graduated from they don’t have very much to say. You, specifically, are a danger to the future of the profession, and deserve exactly what you’ll get with your recruitment methods.

Enjoy your Christmas, and your retirement.

My credentials and disclosure:
I am, in fact, a graduate of UEA.
I am/will be a Barrister (depending on your definition). I’m starting pupillage at a “top”* London set in October.
Formally, I was the research manager of the THE-WUR.

*1 the Group folded in 2013
*2 as Legal Cheek would be likely to describe any set appearing in Chambers etc. 😉

(16)(12)

Matilda

Although disagreeing with the way in which anonymous at 10.51pm expressed their view, I do agree with them that aside from anomalies you will not see many students from these lower universities walking into top firms. For starters many of them fall foul of the automatic Alevel grade filters many firms employ, whilst clients tend to have a similar attitude to anonymous at 10.51pm in the sense that they do not think highly of these universities. It becomes harder to justify charging out people at fairly obscene levels when the individual in question went to a university which the client views with disdain. Perhaps not fair, but that is the reality of it.

There’s also the question of the value of their degrees. Do we really think an Oxbridge 2.1 is going to be the equivalent of a UEA 2.1 in terms of the ability required to achieve it? I sincerely doubt it. Would a UEA 2.1 be the same as a London Met 2.1? Again, I sincerely doubt it. I’ve seen in recent years a real blindness amongst graduates about the relative value of their degrees. A 2.1 from every university is not the same. I’ll no doubt be called prejudiced or old fashioned, but if I was looking solely at academic ability a candidate with an Oxbridge 2.1 vs a UEA 2.1 would always win in my assessment.

As an aside, it’s quite surprising that someone who claims to be a future barrister and a research manager so badly misrepresented the comments of anonymous at 10.51pm. At no point do they claim that UEA was a poly, in fact it looks as if they separated it out specifically. Such attention to detail will be vital to you in your career, so instead of ad hominem attacks on someone you disagree with I would encourage you to focus on refining your arguments first.

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Juan Pertayta

How is the compilation of university league tables “analogous” with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a principle of particle physics?

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Richard Reynolds

The act of measuring can change the direction, or behaviour, of the institutions.

So you can only ever know where they were not where they are going. There is significant gaming of the rankings systems, particularly among the World’s better, but not top, institutions. I.e. the sub-50, which, by the way, includes a large section, if not most of the Russell Group on a range of international rankings.

I suspect a quantum physicist would pierce some holes in the analogy, in fact I think the consensus on uncertainty has changed since I studied it, and it is now broadly thought that Heisenberg’s basic explanation is actually unhelpfully misleading. But the first explanation by Heisenberg, or a basic understanding of its underling concepts, is a helpful analogy to the point I was making, even if it is no longer regarded as the best current explanation for quantum behaviour.

A better analogy might be the observer effect, if you read around these issues you’ll find people say they have historically been confused, my own view is that historically they’ve been much more similar and the changing/advancing idea of the uncertainty principle is departing from what is now often called the observer effect…. anyone else still awake?

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Richard Reynolds

… Speaking of attention to detail, I did not say he said it was an ex-poly.

My arguments were not at hominium either. They were attacks on his reasoning and argument. I did move to say, on the evidence he provided he was not fit to sit on a recruitment panel. My first line was broad but was clearly a reference to his last sentence.

I’m trying to find what was ad hominium, I see little to none, sarcasm and irritation, yes. Did you just mean strongly put? That’s really not the same. I may have got a little hyperbolic, for that I apologise but that sort of pissing from a great height on the ambitions of people when speaking from a position of ignorance hit a nerve.

I was irritated and perhaps could have been more polite but not guilty of either of the things you allege.

So, simply put, back at ya.

P.s. someone from UEA should rightly think of themselves as in the same groups as I stated above, it is indicative of significant ignorance or lazyness not to know that if you’re seeking to comment on recruitment.

P.p.s. my apologies both posts have been written on my phone so typos are possible.

RR

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Richard Reynolds

Oh, and, of course my hyperbole was merely a follow-on from the absurdity of the first poster.

RR

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A Pendant Strikes

“ad hominium”? If you’re a future star of the bar posting under your real name, do remember to run your screed through Latin spellcheck before you click submit. xoxo

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Simon Myerson

Part of the problem is that the Bar (at least) is far from certain about what it wants from graduates, as opposed to what the BPTC adds and what pupillage adds. Consequently, good teaching isn’t high up on the list of things a pupil should have had – although it should be. It would help if we could reach agreement about what a degree should provide students with. “Innovative” degrees are good things, unless the innovation is to try and relieve the training organisation (Chambers or Firm) from the things it should be doing itself, by doing them at undergraduate level. No ultimate benefit in that.

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Richard Reynolds

Simon shames me by making a much more constructive intervention.

Anyway, I’m not particularly proud of the degree of irritation or tone of/in my previous posts, though I remain, to put it in judicial-ese, a little confused by the contradictory counterarguments, and allegations, regarding the method rather than content of my argument.

In any event, I should have known better than to engage. Thankfully, the funding allocations etc will be based upon RAE results rather the the sniff test of website posters (he says aware he is in the latter category).

I posted under the influence of a mixture of fury, having been on the receiving end of poor advice based on such unsupported assertions myself, and out of an attempt to provide some context. Ultimately this odd pedant-war was a failure of which I am partly, though far from solely, to blame. At least my mistakes only embarrasses me for being intemperate. It does not cause wider fall-out in people’s lives and careers, unlike the comments above.

I have seen too many great people give up because they did not go to a traditionally great uni and then got such advice. I have also seen quite a few OK people make it through to pupillage interviews on the basis of their degree and/or work experience acquired on the back of said degree, but who are definitely second rate. Sad but true.

However, for those who don’t get too much of that advice or just, like I did, choose to ignore it: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some very good chambers having a much more enlightened approach and also been pleasantly surprised that by the end of the interview process this second category have, largely, been weaned out.

It must be very hard to fail at something when your life has been nothing but success, but it is also very hard to take the fact that it is often these people who sit around pooh-poohing other people’s achievements. The really good candidates with Oxbridge degrees tend to take a lot longer to tell you they have them and don’t feel the need to threaten to resign if someone else gets hired from a uni they don’t think is good enough.

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