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The Judge Rules: Students should be cautious following latest Uni of Law sale

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Who is this guy? That’s the question on the lips of the legal education establishment as Netherlands-based Russian-Israeli, 36, takes the reins

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The new owner of the University of Law is not much more than 10 years older than many of that institution’s students. Indeed, the youthful looking Aaron (sometimes known as Arkady) Etingen could easily be taken for a mature student in the corridors of ULaw’s flagship Moorgate branch in the City of London.

The 36-year-old Russia-born, Israel-raised business tycoon and chief executive of Netherlands-based Global University Systems has come out of nowhere — at least in the legal education terms — to scoop up the university only three years after the long-standing charity was flogged to a private equity house.

Private equity merchants are known for their buy it, strip it, flip it approach, but even so English legal education watchers expected Londoners Montagu to hang about a bit longer. When it bought the then-College of Law in April 2012, the wisdom was Montagu would be on the scene for at least five years.

But from the moment last November when Montagu announced it had flogged the university’s building in Birmingham, whispers grew around future intentions. Those whispers morphed into outright chatter when a month later the Bloomsbury branch in London was sold for £68 million.

In a superb example of barefaced PR spin, a university spokeswoman at the time adamantly denied that Montagu was gearing up for an outright sale of the entire business.

“This [the first property sale-and-lease-back deal],” she said, “will provide financial flexibility to support our long-term investment programme to develop the university’s facilities and infrastructure, enhance the student experience and support new ventures.”

But many were not convinced. We’d had the “buy it”, this was the “strip it” — now it’s only a matter of time before we see the “flip it”, ran the argument. And just as the sun always manages to rise following an all-night revision session, the flip came earlier this week.

Is that good news for current and future students of the University of Law? Maybe, fudges the Judge.

Of course, in light of this current quick sale, some might suggest that it would be difficult to get any worse for students than the university being run by the current ownership.

And if nothing else, new boy Etingen is a curious and apparently entertaining character, having moved to the UK from Israel aged 18. According to an article form City AM newspaper in 2010 – which was profiling him as the founder of the London School of Business and Finance — Etingen never divulges his own educational background for fear of giving publicity to competitors.

At the time he told the newspaper that when studying he saw himself going into business rather than education. But clearly now he is in the business of education.

Neither the GUS nor the University of Law will comment on the detail of the latest sale. Legal education scuttlebutt speculates that Etingen coughed up £110m to £120m to seal the deal, and that taking into account last year’s property sales, Montagu has walked away with a modest £20m profit.

But the concern for the wunderkind is that he could be taking something of a punt. And this is the issue that affects students.

In theory, the institution’s relatively-recently awarded university status and degree-awarding powers can be passported to the new owners. But a spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills — the branch of Whitehall responsible — told Legal Cheek yesterday that a “programme of checks” was still required and that the process was on-going.

Then there are the interests of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board, which authorise provision of the Legal Practice and the Bar Professional Training courses, respectively. What view they will take of a Netherlands-based Russian-Israeli taking over the so-called jewel of English legal education is open to speculation.

Not least because Etingen does not arrive at ULaw without controversy. A year ago, the Guardian newspaper reported that rebellious staff at GUS’s London School of Business and Finance complained in an open letter about a 20% pay cut.

Those lectures criticised their own institution and lashed out at another GUS operation, the London College of Contemporary Arts, which they claimed was afflicted by “chaotic timetabling, invoice payments, room allocation, poor levels of educational resources, inadequate student intake assessments and class sizes [as well as a failure to deal with] aggressive students”.

There is no reason to believe that such a future lies ahead for the University of Law, but it gives pause for thought.

But what must cause Etingen himself pause for thought are the shifting sands of English legal education itself. The value of the LPC and the BPTC are constantly being scrutinised, and there is a serious chance both courses could be jettisoned in favour of something resembling a US route to qualification.

If the very business plan on which the university is based is pulled from beneath its feet, then Montagu’s masters of the universe will look fairly clever.

Previously

The University of Law has been sold for the second time in three years [Legal Cheek]