The Russell Group bubble looks like it might burst

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By Alex Aldridge on

Status-obsessed legal profession may tire of brand which has lost its sheen


As the new generation of law students prepare themselves for the forthcoming festivities of freshers’ week at prestigious university law departments across the country, it’s worth reflecting again on the state of legal education. Not least as many of the new intake are sitting on A-level grades that in the past wouldn’t have got them across the threshold of even a middling university.

It may not even be a particularly comfortable experience: the evidence is that the vice-chancellors are continuing to use their law schools as cash cows and pack in huge additional numbers. They are chasing the £9,000 fees to subsidise poorly-performing disciplines or research that seems largely for the benefit of staff career progression rather than to add value to the paying student’s employability, inform teaching or the practice of law.

To be fair to Oxbridge and some of the London unis, they have not been guilty of such massive over-recruitment on the LLB, partly because they have the cash cow of overseas students on their LLB and LLM programmes to subsidise their research activities. In such circumstances, as they do very well in the so-called research excellence framework (REF) — which, in part at least, is intended to inform teaching — one would expect them to do very well in the National Student Survey (NSS) which assesses key indicators on teaching quality and student support. But it’s quite the reverse. Once again, this year the prestigious research law schools are mostly all languishing in the bottom half of the table. For example, Cardiff came in at 60th, Bristol 76th and UCL and Kings failed to get into the top 100. Ironically ULaw came out top and they make a virtue of not doing any research!

At some point is the bubble going to burst for these schools? Perhaps they shouldn’t be teaching undergraduates anymore but instead focusing on high end postgraduate work. However, their leaders have manoeuvred themselves into a situation where they are massively dependent on undergraduate revenue irrespective of the quality of the intake. In turn, that will accelerate their poor performance in the NSS.

Who is going to sort out this mess?

Not the Solicitors Regulation Authority. But they will add to the woes of the prestigious schools by raising expectations among students that their law degrees will at least in part prepare them for the new tests of knowledge and competency.

Not the law firms because their recruitment partners are still largely locked into a vision of the law schools that they experienced — and have shown no interest in putting pressure on the old alma mater to deliver students more ready for practice (although that may change under the new SRA education regime).

Not parents, because most are largely philosophical about the issue and are content that their sons and daughters have a Russell Group university brand on their degree certificates despite the mass of anecdotal evidence that the experience is not a happy one.

Perhaps the government? The Higher Education and Research Bill is currently making its way through parliament, piloted by Boris Johnson’s younger brother, which contains proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to assess on student satisfaction, retention and employability. Institutions which perform well will be allowed to raise their fees above the £9,000 limit and the results will be factored into the league tables.

That might just be the catalyst that provokes change. But don’t bet your house on it: the university trade mag Times Higher Education predicts that some Russell Group universities are fearful of the outcome and may opt out of the voluntary TEF and forgo the additional income. In any event the likelihood of any real student-centred change has already been undermined by the appointment of a sitting vice-chancellor to lead the TEF. Imagine the public outcry if there were to be a new body on banking standards and the person appointed was the current CEO of Barclays.

At the end of the day it’s quite remarkable how the universities have consistently managed to avoid responding to the needs of their customers. Former PM Harold MacMillan was supposedly quoted as saying that no government should risk offending The Brigade of Guards, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Committee of Vice Chancellors. Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher saw off the first two, but contemporary patterns of governance and accountability have still been evaded by the third member of that trio.