The Russell Group bubble looks like it might burst

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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.



The NSS is not an indicator of the quality of students being produced at an institution.

Furthermore, just because the entry requirements have been relaxed for some of the RG law departments, doesn’t mean that will change anything when it comes to law firms.

The firm’s will still pay attention to candidates A levels, and will continue to pick from RG universities.



firms* typo



Firms are actually moving away from asking for A-Level grades at all.



They’re not though, are they?

You only have the glance at the most recent round of application questions. Almost every single one has an A level filter..



Herbert Smith Freehills has no A Level req for example



Sure, one or two no longer *officially* have a requirement, but the very vast majority of law firms do.



Alex, this entire article shows that you have not got a clue about the higher education sector. Maybe stick to writing about how many trainees Eversheds will retain this year.



This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.



Interesting comment – I thought that the water at the ‘shed tasted a bit funny.



touched a nerve?



Freshers’ Week, not Fresher’s week. There is probably more than one fresher at each university.



It would be at the OU, where in the spirit of self study the first week is spent in a bus shelter with a cheap bottle of vodka



I hope any metaphorical bubbles do burst. Institutions should not prosper on reputation alone.



I went to a non-RG uni and along with 8 others in a cohort of under 150, I got a TC with a MC firm. Perhaps it’s not the case for all firms, but the MC has definitely stopped caring as much about the group a candidate’s uni is placed in.



“the MC has definitely stopped caring as much about the group a candidate’s uni is placed in”

Quite the contrary. They need candidates like you to fulfil their diversity quota.


Crappy A levels, non Russell Group uni, disability, MC TC

No.. How about candidates like us tried our damn best and clearly have more potential than a student who managed to remember things from a text book and blurt it out in 2 hours.

I’m tired of ‘haters’ who are amused that people who are not the usual stereotype can get further than them.
Get over it hun, Irwin Mitchell isn’t that bad.



Haha whatever helps you sleep at night kiddo. Who’s got the last laugh?


Statistical Cunt

Quit your anecdotal ramblings – we need new rules not exceptions to the current ones. Well done on obtaining a TC with a MC, though.



Ever wondered if you were just one of their ‘diversity hires’…. They still do prefer Oxbridge/Russell Group and just hire the odd non RG grad to make themselves look diverse when really they do not want to.


Dr Bonham

Ever wondered if you’re just a really terrible person?


Not Amused

There are members of the Russell group that I would never advise a young person to go to. In many ways it is too large. But you also have to factor in the growth of universities. That has lowered standards of entry but also lowered quality of teaching. By lowering grade standards universities can cover up that problem – but after a while they will be caught out.



Which Russell group Uni would you advise a young person not to go to? And which Unis should take their place? I’m curious about your comment.



It’s Harold Macmillan.



Oxbridge aren’t “guilty of such massive over-recruitment on the LLB,” because neither Oxford nor Cambridge awards an LLB at for undergraduate study. Those who read law at Oxford or Cambridge get a BA.



Oxbridge or go home.



Doxbridge. Please don’t forget Durham



The bubble has burst.
Birminghtam, Nottingham, Warwhick, Bristol and Exeter are TANKING.
Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Southampton are LONG GONE.

Oxbridge, UCL, LSE and KCL are the only law schools that will survive.

Look at professorial salaries at these universities.
Look at QS rankings and other international rankings.



Exeter should be among the “LONG GONE” group



Manchester and Leeds are still solid. Birmingham and Exeter are dropping out of the picture


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