Feature

We asked the head of Durham Law School if Doxbridge is a thing

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He kind of thinks it is — but not everyone agrees

Is Durham University on a par with its Oxford and Cambridge rivals? Given that Durham is the only non-Oxbridge English university to have its graduates on the Supreme Court bench, it only seemed right we pose the question.

So we did, namely in an article called ‘Is Doxbridge a thing?’ The piece argued that while Durham is consistently over-represented in the solicitor profession when compared to other Russell Group (and of course other non-Russell Group) universities, we won’t be nailing our Doxbridge colours to the mast just yet.

Infographic via Chambers Student

Our article racked up hundreds of shares and attracted comments ranging from “many QCs have labelled Durham as the UK version of Harvard” to the always appreciated “another irrelevant, waste of time article”.

But what do those at Durham Law School’s helm think? We asked Thom Brooks, the faculty’s dean, if Doxbridge is a thing. This is what he answered:

“If you’re asking whether there is something about Durham, Oxford and Cambridge collectively that other universities don’t have, then I’d say I think yes, that’s probably right.”

Brooks draws the following comparisons between the trio: they are the three oldest universities in England, they all boast a collegiate system, have strong alumni (Supreme Court justices included!), and have enjoyed a “proud and distinguished history of high achieving and high performing”.

Where our Supreme Court justices went to university

Not everyone sees the similarities. One Legal Cheek commenter was met with 53 upvotes when they said: “My impression of Durham has always been that it is for posh kids who wanted the Oxbridge drinking society/rugby team culture but didn’t fancy the hard academic work, or simply couldn’t get in. I would regard UCL as second best to Oxbridge, and LSE and Bristol as better than Durham.”

Another, conceding Durham is “no worse than the other top Russell Groups”, said: “It’s not academically as good as Oxbridge — everyone there was rejected from Oxbridge. Anyone who goes on about Doxbridge is an idiot.” Durham was called the “king of the oxbridge rejects” by one commenter, and Doxbridge “dixbridge” by another.

Polarising comments aside, one factor that undeniably distinguishes Durham from Oxbridge is its law faculty intake.

LLB places have risen above and beyond the rates seen in other courses — a particular anomaly given that most university subjects have actually reported a drop in offer acceptances. This growth can be evidenced on a university-specific basis: Bristol, Leeds and Liverpool are just some of the Russell Group-ers that have in recent years ramped up their law student intake.

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Durham’s no different. The law school enjoyed a small increase from 215 acceptances in 2014 to 225 in 2015, and then in 2016 a whopping 310 people said yes to a Durham Law School place.

By comparison, LLB numbers have remained steady at Oxford and Cambridge; the elite universities took on just 235 and 215 law students last year respectively. One of Oxbridge’s sells is that, with students split into colleges, the tutorials are more intimate and personal than that you may expect from a bigger intake like Durham’s.

But, Brooks stresses, this climb in LLB numbers is not something the North Eastern university is planning to continue. “Durham will not be increasing its student numbers for the next decade,” he confidently pledges. “We had our largest cohort ever come through last year, and that’s more or less where we plan to stay.”

Is this confidence misplaced? The higher education market is undergoing vast changes thanks to the likes of the Teaching Excellence Framework and that ever-present Brexit uncertainty, so it could look very different come 2027. Brooks doesn’t seem too worried:

“Some law schools may be changing their models and processes in response to changes in higher education, but Durham isn’t one of them. Durham just seems to be getting more and more attractive to students. Since the Brexit vote the number of EU students wanting to study law with us has actually spiked. I’m not worried about how these changes will impact us because I know we will be able to succeed as we have done and continue to do.”

So assured is Brooks that he’s in the middle of a recruitment drive. The plan is to hire more academics, narrow the law school’s student to staff ratio, and focus on keeping tutorial sizes down. “Small group teaching is the right way to go,” he tells Legal Cheek, in true Doxbridge fashion.

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57 Comments

Anonymous

Another irrelevant waste of time article

Anonymous

Durham is the home of thick, rich kids. After Oxbridge, those with a brain head to London.

Scouser of Counsel

Rejected Durham for Liverpool after spending an “open weekend” there surrounded by posh kids moaning because they had been rejected by Oxford or Cambridge and clearly didn’t want to be there but their parents saw Durham as some sort of consolation prize.

Poxon

Might as well ask if Loxbridge, Boxbridge or Woxbridge is a “thing”, frankly…

@nighthawkprof

Or not ask at all — I’ve made my thoughts known on Twitter about this “topic”

In it for the lolz

Good for you. Virtually no one is follow, or cares.

In it for the lolz

*following

Anonymous

Sheffield University – Best law school in the country!

Lord Blingham

Nottingham Troxbridge – this country’s real powerhouse.

Not Amused

These discussions are infantile at best.

Durham could be like Oxbridge if it wanted to. Any UK university could. But academics like Brooks would hate it. Being like Oxbridge is simple – just do what they do. That means:

1. Interview your applicants
2. Increase your teaching commitments and institute multiple, weekly, small group tutorials
3. Institute weekly reading list(s) and have the students do an essay for each one
4. Have exams every term
5. Increase the amount of lectures offered

All of this would require a lot more work from the academic body. It is much easier to not bother putting in the work and to instead foster a vague sense of discrimination (as if honestly, one university with medieval stone buildings can really discriminate against another) and pretend to be a victim – or just lie and keep saying “even though the quality of the education we offer is poorer, we are just as good”.

Warwick showed what hard work can do. Warwick rightly did not want to be like the other ex-polys. So Warwick put in a huge amount of work and is now, rightly regarded as a Russell Group (and a strong Russell Group). What is depressing about UK universities is the complete lack of energy or desire for hard work that would increase our top category from 2 to 3+

Journalists should be holding these lazy universities to account – not indulging them in the pretence of victimhood.

Anonymous

Hear head. Good point well made

Not Amused

Thank you.

I get very angry because I am aware of, and have met, lots of Oxbridge quality young people who do not get in to Oxbridge. I don’t believe that’s discrimination, I believe it is a shortage of space.

Oxbridge is not getting any bigger and the UK of the 21st Century needs more universities of that quality. High quality members of the Russell Group who have been lazy and sitting on their hands or crying to the Guardian about ‘discrimination’ need to be seriously challenged and made to step up to the plate.

We could have more than 2 elite universities if we bothered to try.

The young people are paying serious money – they have a right to a better education.

Anonymous

This is a completely ignorant and ill-founded comment that betrays a complete lack of understanding of the financial pressures currently faced by British universities.

The reason Durham et al don’t increase their course offerings and give Oxbridge-style individual or small group teaching is not ‘laziness’ as you (almost unbelievably) suggest, but financial constraint. Oxford (university and colleges combined) has an endowment of £6,250 million, Cambridge £5,069m. Durham’s endowment is £67.6m. No other British university is anywhere near as wealthy as Oxford or Cambridge (the next wealthiest is Edinburgh, with a £343m endowment; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_UK_universities_by_endowment).
Government funding is inadequate, and is irrelevant to Oxbridge in a way that it is not to other institutions. Of course Oxbridge is able to offer advantages that other places cannot match.

Do you know any academics, NA? I do, and I see them working long hours for very little remuneration. A friend of mine (with an Oxbridge PhD and string of publications in top tier journals) is being paid at an hourly rate by a Russell Group university for the 4 hours a week she lectures (it’s common for early-career academics on short term contracts to be remunerated in this way). Sounds fine, except that she also has to devise the course, write the lectures and produce slides and hand-outs available online, all with no extra pay. Not to mention dealing with student queries throughout the year. She does it because she is committed to her field and her job — hardly the act of a lazy person.

At a time when government funding has been cut, academics are being laid off and, where they are hired, employed more and more on zero hours and short term contracts, face uncertainty over their pensions (the university pension fund has a giant deficit that no one knows what to do about), and when university departments are facing tough choices on funding, it is crass and insulting to suggest that universities and academics are being ‘lazy’ when they don’t offer a gold plated service.

If Oxbridge-style teaching at a greater number of universities is what is wanted, then adequate funding needs to be provided.

Not Amused

These are the standard arguments we receive from the left whenever public services are not doing their job. It is like a check list:

– government are evil – tick
– we would do the job if we had more money – tick
– emotional outrage – tick
– ad hominem – tick
– ignoring the issue and finding a victim – tick

The sad truth is, as we saw under Blair, throwing money at these problems never improves them because the issue actually is laziness and money doesn’t solve laziness. All the measures I outline require more work hours – not more money. Pay rates between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities for the academics who I am expecting to do those ours are broadly equal – the workloads are not.

I agree that these institutions, whilst also being too lazy to improve the education they offer students, act abusively towards very junior academics. But that just is not the point. I want the senior academics to start doing some work. The endowment is not the point. Oxbridge, unlike Durham, is a genuine collegiate university. Colleges are independent. Yes some colleges which provide the outstanding education are eye wateringly wealthy. Some, who still provide the outstanding education, are ridiculously poor.

It is wholly right that I castigate institutions which are failing to live up to the standards we need them to meet. I shall continue to do so. It is the young people who matter – not your sense of indignation.

Anonymous

You are ignoring the basic fact that departments are already overstretched financially and the kind of reforms you are describing cost money.

“Pay rates between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities for the academics who I am expecting to do those ours are broadly equal – the workloads are not.”

This is sheer nonsense. In fact on average, Oxbridge academics are paid less than their equivalents at RG universities: the Oxbridge name is enough of a draw for good people, and the venerable colleges are able to offer other perks. But the idea that Oxbridge academics work harder is fantasy. Oxbridge academics have more time for research than their RG peers. Because there are more of them relative to the amount of teaching they have to do. Because they are at better funded institutions.

“Yes some colleges which provide the outstanding education are eye wateringly wealthy. Some, who still provide the outstanding education, are ridiculously poor.”

Again, you clearly do not have any idea about funding works. This is not an “ad hominem”, it’s something that is betrayed by your arguments. Both Oxford and Cambridge have mechanisms in place to ensure that students from less wealthy colleges are not disadvantaged. Rich colleges pay for their students’ supervisions. Poor colleges are able to apply for internal grants to ensure adequate funding for each student (hence why poor colleges are more constrained on the numbers of students they can accept for a particular course). The fact that poor colleges are able to provide the same number of supervisions/tutorials for their students as rich colleges is not because they somehow have harder working academics, it’s because they are effectively subsidised by the rich colleges (who are not drawing on central university funding) and because the university itself is exceptionally well-funded so that college funding alone does not have to be relied on.

Not Amused

There is little point in having a detailed argument about funding here. I note you think I am ill informed. I note that I believe you are.

I do not see how pointing out that some Oxbridge Dons are paid less helps your argument. It helps mine. The teaching load on an average Oxford Don is far higher than that of an average Durham academic. We have already seen a Durham LLB student point out that he has 4 hours a module of tutorials – half that of an Oxbridge student. You will, no doubt, once again point to the heavily over worked junior academics at Durham – I am certain there will be many. That is why I said ‘average’.

Ultimately you believe that wealthy Russell Group Universities can’t function like Oxbridge because they lack money. I disagree and I believe that the issue is in fact the lack of competent senior management and the total absence of any motivation to change.

If your argument is true, then it would follow that these highly motivated Durham academics would have announced a detailed plan to be like Oxbridge. Following the creation of their plan they would now be lobbying (both public and private sources of funding) for more cash so that they can implement that plan. I note that no such plan exists and that no lobbying is occurring. Or perhaps in your world they lack the money to produce a simple document? They must be terribly poor indeed these, otherwise well fed, academics.

Anonymous

You’re clearly more worried about attacking academics than about remedying the situation, probably because Durham Law School has been vocally anti-Brexit and hurt your feelings.

Not Amused

At no point have I attacked academics. This sort of counter argument is deeply unhelpful.

Anonymous

Having worked as a part-time lecturer, admittedly not in Law, I can confirm there is more to the job than just rocking-up and playing a PowerPoint…

Agree

You are spot on, and I am a Durham LLB graduate.

The difference between Durham and Oxbridge is miles, while the difference between Durham and its other Russell companions is just a few meters.

The UK wants to think that Russell group is equivalent to American Ivy Leagues or its Ivy +, but this is far from true. American Universities put more efforts on teaching quality, and spend more on students than the British do (although US colleges are way more expensive). Durham is not reaching its full potential and is not trying to.

Just a few things that Durham can improve:

1. why it takes a bloody long time for an essay to be marked?
Seriously. I am talking about formative papers. It takes a month to mark these papers, and the feedback I got was horrendous. I hear from my friends in the US that it only takes a maximum of a week to get the essay of that length to be marked. Shorter marking timeline offers two advantages: more time to review and practice. A month? We only get a one shot at practicing our writing before we move on to the real exam. How do you expect that a student can improve his writing by doing a single essay?

2. 4 hours of tutorial, and its inconsistent quality.
4 hours of tutorials for a module. This is way too short. In many cases, only half of the tutorial questions were discussed, and the rest was left to students to guess. Some brilliant tutors put lots of efforts on these and tried to meet students at an office hour to discuss these unanswered questions (and I have to admit that Thom Brooks was one of them). But most did not. When all questions were answered, they were either lacking in quality or rushed. Of course, students hardly get anything out of it.

And so on…

If Durham’s reputation comes solely from its students’ personal efforts independent of the University, then I find it very hard to say that it is a good university to match Oxbridge. I do not know how tutorials at Oxbridge goes, but they are far intense in quality and quantity compared to those at Durham.

If Durham was serious about becoming a real 100 World TOP University (which is only within the QS ranking that is generous towards the British), it should invest more on what it does–“education”–not on art pieces that are hanging on its walls.

Anonymous

I did my second degree in law at Durham. I completely agree with this point. The quality of teaching in lectures and tutorials really need/ought to improve.

Additionally, you cannot compare the collegiate systems of Oxbridge with Durham’s – that’s just ridiculous! Yes, it had great inter-collegiate sports. Apart for this, they were just glorified student halls.

Of course, there were a handful of excellent tutors, and overall I really did enjoy my time there. Even if I felt slightly cheated for the amount of money I paid.

Anonymous

When I was lecturing, I found marking assignments very time consuming. There are broadly speaking two ways to mark. There’s the quick scan for key words and phrases tick, smiley, well done method, and then there’s the read through carefully, has the student demonstrated the knowledge being tested, construct meaningful, encouraging, supportive feedback method. The former is quick, the latter isn’t, and it used to take me up to one hour to mark an assignment using the latter method.

While I understand your need for a quick turnaround of your work, the size of your lecturer’s workload is defined by the size of your cohort, and the 2nd and 3rd year cohorts assuming they lecture on each year of your degree programme. I’ve said that it used to take me up to an hour to mark an assignment, I freely admit I may have been a bit slow, some lecturers may mark at a faster rate, but I doubt they will be assessing more than 4 papers an hour. Do some sums based on the size of your cohort and that will give you an idea of the number of hours your lecturer will be marking, it may just explain why it took four weeks.

Anonymous

Warwick is not an ex-poly!
PS I went to Durham!

@nighthawkprof

your optimistic — i’ll give you that

and it appears you have little idea of veblen goods

your english ideas of practicality and substance are lost on much of these institutions’ true audience

@nighthawkprof

*you’re

if only oxbridge could invent a way to ensure that typing is not autocorrected on this 4″ phone display for these tired eyes — apologies all

Anonymous

This is so Legal Cheek that there isn’t really that much to comment on…

Bored on Friday

Ha! I was thinking the exact same thing. One kid with 3As thinks his Uni is miles better than another kid with 3As because Daddy/Mummy/Housemaster/Tutor/Grandpapa etc. say so.

However interesting debate about University funding a few comments above though, although NA as usual not taking on board the opinions of others.

Anonymous

Ha true. So Legal Cheek. Need a Frustrated Writer comment at times like this

Anonymous

No.

Anonymous

British people remain obsessed with class, non-shocka

Doxbridge Anonymous

Durham could maybe have more tutorials, but only Doxbridge does them. The rest all do larger seminar groups. And not all provide formative feedback before summative assessments do – US might return work quicker, but all marks count for final grade.

Neither Oxbridge nor Durham

If offered a place at Oxford/Cambridge and a place at Durham, who would choose Durham? Whilst there will be the odd person who would choose Durham, I am confident that the vast majority would choose to go to Oxbridge. Until the answer to this question changes, it seems fanciful to suggest that “Doxbridge” is a recognisable concept and that Durham has parity with Oxford and Cambridge.

Anonymous

Think point of article is that however you rank them Durham, Oxford and Cambridge are different from all the rest. Partly age, partly success of graduates on Supreme Court and partly on runnibg small group tutorials in offices. Some might do more than others, but the other Russell Group universities, etc don’t have this. Yes still some excellent non “Doxbridge” programmes, but these three are different from them.

Neither Oxbridge nor Durham

I see the point. It seems to me that it’s fairly hard to argue parity with Oxbridge but much easier to argue that Durham is atypical to the remaining Russell group universities. Query, then, whether that means Durham is “better” than the remaining Russell group universities (whether measured by Supreme Court appointments, magic circle graduates or something else) or simply that Durham is a quirky establishment that does not lend itself to direct grouping with other redbrick universities/Oxbridge.

Libeturd Leftie

I truly wanted to add a pithy comment to this “robust” discussion, then I thought… Why, when I can write a semi-snarky comment which effectively captures the “peculiarity” of this topic.

Anonymous

In terms of global reputation, Durham is unheard of

Anonymous

But it is 40th best in QS World Ranking

Anonymous

Is Doxbridge a thing?
Is Lady Hale the Beyoncé of law?
Is Legal Cheek written by GCSE students?

Anonymous

Does LC, like, have, you know, the best headlines, or whatever?

Anonymous

“Yeah like totally, wannabe, diversity, bag a training contract, Amal Clooney, hashtag meme nonsensical”

How did all of the LC journos fail to get a job in law?

Anonymous

Waiting for Frustrated Writer with bated breath

@nighthawkprof

legal cheek looks to be written by oxbridge firsts, at least to me

Trendspotter 5000

Doxbridge isn’t a thing. Just stop.

Anonymous

“Is Doxbridge a thing”
“He kind of thinks it is..”

If Doxbridge is indeed “a thing”, there is no way the author of this piece would get in judging by her appalling use of the English language.

Anonymous

KK has a way with words. An awful way with them.

Anonymous

“We asked Thom Brooks, the faculty’s dean, if Doxbridge is a thing. This is what he answered”

Woz dis written by a journalist person thingy?

Anonymous

I never understand why Durham completely disregards the all but a handful of metrics when assessing their worth. Looking solely at quantifiable measures (i.e. not student satisfaction): by entry standards (the average UCAS points of new students) Durham ranks 6th in the UK; and by average graduate salary Durham ranks 7th.

I also note that Durhams ranks 3rd in the “most frequently appearing in the MC” list, occurring approximately twice as often as LSE. LSE has a total undergraduate enrolment of 4,700 and Durham has 13,265. Scaling for number of undergraduates, Durham is actually under-performing LSE. Even if the law department was doing well, the university as whole is woefully under-performing.

In short, no – Doxbridge is not a thing and if a third university was to be included in an umbrella term for the “elite universities” of the UK then it would probably be the LSE or Imperial (who also outshine Durham in the international tables).

Impoxbridge and Lsoxbridge are also not things but at least they don’t try and pretend they are.

Anonymous

Durham Law has 3rd highest UCAS avg among law programmes.

Anonymous

1. Doxbridge would be a name attributed to the university and not a specific department.

2. No it doesn’t:

https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings?o=Entry+Standards&s=Law

2018: 4th
2017: 5th
2016: 2nd
2015: 3rd
2014: 6th
2013: 4th
2012: 5th

Trendspotter 5000

It doesn’t you tool. Interestingly enough, Oxford takes the dubious honour of placing third by UCAS entry tariff in the last year’s admissions cycle.

Anonymous

Durham Law has 3rd highest UCAS average among law programmes.

Lord Harley of Counsel

Oldham Business School. A pass degree is equivalent to an Oxford double first summa cum laude.

Anonymous

Ooxbridge?

Jones Day Trainee

General consensus is simple:

Oxbridge if you’re a wannabee barrister

LSE if you’re a sexy solicitor

Anonymous

If the Dean thinks ‘it’s a thing’, he’s woefully mistaken to the point of living in a fantasy.

Unless he’s boasting about being slightly better than average? Even then, doesn’t compare with LSE, Kings or UCL.

From my understanding and experience, the students who do well would have done so at any institution. Nothing special, just their own exceptional hardwork.

As for the SC justices, I’m pretty sure they have gone on to distinguish themselves in law after having graduated from Durham.

Take it from a recruiter.

PS: Legal Cheek, you seem to just repeat the same dross time and time again.

Anonymous

Any proper, independently verified reason why Oxford is considered the best, besides posh types wazzing out the word ‘Oxford’ and going ‘Oooooooooohhh’?

Anonymous

Big up UCL xx

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