Legal Cheek

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

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.