Feature

How the surge in LLB numbers is shaking up legal education

By on
52

Fierce debate rages around how many law students can be taught by a single university

Something is happening in university law faculties across the country.

While the number of people applying for and accepting undergraduate places at UK universities in general has fallen since last year — with subjects like nursing, history and philosophy, and European languages experiencing notable declines — much the opposite is happening to the humble law degree. The number of applications made to study the LLB increased by 4% in 2017 on the year before, while the number of acceptances grew by the same percentage.

This increase doesn’t lie at the feet of all law schools. Numbers are down at the likes of Aberdeen, BPP and London Met. But the numbers are up, and we mean really up, at seven faculties we’ve coined ‘super law schools’, which last year received acceptances from a whopping 500 new students or more.

The Super Schools

List based on UCAS data showing number of people who accepted places to study law in 2017

In our exclusive report on this septet last month, debate raged below the line about the potential impact big year groups is having on undergraduate students’ university experience, particularly on the quality of teaching and support they receive.

Law school bosses outside of the ‘super schools’ bracket have seized on these concerns to argue the case for limiting numbers. Thom Brooks, the dean of Durham Law School, tells me that while “bumping up students to 500 or more might be good at raising income for a university”, small-group teaching is better for the students and this may be compromised. He argues:

“I really would worry about accepting cohorts of 500 or more students. Students want a great experience and a degree that will be an entry ticket to a promising career. This is not something you can mass produce.”

But — is that what big law schools are doing?

We can’t simply focus on the 500-club members: there are 12 faculties who took on more than 400 but less than 500 new law undergraduates last year, too. They are: Birmingham City, Birmingham, City, Coventry, De Montfort, Kent, Leeds, Liverpool John Moores, Portsmouth, Sheffield Hallam, UWE and Westminster. Twelve more accepted between 300 and 400: Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Hertfordshire, Hull, Lincoln, Manchester, Manchester Met, Reading, Salford and Swansea. That leaves 24 universities with law school cohorts of between 200 and 300, 35 with between 100 and 200, and 15 accepting a number of law students in double figures.

A student from one of the bigger law schools, Exeter, which accepted 395 students last year, is like Brooks dubious about the quality of teaching a big department can provide. He says:

“While the lecturers [at Exeter] are reputable, the vast number of students required a similarly vast number of seminar groups and teachers. As a consequence, I felt that some of the seminar leaders were perhaps slightly under qualified/lacking experience.”

In response, Richard Edwards, the head of the University of Exeter Law School, says the department’s courses are “carefully structured to give students support to do well in their studies, develop skills needed for their future career and also to create a sense of community” and “are led by world-leading academics who are experienced and innovative teachers”.

In contrast to the above-quoted Exeter student, one of the very few law students studying at Cumbria thinks: “You know the tutors so well and they know you, I don’t think I’d have grown as much if I didn’t have that help from them.”

Law school rankings contained in The Guardian show a close(ish) relationship between law school size and student-to-staff ratios.

Aside from Oxford and Cambridge, which take on just over 200 new law students each, the five law schools with the best (lowest) ratios have cohorts of no bigger than 175 per year. While you can expect 12 students per one staff member at some law schools, Northumbria’s ratio is 16:1 and Essex’s 18:1. Nottingham Trent and Leicester both score 19:1. Liverpool’s is 26:1 and Leeds Beckett’s 28:1.

That said, there are plenty of smaller law schools with wider ratios than that. Stirling’s is 36:1, for example, and it only took on 155 students last year.

Though you might be less supported at some larger law departments, according to these rankings, it’d be hasty to assume ‘big law school’ equals ‘crap teaching’ (and vice versa). Rankings don’t seem to show any correlation between quality of lessons and law school size — at all.

Find out more about The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on 23 May

The three worst-rated law departments for teaching (again, according to The Guardian rankings) are: Westminster, London Met and Brunel. They took on 435, 85 and 255 new aspiring lawyers last year, respectively. Cumbria, with its tiny 20-strong cohort, scored as well for teaching as Belfast (325) and Nottingham (290) did. While Bucks New University — which only took on 15 newbies last year — performed the same as Queen Mary University of London and its 285 fresh-faced law students.

When we approached the seven super schools to ask about their 500+ law school numbers, NTU told us it prides itself on being “one of the most innovative law schools in the country”. It points out that 96% of its students are now in employment or further study which it says is “testament to our excellent facilities and teaching staff”.

The University of Law is similarly secure in its size (perhaps because it only does law courses and therefore doesn’t have any other students to support). Its vice-chancellor and CEO, Andrea Nollent, comments:

“The University of Law is utterly committed to our students’ success and their achieving their career ambitions. Our focus on the excellence of the student experience, on employability, as well as widening access to the legal profession, means that we are rapidly becoming the first choice for many students who are serious about a career in law… As evidenced by our TEF Gold ranking, we consistently deliver outstanding teaching, learning and career outcomes for our students — it is of the highest quality found in the UK.”

As for Liverpool, the biggest undergraduate law school in the country, it puts its ballooning department size down to social mobility and inclusion. Taking on more students “has greatly enabled” it to increase diversity, “as well as allowing for significant investment in clinical legal education and co-curricular activities”.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising big law schools would back themselves in this way. But the students studying on mammoth law courses have good things to say, too. One, from NTU, shares:

“If you actually want to engage with your course and your tutors, then it’s quite easy to get to know people. There are so many people that you can talk to, that do a whole range of courses offered by the law school.”

A Liverpool law student agrees. Though she concedes there are “a few negative aspects to being a part of a large law school”, such as tutorial classes of up to 30 students, overall “it has been a great experience!” She says:

“I have made so many friends and I do believe that super law schools are not to be frowned upon. They provide students with an exceptional law student body, which is a hugely positive aspect of studying law.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty in dismissing big law schools. Just take the top-rated law schools across the pond. The likes of Harvard and New York University take on about 560 and 430 students respectively, and are considered among the best law schools in the world.

Alastair Mullis, who is the head of Leeds Law School and its 445-strong student cohort, certainly adopts a more measured approach. While he agrees that we should remain cautious about large law schools, they bring benefits such as: the ability to put on more law modules, and that a big student population attracts recruiters to law fairs. “A well-run law school, regardless of its size, can deliver an excellent student experience,” he concludes.

But what that really, really doesn’t mean is that all big law schools are automatically great, either.

Find out more about The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on 23 May

“It all depends on the attitude law schools have towards their students,” Mullis continues. “I have seen law schools that, research-wise, are absolutely excellent. And yet, they just don’t get student experience right. That’s really nothing to do with their size.”

Threads of discontent seem to impact plenty of students’ university experience, no matter what size the law department. Lack of study space is one: a survey of more than 1,500 of our Instagram followers shows 79% of law students struggle to find a spot in their university library. Another is feeling like a low priority for law tutors busy with research. “[At my university] you feel like you are part of a top institution and yet at the same time, like you are the most unimportant law student there is,” one student, strikingly, tells me — and there are only 200 new law students at her top-rated university.

The picture becomes even more complicated when you throw in the ‘value for money’ debate.

Law students pay the same fees as their counterparts reading other subjects, but their course is comparatively cheap to put on. This is not least because contact hours are low and because you don’t need specialised study space nor fancy equipment to teach law.

The extra revenue enjoyed by bigger law schools through course fees, then, may in fact be being used to subsidise more expensive courses taught elsewhere at the university. This is all dependent on internal policies and university structure, which, though shrouded in secrecy, could well prove pivotal in one’s decision to embrace or reject the super law schools movement.

Purchase tickets for Legal Cheek’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on May 23.

52 Comments

Ahoy there

How are all of these people supposed to get a graduate job, let alone a training contract?

Though there are and always will be students who are more switched on than others, there is a significant majority who don’t really know what they are getting themselves into. The responsibility for this would ultimately lie on such student’s shoulders for making the decision to go to University and study law, however it does seem like lots of higher education institutions are acting very irresponsibly in the way they advertise and run courses.

(23)(0)

Future trainee at MC

That’s a great point. I believe the likes of BPP as well are borderline immoral in accepting 2.2 Graduates onto their courses.

(18)(12)

Bob the Goat

That is a very stupid thing to think.

Is selling a football borderline immoral unless the buyer has a good chance of playing for a PL team?

You take the course. You take the risk. They sell the education. Not the possibility of a job.

There are places who accept 2.2 for a TC and there are people at the bar with a 2.2, Some well known silks included.

So if you have a 2.2, it might not be the end. And why shouldnt someone be willing to take the risk. And if not a MC firm, why not a small 2 man immigration or crime firm? Why cant some people aspire to that? And if they do, they surely have a chance with a 2.2.

It would be borderline immoral for BPP not to take them.

(23)(12)

Anonymous

It depends on the person. Those who get something with a 2:2 usually have something else going for them, or they had circumstances that allow them to explain the 2:2. The risk involved very much varies depending on the person.

It would be borderline immoral for BPP not to take them as a matter of policy, but as a matter of principle it would be borderline immoral for BPP to blindly accept and encourage as many 2:2 to join them as possible without first forewarning them of the risks involved generally.

(5)(2)

Ahoy there

@ Bob the Goat

I see what you mean and you’re right in many ways. People should be free to pursue the courses they like if they can meet the requirements – be that a 2.2 or whatever.

The only thing is there are a lot of people who pursue higher education and post-grad courses with no real industry insight or research. Perhaps because it is sometimes seen as “the done thing”, or natural next step.

One issue here is the irresponsibility in advertising that higher education institutions follow. For example (not trying to name and shame) BPP has ads all around the internet like
– “The best part about being a solicitor is”
– “A successful lawyer is…..”.

Statements like this can give the untrained eye the thought that a successful career in law will also be as easy as enrolling on the course/not as difficult to get achieve at it actually can be. Some may argue that such institutions know this and are exploiting un-savvy applicants. With course fees over 15k in some areas, this would be very different matter from selling a simple product like a football.

It is not argued that the responsibility here does not and should not ultimately lie with the consumer. It’s just a little regulation/compulsory awareness might go a long way to many student’s lives and futures.

(8)(3)

Future trainee at MC

Ok fair points raised about the 2.2. I just think it should be made very clear by BPP that it is very rare to obtain a training contract at any level with a 2.2. I know a couple of people from my uni blindly doing the GDL thinking it will naturally lead to a TC when sadly it doesn’t. On its own it’s not even a good qualification like a masters. It hints to employers from other industries that you tried and failed to get into the legal sector.

(5)(2)

Cold water

The only feasible solution is to radically cut university places.

How many people with non-RG 2:1s do you think become solicitors or barristers? Universities never publish these figures.

90% of graduates get 2:1s, so restricting 2:2s will barely scratch the surface.

(2)(0)

Future trainee at Irwin Mitchel

I agree. But 2.2s (that do not have extenuating circumstances) should be banned from all post grad study and the legal industry in general (except for School leaver admin work). They should be reminded that they are in the bottom 10/20 percent of uni graduates and should be treated as such. The whole point of everyone getting a 2.1 nowadays is so that those who get a first feel really special and those who get a 2.2 feel awful.

(0)(7)

Anonymous

I think you’re ignoring the fact that grade inflation has changed since many of those QCs with 2:2s were at University. A 2:2 back in the 1970s would probably have been equivalent to what a 2:1 is worth today. 1sts weren’t doled out left right and centre like they are now.

(0)(0)

US Firm Trainee

Piffle.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. One of my 2.2 friends has their own very successful law firm in central London. The other one is doing really well, she qualified years before I did, and the third has just been made a partner.

I got a 2.1 but career wise they’ve left me for dust. Grow up. Who they were are 21 is not who they are are 31/32.

Hangs head – I’m way too old for this site.

(6)(0)

Future trainee at Irwin Mitchel

What a load of tripe!
On the chance that this is true, your friends and yourself must be from a previous generation I.e. 1970s babies at the latest because back then 2.2 was the more common result. But currently 2.2 is classed as nothing at uni. It’s better to get a third because at least people know you didn’t care.

(0)(5)

Future trainee at Irwin Mitchell

Ok perhaps that was to much! I daresay I do believe you, it’s just that those people are anomalies. Just because mark zuckerberg and bill gates are uni drop outs, it doesn’t mean that dropping out is ok. Similarly whilst a few people who have got 2.2s became successful lawyers, 99.9% of 2.2 law graduates didn’t. That’s not to say you can’t be successful and rich with a 2.2, you can, but just statistically not in law.

(0)(2)

Anonymous

To future trainee at Irwin Mitchell,

I did tell a little lie. Sorry. My friends and I went to uni 2002-2005 and did the LPC 2005-2006 so we were born in 1983/1984 which is definitely not the 1970s.

But on a serious note the rest is true and it’s down to character. Granted not all 2.2s make it but the same can also be said for 2.1s.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

We can build a society where there is a graduate job for everybody. We can build a society where there is a house for everybody. It isn’t possible with capitalism in its current form though.

(9)(40)

Not Amused

They tried that in the east and that had to build 15 foot walls with guard posts to keep people in that utopia …

(42)(11)

Anonymous

They made a right hash of it. It does not mean that a different system or something inbetween that and capitalism could not work, particualrly if executed well. To cite failures in the East as proof that alternatives systems could never work is very close minded.

(7)(26)

Corbyn. Sympathiser

Keep people like you out, you mean. You’re full of capitalist propaganda. I hope the “poor born kids” you go on about don’t listen to you. They should be told that socialism is the only answer.

(2)(23)

Anonymous

For them it is the only answer and the only hope. Let’s hope enough younger people will realise not to listen to those spewing capitalist nonsense from their ivory towers.

(6)(13)

s.32 Salmon Act 1986

“They should be told that socialism is the only answer.”

No. They should be given the freedom to assess all of the available evidence and think for themselves.

(14)(4)

Corbyn. Sympathiser

Last time I checked I had the right to free speech, fascist.

(2)(12)

s.32 Salmon Act 1986

Sure, but when your speech is wrong (which is most of the time) we have the right to correct you.

(9)(1)

Corbyn. Sympathiser

Bugger off fascist

s.32 Salmon Act 1986

Classic Corbyn. In favour of free speech – until someone else uses it.

Corbyn. Symphathiser

The young people of today have these resources. The internet ans social media mean they have more access to such information than ever before.

And more and more they are moving to the left, on the available evidence of their own lives and stolen futures.

You and I are in accord on this.

(4)(6)

Anonymous

It is the establishment (privileged players in government, the state sector, academia and the mainstream media among others) moving to the left because the left means more state borrrowing which means more free money (interest payments by way of usury) for their friends in the global banking cabal.

The ordinary people, young and old, are moving to the right but you won’t hear about it due to propaganda, censorship, and speech laws.

(1)(1)

Corbyn. Symphathiser

This is a fairly laughable post.

Anonymous

To Moscow, comrade.

(0)(0)

Stultifyingly Unamused

What fucking idiots upticked this dumb harridan 38 times ?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Who cares?

(6)(2)

Whizz Kid

I think that careers fairs should be introduced at an earlier stage within the learning curriculum as that will help students to decide on what their prospects of getting the job they all dream they will get.

It may also be important that schools bring in experienced people to give talks to students.

If even after the above are provided a student decides on pursuing a specific education, then so be it. Each person is on a learning curve, some will be successful, the others will be saddled with debt and will find another career which will hopefully meet their expectations.

(3)(1)

Anonymous

I know at least in respect of Liverpool 300 of those places are for foreign students.

(5)(0)

The Super Schools

$$$ > quality any day

(5)(0)

Anonymous

University of Law for the win!!!!!!

(0)(2)

Anonymous

Not just a problem for law – it’s a problem for universities in general. Too many courses on at too many universities, allowing too many people to get a degree with little prospect of a graduate-level job that will help them pay the stupid amount of debt they owe afterwards.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

No one expects to employ someone from a crap law school at a decent set or MC firm but at least they may get some sort of job in the sort of company that is suitable for people like them.

No need to change the system. It works fine. And never before has a tradional elite been needed as much as it is today.

(10)(3)

Ahoy there

That’s a very interesting point. What factors would make you say that “never before has a traditional elite been needed as much as it is today.”, if I may ask?

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Why is City, University of London in the same pool as DMU?! 🤷🏻‍♀️
Give me a break 🙄🙄🙄

(4)(1)

Anonymous

If you got decent grades you wouldn’t go to either

(7)(1)

Bad Scansion

The lack of strong moral leadership and government is the first factor on my list.

The job of filling in the blanks I’d rather leave to you as I’m sure you’ve got the gist

If you are diligent then none of them will be missed

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I went to University of Liverpool and fully felt the impact of having so many students in one cohort. 8 hours a week of contact time including tutorials (which by the way was 20+students). There was no opportunity to help on a small group basis, never mind a 1 to 1. Also, having to get to lectures 20 minutes early just to get a seat so you didn’t require binoculars to see the screen wasn’t the best experience.

nearly 200 students dropped out after first year meaning second and third year was a little better. However, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lack of help and we were just a figure in a spreadsheet to fund the University’s huge Science/Medical budget.

(21)(0)

Anonymous

More to the point, why do all these people want to study law? It’s bloody boring. I blame the schools for pushing kids that have no idea what they want to study and/or do with their lives to study law just because they have the grades to get in.

(7)(0)

h

What a terribly written article. It like a “my first attempt to provide comment on Higher Education” piece.

Seriously, LC, it’s not like you produce a high volume of content. At least do make sure that whatever you produce is of an acceptable standard.

(10)(2)

Anonymous

What’s De Montfart University?

(3)(0)

Anonymous

No-one cares about your overpriced conference, Alex.

(4)(1)

Sorbyn. Cympathiser

Flame the bascists.

(2)(0)

Corbyn. Sympathiser

Yet another of my unfunny fanboys. I like the attention, but please do try harder.

(0)(0)

Lister v Hesley Hall defendant

It’s a bit like 2008 property bubble. They are selling products they know ultimately have no value. Totally unethical.

(1)(1)

Steven

law is now a worthless degree ☹️

(0)(1)

Bob

amen

(0)(0)

Anonymous

haha

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Essentially correct. Why do so many people want to do Law anyway ? 90% of it is reading the verbal arsedumps of tedious entitled old men who contributed the sum total of sod all to anything ever. As becomes apparent very quickly.

Cos everyone thinks they can make it as a solcitor or a courthound – and very few ever will. People need to wake up and rapidly.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories