Hefce harbinger of fees change?

October 18, 2002

The College of Law charges what the market can stand for its courses. Its head has just been appointed to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's board. A straw in the wind? Claire Sanders reports

The College of Law has a turnover of £40 million a year and not a penny of funding council money.

But the appointment earlier this autumn of its chief executive, Nigel Savage, to the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England came as no surprise to those anticipating the imminent introduction of differential fees for higher education.

Dr Savage is noted for his forthright views. He clearly feels at home on the Hefce board and intends to make an impact.

"Personally I am in favour of differential and full-cost fees," he said. "But there may have to be some redistribution of public funding to focus on the mass provision of higher education."

By this he means cut the teaching grant to those charging high fees and redistribute it to those that cannot charge full cost and that are widening access.

He also thinks that there is room for the creation of some postgraduate universities along the lines of the US model and that undergraduate institutions need to be more regionally focused.

"I gained my inspiration for higher and legal education from Scotland, where they have a higher participation rate as they do not have the English obsession with sending their kids away from home to be educated," he said.

"The cost of halls of residence doubles the cost of higher education and makes it difficult to deliver diversity."

He points to the College of Law as an example of how he believes universities should be run.

It is the largest provider of legal education in Europe. Most of its 5,500 students are postgraduate, but the college tapped into the undergraduate market in the mid-1990s through a partnership with the Open University offering law degrees to 2,000 students.

Dr Savage stresses that the college is a charity.

"We make a healthy turnover. It was £ million when I took over in 1996 and is now £40 million," he said, "and we have a clear commitment to ensuring that less affluent students can study here."

Fees at the college range from £5,140 to £8,800 a year. There are few scholarships or bursaries, but the college has tried to set up its own - it recently launched a scholarship with The Independent.

"The legal profession in this country has not been good at giving to scholarship funds," he said.

The college's situation mirrors that of UK universities - even Oxbridge - where bursary schemes are a long way off providing the sort of support that US Ivy League universities offer to poor students.

"The answer is premium pricing of highly respected courses and allowing students to learn and earn - that is the future," Dr Savage said.

The college charges what the top of the market can stand. "Institutions that charge half our fees have problems filling their courses," Dr Savage said. "Students pay for quality - they want access to good jobs."

And they need to be free to earn enough money to pay their way through their studies.

For this reason, the college teamed up with the OU to run qualifying law degrees in the mid-1990s. The first students on these courses graduated this summer, and many are coming to the college to study for the qualifying exams as solicitors or barristers.

"The OU is attracting 18 to 21-year-olds who need to earn their way through their studies," Dr Savage said. "The OU law degree has attracted a wide cross-section of people who could not have afforded to study full time."

The college has long offered part-time courses, but its "block-release course" has proved particularly successful.

The block-release legal practice course, the qualifying exam for solicitors, started three years ago. This year student numbers increased by 40 per cent and the total number on the course is now 500.

The course differs from the long-running part-time legal practice course by offering tuition at weekends rather than in the evenings.

It has attracted students from all over the world - one flies in from Illinois, US, and another from Bermuda every month. Nearly half of the students already work as paralegals (see box opposite).

"It is a bit like nursing," Dr Savage said. "Paralegals are often women who are keen to get on and need to study around family and work."

The college also offers all students hoping to become solicitors exclusive access to a database of training contracts.

Those going on to become solicitors have to do a training contract - and some law firms pay a student's fees.

"Essentially, we run a recruitment service with 16 career advisers," Dr Savage said.

He said that it would be wrong to argue that the college could charge high fees because lawyers earn so much.

"While silks and partners clearly command huge salaries, most solicitors earn modest incomes. A large part of our job is managing expectations," he said.

He argued that it was essential to turn out students who had a strong sense of civic responsibility.

"Our students do a great deal of pro bono work. They go into prisons. Our new branch at Birmingham was built with a street law clinic.

"Students at our York branch are going into Doncaster library to help local people write letters of complaint," he said.

"We find that students are keen to contribute to their local communities. Such an ethos can survive alongside fees."

When Emma Coles finished her law degree at the University of the West of England, she was reluctant to go into debt to pay for the legal practice course to qualify as a solicitor.

"I didn't have a training contract, so I bit the bullet and decided to start earning straightaway."

She was on the first year of the College of Law's block-release course, which was then offered at only the York and Chester branches of the college.

"I work in Worthing and could have driven to Guildford for the part-time course. But that would have meant going in the evenings. Attending the lectures in one stretch of time over a weekend was much better," she said.

"It was invaluable studying theory at the weekends and applying it in the week," she said. "People were travelling from all over the world to do this course," she said.

"There were many women who could leave their husbands to look after the children at the weekend."

Kishore Thampy is a forensic psychiatrist who travels 4,000 miles from Illinois in the US to the Guildford branch of the college to study the legal practice course.

"It is easier for me to fly to Guildford than to study part-time 200 miles away in Chicago," he said.

He pointed out that the US and UK legal systems were very similar. "There is a global market for this style of studying," he said.

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