LPC classes empty as dynamic duo corner market

It is no great secret that the LPC market has in recent years been dominated by BPP Law School and the College of Law (CoL).

This is confirmed by Central Applications Board (CAB) statistics obtained by The Lawyer’s sister title Lawyer 2B, which show that between them the two providers had 6,910 full-time validated LPC places on offer for the 2010-11 ­academic year. This gives them a combined market share of 65 per cent.

BPP also has 25 exclusive LPC clients, including the so-called ’City consortium’ of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May, while CoL has 27, including Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters. The duo’s nearest rival, London Bridge-based Kaplan Law School, which last week announced a deal with Farrer & Co, has only 14 clients on its LPC roster (Lawyer 2B.com, 28 June).

What is more, with BPP planning to launch LPCs in Cambridge and Liverpool later this year and CoL poised to break into the LLB market, it seems there is no stopping the two behemoths.

However, fledgling LPC provider the National College of Legal Training (NCLT) has other ideas and has just announced ambitious growth plans. Indeed, the targets it has set itself are so aggressive that rivals argue they are simply unachievable.

CoL chief executive Nigel Savage says: “There’s more to running a multi-site law school than having the word ’national’ in the name.

”It’s about delivering a high-quality student experience that’s well-resourced with all the appropriate facilities, such as a well-stocked library and careers service. That’s not something that can be achieved overnight.”

It could be argued that NCLT’s plans are particularly unrealistic in the current economic climate, which has resulted in the LPC market contracting by almost 16 per cent in the past 12 months (this figure was originally 20 per cent according to CAB, but has since been revised after CoL increased its enrolment figure from 2,831 to 3,195).

Furthermore, as the table opposite reveals, most providers are already running courses that lack critical mass. The University of Aberystwyth, for example, is running its LPC with only 18 students, even though it is validated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to offer 100 full-time places. The University of Huddersfield is running a full-time LPC with only six students, leaving it with 74 unfilled places.

Elsewhere, redundancies at the University of ­Westminster are expected to impact staff on the LPC, which this year managed to fill only 61 out of its 120 ­validated full-time places. As reported on The Lawyer.com last month (23 June), 20 per cent of ­teaching staff in the university’s law faculty face the axe as part of a wider redundancy programme affecting up to 130 individuals.

CoL is expected to make 20 staff redundant from its Birmingham, Chester, Guildford, London ­Bloomsbury and York ­campuses after a 7 per cent drop in the number of ­students enrolled on its full-time LPC (TheLawyer.com, 6 June). CoL is hoping that the job losses will be achieved through voluntary redundancies, but it has not ruled out making ­compulsory cuts.

All is not well at BPP either. It admitted last month that it was forced to scrap plans to launch the LPC in Newcastle after ­failing to attract sufficient numbers of students (The Lawyer.com, 29 June). The Newcastle branch was ­validated to accommodate between 40 and 60 ­students, but only six had accepted places, proving how difficult it is, even for an established brand, to break into a new region that is already dominated by a major player. Indeed, the University of Northumbria has gained a reputation for innovation following the launch of a groundbreaking five-year course that ­combines the LLB, LPC and training contract.

NCLT was initially a ­partnership between ­Central Law Training, the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BiLP) (part of the University of the West of England (UWE)), ­Manchester Metropolitan University, Southampton Solent University and the University of Westminster. The institutions teamed up in early 2010 to launch one of the cheapest LPCs on the market. At that stage they had their sights set on just the part-time LPC market, notably a weekend study course costing £5,900 – 50 per cent cheaper than that charged by some of the ­larger providers.

But less than two years after the launch of NCLT the associate college is now awaiting validation from the SRA to launch full-time courses out of six centres: Coventry, Derby, London, Manchester, Southampton and Sunderland. NCLT is also pushing for the launch of the GDL in London, Manchester and Southampton. In London and ­Manchester it has secured its own premises, while in the other locations it has teamed up with local ­universities (Derby, ­Coventry, Southampton Solent and Sunderland).

NCLT plans to charge £7,900 in London and £6,400 in the regions. The most expensive provider is BPP, whose fees are £12,900 in London and between £9,450 and £10,150 elsewhere. The launch of an alternative full-time LPC that will not only be available nationally, but also at a significant discount to the fees charged by BPP and CoL, is on paper a positive development, because greater competition should result in lower prices for ­students.

But even if the LPC ­market was in a better state of health, NCLT would still have a gigantic mountain to climb, as well as some ­damage limitation to ­undertake. The college has recently broken off ties with both Westminster and ­Manchester Metropolitan.

NCLT claims the split was entirely amicable. In a joint statement, NCLT ­commercial director Paul Whitehouse and head of BiLP Steve Dinning said: “Based on NCLT’s strategy for continued expansion, while we’re happy to develop collaborative partnerships, we have outgrown the ­current relationships in London and Manchester and have sought to secure state-of-the-art teaching premises which are more appropriate for the training needs of our future students.

“Our relationship with both institutions remains strong and we have ongoing collaborations in other areas.”

However, one source close to the parties ­disagrees, claiming that the venture never turned out to be a full-scale collaboration. The source claims that, rather than NCLT launching an LPC that embraced elements of all the providers’ LPCs, it essentially ran BiLP’s course and used the other institutions for their infrastructure, namely their classrooms.

“All the schools wanted to have some input into the NCLT course. We thought if we put all our ideas together we’d come up with quite a unique offering as well as benefit from economies of scale,” says the source. “But the concept of a collaborative venture never got off the ground.”

Even if, as Whitehouse and Dinning claim, NCLT has secured ’state-of-the-art’ premises in London and Manchester, the college still has a lot of work on its hands to ensure that students have access to all the relevant facilities, such as a library and careers service. What is more, it is yet to hire any dedicated teaching staff as the current plan is to utilise UWE tutors.

Dinning concedes that NCLT has a huge task on its hands, but denies that the college is trying to replicate BPP and CoL’s model.

“By making our course more flexible and affordable we’re tackling issues such as fair access to the profession head-on,” he insists. ­”Running a course that’s both local and affordable will bring it within the reach of students from less well-off backgrounds.”

Whitehouse argues that NCLT’s brand is not likely to be damaged as a result of its strategy of running cut-price courses. “I think ­people are more discerning about how they spend their money,” he says. “The vast majority of LPC students are self-funding, and with the bank of mummy and daddy running on empty cost is an important factor.

“I think any talk that BPP and CoL offer better quality because they’re more ­expensive is an urban myth. The UWE LPC’s an ­excellent course.”

But a closer examination of NCLT’s strategy suggests that it has in fact set its sights a lot lower than BPP and CoL. It is, perhaps, better to compare it to a no-frills ­airline than to Concorde.

But as legal blogger ­Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff University puts it, even if students ­question whether NCLT is the Ryanair of legal ducation, Whitehouse and ­Dinning will no doubt be delighted if their venture is as successful as Michael O’Leary’s.

(Click table to view larger version)