Claire Turner, director of legal and insurance services at the University of Exeter enjoys variety in her working life, which is a good thing
“It’s a chartered institution, but also a charity,” says Claire Turner of her employer. “It has subsidiaries and joint venture companies. And it’s a big employer with lots of tenants.”
The complex entity Turner is describing is the University of Exeter. Until 2008 it had no dedicated in-house legal team, a situation mirrored across much of higher education in the UK.
Turner was responsible for establishing the legal team at Exeter and now leads a 15-strong legal and insurance department.
“I set up the legal department here, but I didn’t come here to do that,” Turner says. “I came to take on the role of research contracts manager, which was new post reviewing the research contracts the university was signing up to.”
As the higher education field underwent massive change in the 2000s universities began to increase their research capacities. This generated reams of contracts, all of which needed a legal eye.
“For every piece of funding you get there’s a contract and this element has continued to grow,” Turner says. “Part of my team now is a bunch of people who only review research contracts. That’s fairly common in universities.”
“The university has massively increased its research capacity and there was an awareness that the contracts needed looking at and it wasn’t cost-effective to send them all out externally.”
While Turner was going through research contracts with a fine-tooth comb, senior management at Exeter became aware they needed a legal team. Many universities were appointing in-house teams at the time and Exeter knew it was missing a trick.
“Some of the senior management team had come from institutions where they’d had in-house legal teams, and they knew the benefit of them,” she says. “The legal office launched in late 2008 and we’ve grown since. The university had decided to become more research-intensive and there was a recognition that funding for research was going to become concentrated in a smaller number of institutions. Before I joined it was restructured so it could increase its research.”
Turner studied at Royal Holloway, University of London before training at Bond Pearce and joining Ashfords, then Bevan Ashford, on qualification. She was a commercial litigator for four years before making the move in-house.
“I didn’t want to continue doing litigation work,” she states. “I didn’t find it the most rewarding thing. I also became aware I didn’t necessarily want to work for a private firm.”
Universities becoming research-intensive is not the highest profile recent change in higher education circles. That goes to the well-publicised and oft-protested rise in tuition fees, first from free to £3,000 per year, then from £3,000 to £9,000 per year.
But there is more to higher fees than concerns about student enrolment numbers and protest marches. With higher fees comes a sense of customers purchasing a commodity. The university experience, and all that that entails, becomes a transaction in which value for money and competition are in the spotlight.
“The change in student funding has made the higher education environment more competitive,” admits Turner. “The university is having to approach issues from a more commercial standpoint.
“Student expectations have increased and this may result in more exacting demands, while complaints too may rise.”
The way publicly funded higher education institutions have always functioned is about to change. Universities are realising that co-operation and freely disseminating information will not continue forever.
“It brings in questions of competition law; universities have usually worked in an open and collaborative way, sharing information that perhaps would not be shared in the private sector,” Turner says. “That’s an area institutions are more aware of now, as you may find you are breaching competition law if you share information.”
Apart from the momentous changes that Exeter and other institutions are seeing, universities are interesting entities, legally speaking. The various aspects of being employer, landlord, charity, community service provider and educator provide a unique set of challenges.
Protecting the university from the threat of litigation is one challenge research contracts deal with. For Turner, the day job is a lot more varied.
In 2012 the department oversaw the legal work involved in constructing a £48m building known as the Forum that includes a library, a student services centre and a cafe. It also helped separate out the medical school the university had shared with Plymouth University for a decade.
“The decision was taken to dissolve that and create two new medical schools, and from a legal perspective there was quite a lot involved,” Turner says. “The governing bodies wanted it done to a certain timescale so we had to disentangle arrangements and find a middle ground. We had external lawyers involved, but managed it in-house.”
Anyone juggling panel relationships, the legalities of construction, and tenancy and employment contracts, all while keeping a watchful eye on research contracts and competition law had better thrive on variety.
“I like being a generalist – even my degree [in European studies] was general,” says Turner. “I like having a lot of elements involved in my work. And this role seems more positive than suing or defending people – more collaborative.”
University of Exeter
Title: Director of legal and insurance services
Industry: Higher education
Reports to: Director of campus services, Geoff Pringle
Number of staff: 3,998
Legal spend: It varies, in 2010/11 it was around £850,000, in 2011/12 around £350,000
Size of team: 15
Sara Shanab, Head of legal, Manchester Metropolitan University
Most people do not realise just how diverse universities are. We are an exempt charity, but have lots of public law and private law attributes. We also have a multitude of stakeholders, are responsible to a plethora of authorities and are large property owners, employers and corporate citizens.
Everyone knows that students now pay fees, the implication of which is that we have moved from a system whereby most funding came from a handful of income streams – the Funding Council, teaching agencies, research councils – to a system where we have thousands of individual contracts with students who are self-paying, albeit mostly through deferred debt. So key issues for lawyers in higher education include managing those contracts and acknowledging that, as income diversifies, there is diversification in our practice. This means we are moving into territories of work that may be quite new to us.
It is fair to say that 10 years ago higher education was sleepy and regarded it as a benign sector in which funding was stable and we collaborated and shared professors, students and IP.
But there has been a change at the macro level in the way universities are financed, competition has increased from sources including private providers, some of which are being given degree-awarding powers.
As competition increases, so do potential confidentiality and conflict issues. The context and landscape in which we are practising many areas of law is changing, and that is what keeps it interesting.