Steven Fitzpatrick has heard enough Ford Escort jokes to last him a lifetime. “People just hear the word 'Essex' and they immediately think of all the usual county stereotypes,” the third-year law student from Essex University sighs. “But people who do their research properly see that the university is actually really good,” he explains.
In fact, research is something that Essex University's law department has shown itself to be consistently good at. A panel of 12 law professors from the Research Assessment Exercise, a five-yearly inspection run by the national funding councils, gave the law department a five rating (out of a possible five star) for the second time running.
Despite its strong track record of academic excellence in both teaching and research, Essex students claim they are still ignored by some of the major law firms, which prefer to lavish their attentions on law departments at the elite, 'old' universities.
“I have a friend who is at the same stage as me at Warwick University and they attract a higher quality of guest speaker than us and are even given money from firms for events. We seem to get shunned,” Fitzpatrick says.
“I think that if an average person with a first [in law] from this university was up against someone with a 2.1 from Warwick, the person with a 2.1 would get the job. For some reason, places like Nottingham and Warwick are seen as being better than us, when really we're equal,” he adds.
Now that students in England have to pay for higher education, universities are under far greater pressure to compete for their custom. Yet while the older universities can rely on the strength of their reputation – both past and present – to guarantee a steady stream of applicants, the new universities created in 1992 have had to carve out their places in higher education against a backdrop of intense academic snobbery.
As a result, it comes as no surprise to find that many of the rising stars in the 2001 RAE are law departments from new, or 'non-traditional' universities that are keen to mark out their territory in a very competitive field.
This year's judging panels awarded top grades to law departments at institutions including Keele, Queen Mary University of London, and Southampton, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, which were the only recipients of a five-star rating in the last RAE assessment in 1996.
A further 30 departments – including Essex and a number of new universities – earned a grade five, up from a total of 11 awards in 1996.
While it is clear from these results that UK university law departments now contain some of the world's finest legal brains, are the RAE results really all they are cracked up to be, or can the scale of the upwards shift be linked to universities becoming used to handling the RAE machinery so that they know which buttons to press for the best results?
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, admits that most universities have learned how to spend money “selectively” since the last RAE. “They've used the money to invest in the most successful areas and disinvest in others,” he explains.
Another advantage of the system is that departments are not obliged to put forward all the staff they employ, leaving heads to pick and choose which members to return in order to build up the best possible research profile.
At one end of the spectrum is the law department at Keele, whose five-star research rating is based on an assessment of between 95 and 100 per cent of the staff employed by the institution.
Professor Didi Herman, Keele's head of law, says the grade is a real reflection of her department's diversity and breadth of expertise. “There are a lot of law departments where good research may only go so far, because there will always be a number of staff who are not very good at it. But at Keele, all of our staff produce very good research,” she says proudly.
At the opposite end is Westminster University's law department, whose newly-awarded grade five is based on the work of less than 20 per cent of its staff. Andy Boon, head of the department, says he is “very pleased” by the fact that Westminster has moved up the ranks from a grade two in 1996 to a five, and he admits that many institutions have become wise to the ways of the RAE.
“It's simply not worth putting somebody in for it if you don't think they're nationally or internationally excellent,” says Boon.
As the final funding allocation is based on a calculation between the number of people returned for the exercise and the actual mark awarded, Westminster's gleaming grade five will not bring the department many financial benefits, but could help to boost its reputation as a respected research institution.
Boon explains: “We weren't trying to maximise on the money, we were trying to maximise our mark. Historically, there's always been a relationship between research excellence and the recruitment market, and we're hoping that news of our new grade will percolate down to some of the bigger law firms.
“In the past, our students have been told by some firms that their degree wasn't as good as others because of our research rating at the time. This simply reinforces the prejudice already within the system.”
While a strong team of researchers in any discipline will attract high levels of public money, law faculties have the added advantage of being able to attract extra funding from wealthy law firms in the shape of sponsored professorships or libraries.
Harvey Teff, professor of law at Durham University, says a healthy set of research ratings can be an important measure for law firms looking to recruit from, or invest in, a university department.
“The more specialised law becomes in practice, the more important it is for law firms to feel that the students they take on come from departments that can offer specialised courses, and that those courses are taught by people who have a deep knowledge of those areas,” he says. “As a result, research is seen as something that's very much a positive factor.”
Some lawyers agree that research league tables can act as useful performance indicators when firms are looking to take on trainees.
John Trotter, a training partner at Lovells, says he would be more inclined to look to smaller, non-traditional law departments for new talent if they emerged with a strong RAE rating. “We already recruit from a broad range of universities – there's not a closed list,” he emphasises. “But the fact that a particular university has done very well in the league table will have a knock-on effect, as they'll start to attract the better students and then recruiters will pay them more attention.”
Yet Richard Webb, a training partner at Cobbetts, says his firm tends to recruit from a selection of North West universities, including Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield, because historically they have been relied on to produce batches of “first class” trainees.
“Although we wouldn't positively discriminate against students from other universities if they had other attributes,” he adds. “But we're very happy with their academic approach and track record and we've had good graduates from them.”
Despite employers' best intentions to recruit from as wide a range of departments as possible, some experts claim that the cultural divide between old and new universities is still very much alive in the minds of students as well as those of the law firms.
Phil Harris, professor of legal education at Sheffield Hallam University, says the older institutions – Oxbridge and the London colleges – can still “cream off the best entrants” to undergraduate law degree courses every year because they “continue to be better resourced” and “the old universities traditionally put far more importance on research than the former polytechnics ever did”.
But the mounting pressures on institutions both old and new to improve their research, and the slow shift over to a modularised law curriculum, means that LLB degree courses have become “pretty much of a muchness”, according to Harris.
Faced with paying £1,000 a year – and the rest – for the pleasure, students are also under a greater pressure to make the right choice.
Harris explains: “I think students do set an awful lot of store by the learning experience, how well they're looked after by staff, how much tutorial time they get… that kind of thing. RAE results are just another factor in the mix.”
But after putting in five years of hard graft towards the 2001 RAE, this year's 'surprise' winners are determined not to miss out on the instant kudos the top accolades can bring.
Dr Alan Dignam, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, says his department will be announcing news of its five-star rating loud and clear. “In general, people just don't know what we were doing, they just know that we are part of the University of London but aren't the LSE [London School of Economics] or UCL [University College London].
“Now we have this external recognition from the RAE, we want to let firms know that our grade doesn't just mean we get to stay at the top of the tree for one year only. This badge sticks for five years and is the result of a base we've been building up for a lot longer. We're up there with the big boys now.”
|Institution||1996 rating||2001 rating||Proportion of staff selected|
|University of Birmingham||4||5||C|
|University of Bristol||4||5||B|
|University of Cambridge||5*||5*||A|
|University of Central Lancashire||3a||4||E|
|De Montfort University||3b||4||E|
|University of Durham||4||5*||A|
|University of East Anglia||3a||5||B|
|University of East London||2||3a||E|
|University of Essex||5||5||B|
|University of Exeter||3a||5||C|
|University of Greenwich||n/a||3b||F|
|University of Hull||3a||5||B|
|University of Kent at Canterbury||4||5||B|
|King's College London||5||5||A|
|University of Leeds||4||5||A|
|Leeds Metropolitan University||n/a||3a||E|
|University of Leicester||4||5||A|
|University of Liverpool||3a||4||B|
|Institute of Advanced Legal Studies||4||4||A|
|London School of Economics and Political Science||5*||5*||A|
|University of Manchester||5||5||A|
|University of Newcastle||3a||5||C|
|University of Nottingham||5||5||A|
|Nottingham Trent University||3b||4||F|
|School of Oriental and African Studies||3a||5||A|
|University of Oxford||5*||5*||B|
|Oxford Brookes University||n/a||4||D|
|Queen Mary, University of London||4||5*||B|
|University of Reading||3a||5||B|
|University of Sheffield||5||5||C|
|Sheffield Hallam University||3a||3a||F|
|University of Southampton||5||5*||B|
|University of Sussex||3a||4||B|
|Thames Valley University||1||2||F|
|University College London||5||5*||A|
|University of Warwick||4||5||B|
|University of West of England, Bristol||3b||4||F|
|University of Westminster||2||5||F|
|University of Wolverhampton||1||3a||E|
|University of Aberdeen||5||5||B|
|University of Dundee||4||5||B|
|University of Edinburgh||4||5||B|
|University of Glasgow||4||5||B|
|Glasgow Caledonian University||n/a||3b||E|
|Robert Gordon University||n/a||3a||D|
|University of Strathclyde||4||5||A|
|University of Wales, Swansea||3b||3a||B|
|University of Wales, Aberystwyth||3a||4||B|
|The Queen's University of Belfast||3a||5||B|
|University of Ulster||3b||5||C|
|Source: Higher Education Funding Council for England|
|Keeping the LPC up to scratch|
Standards on postgraduate legal courses are monitored by the Law Society and the Bar Council. All providers of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) are subject to a three-day assessment by a Law Society team of experts once every two years, as well as a 'pastoral' visit every other year for monitoring purposes.
|A lecturer's view|
“The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) gives colleges that are not assumed to be top law schools the chance to shine,” says Dr Alan Dignam, a senior law lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. “It reveals the strengths and depth of a department. I hope our new result will destroy some of the assumptions people have.”
|How the RAE works|
The five-yearly RAE uses a system of peer review to allocate billions of pounds of funding to the best UK university research departments. Entry is not compulsory and universities can choose who to enter, with each nominated member of staff able to submit up to four pieces of work.