Nottingham Trent can be justifiably proud of being the only institution in the country to have been graded 'excellent' by the Law Society for its Legal Practice Course.The fact that its law department only received a 'satisfactory' rating from the Higher Education Funding Council has led some to complain that the whole assessment process is arbitrary and wasteful of resources.
However, the criticism, or at least its premise, is based on a misconception because the HEFC looks almost exclusively at undergraduate courses, and the Law Society at the LPC provision.
The HEFC's current phase of assessment of law courses is now complete and will not be repeated for another five years. The Law Society, however, monitors the provision of LPC assessment every year.
There are moves to consolidate the assessment of academic and vocational courses. The HEFC is not legally obliged to carry out assessment itself and could contract it out to a new unitary body. The Higher Education Quality Council, which conducts management audits of higher education institutions and is independent of the HEFC, would like to see a return to internal quality assessment, overseen by external assessors. It also believes the reports should be published. The information that the HEQC now collects would form part of the overall institutional assessment.
Working relations between the HEFC and the Law Society are good. Paul Bradbury, an associate director of quality assurance and subject leader of law at the HEFC, is full of praise for the Law Society. "With them we have had one of our most productive relationships with any professional body," he says.
Bradbury believes that the teaching of law is in general better than many other subjects. He also says the assessment process in itself helps to raise the standards. "It was great to have people from the old universities visiting the new universities and seeing how they do things, and vice versa. A real eye-opener."
He would like to see a stronger role for students in the assessment process. At present, students are widely consulted, but none sit on the HEFC's quality assessment committee. "It is something we should be looking to," he says.
There are still teething troubles with the external assessment process. For instance, some of the institutions assessed felt that the visits, falling in the second week of the new year, were badly timed.
There are also concerns that external assessment is simply an underhand way for the Government to go about cost-cutting. Says one LPC principal: "The idea is abroad that you can provide a law course on the cheap, but that just isn't so. Proper library facilities, computers and a good staff-student ratio all cost money."
The Centre for Policy Studies, commissioned by the Law Society, has also been conducting a study of around 4,000 students and is about to publish a report on the LPC and Bar vocational courses.
The Law Society has come under fire from some City firms for not publishing the results of its monitoring. Only Nottingham Trent Law School and the University of the West of England, which were given good ratings, have asked permission to publish their grades.
Says Nicholas Saunders, the Law Society's head of legal education: "We take the view that information gathered in the monitoring exercise is a matter for the institutions themselves."
However, he does not rule out a future change of heart on publishing the grades. "The important thing is to ensure that the information is used sensibly. League tables can mislead as much as they enlighten."
A working party, chaired by Robert Sayer, the Law Society's vice-president, is currently looking at the issue.
The LPC is having something of an existential crisis early on in its young life. Faced with declining student numbers, too many places compared with potential training contracts and a lack of recognition outside of law, both LPC providers and the Law Society are having to think long and hard about the vocational course's future.
All are agreed that the LPC is an excellent course which teaches worthwhile skills. The trouble is that the LPC is not readily transferable, in an exempting sense, for the purposes of entering other professions.
That may be about to change. The Law Society has already negotiated exemptions with the Institute of Administrative Management. Richard Holbrook, principal of the College of Law, says that the accounting bodies have also expressed interest: "They see LPC graduates as very good value."
The Law Society is cautiously optimistic about future employment prospects. It uses a model, into which various economic indicators are fed, that churns out an estimate of the number of new lawyers needed each year. But the model has had an inconsistent record.
And the message that gaining a place on an LPC is no meal ticket into the legal profession is finally dawning on young people. The number of requests for information about the course has remained constant, but the number of those taking up places has fallen.
The number of passes has also gone down this year, by as much as 10 per cent at some institutions. That could mean examination standards are higher, teaching is poorer or that students are less intelligent, or a combination of all three.
With the fall in student numbers – some 500 places were not taken up this year – the importance of an institution obtaining a good assessment must surely be increasing. Law Society president Martin Mears has gone on record as saying there are too many LPC places.
That is not a million miles away from saying there are too many LPC providers, in which case an institution might regard a low mark as little more than a writ of execution.
Three institutions are now coming up for revalidation. However, the professional body is contractually bound in most cases to allow the institutions to carry on as providers until 1998.
If student numbers decline further, the market might just do the Law Society's dirty work for them.