London’s legal education market has just got hotter than ever before. Not only will the College of Law and BPP Law School be opening second sites in London in September to house a further 1,500 students, but rival Nottingham Law School (NLS) is planning to launch in the capital in conjunction with US business training giant Kaplan next autumn.
The move is a play by NLS to regain heavyweight status. Once it was a three-way tussle between BPP, the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp) and NLS, but NLS received a body blow in 2004 when the once eight-strong City LPC consortium booted it off its three-school panel.
Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters broke away from the group to go it alone with the College of Law, while the remaining five – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – signed up exclusively with BPP.
But thanks to its deal with Kaplan, NLS is hitting back. But its rivals, predictably, are scathing about NLS’s plans.
“Kaplan will use them like we used them and then they’ll be dumped,” snorts Peter Crisp, chief executive of BPP Law School. “Why else would Kaplan be doing it?”
Crisp, after all, should know. In 1994, when BPP was still new to the legal education arena, it entered into an agreement with NLS to set up a Central London law school, delivering Nottingham’s LPC and CPE courses.
Three years after the deal was struck, BPP had poached enough staff and expertise to gain Law Society accreditation, dump Nottingham and run the courses on its own. And while Nottingham licked its wounds, BPP went from strength to strength.
Professor Michael Gunn, Dean of Nottingham Law School, argues that he will not fall for the same trick twice. “We’re a learning organisation and we won’t be repeating that mistake again,” he says. “The deal with BPP gave them a start with no protection for our long-term interests, but this is a longer-term contract and arrangement, and it’s important to both sides that we get on well.”
But that is not how College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage sees it. “Nottingham is giving birth to another competitor,” he declares. “It’s not about what’s in the contract, it’s about building up sustainability in another provider.”
Indeed, Kaplan needs a springboard to launch a credible legal education offering. Its stature in business services training is undoubted – the $1.6bn (£880m) company claims to train half of the UK’s accountants. But before Kaplan joined forces with NLS, its experience in legal education, which comprises its ownership of the web-based Concord Law School in the US and the little-known Holborn Law Tutors in London (but not, in fact, in Holborn), is patchy to say the least.
“Nottingham have got into bed with a company whose other legal experience comprises Holborn Law Tutors and Concord, which isn’t even accredited by the American Bar Association,” sniffs Savage.
So Kaplan is buying the prestige of the Nottingham brand. The question, then, is what is in this for Nottingham?
“There’s been an expansion in the LPC market in London and we think that going to London is important for us and for the market,” says Gunn. “We don’t have a London presence and looking for a good partner made enormous sense.”
For ‘good partner’, read ‘big chequebook’. And although Savage questions NLS’s ability to recruit the calibre of staff in London needed to maintain standards, one thing Kaplan can undoubtedly bring to the table is the top dollar it could take to poach top staff in a spare market for experienced tutors.
And when the likes of Cambridge, Oxford and other top universities have haemorrhaged academics to Ivy League universities offering massive salary hikes, could tutors flee BPP and the College of Law when the move required is not to Boston or California, but a couple of tube stops down the line?
Not likely, concludes Crisp. “Kaplan have to return value to shareholders and they can’t just write blank cheques,” he says. “Harvard and Yale are in a completely different position because they’re charitable foundations and have huge endowment funds.”