Commercial dynamo Savage waves goodbye to University of Law

Nigel Savage – the visionary, combative and at times controversial president of the University of Law – is to retire from his post this spring after 18 years in the top slot, the institution announced today.

The move comes just a few months after the 63-year-old Savage was kicked upstairs at the university, taking over the specially-created role of president and handing the chief executive reins to John Latham. 

His departure also comes about 14 months after Savage led a landmark £200m sale of the then-College of Law to London-based private equity house Montagu. The deal made the college the fifth UK private higher education institution to have degree-awarding powers. 

University of Law chairman Alan Bowkett said in a statement today that Savage had “a transformational impact” on the institution. “We owe him an enormous debt for the foresight that he has provided, both to the sector as a whole and the institution. Under his stewardship, the university has become a genuinely national and international law school with a much more diverse and flexible range of programmes.”

Indeed, Savage leaves a legacy of unparalleled growth at what is Europe’s biggest law school. When he joined the College of Law in 1996, it was a sleepy hollow of an institution, mired in its monopoly-supplier history and still stultified by a cosy relationship with the Law Society. 

It is a career that, by his own acknowledgement, had inauspicious origins. One of Savage’s early jobs was artificially inseminating turkeys on a friend’s farm. As a schoolboy, he was routinely seen to be in the category of ”won’t amount to much”. 

But he defied the odds and launched an academic career at Strathclyde University. He moved to the College of Law after having built a reputation for cut-and-thrust commercialism at new rival Nottingham Law School. At the time, the college had annual revenues of around £18m; as he walks out the door, the University of Law turns over some £75m, has about 7,000 students and 800 staff.

That rocketing income has been directly linked to an ambitious programme of growth and expansion, which Savage kicked off in 2001 with the opening in Birmingham of the college’s first city-centre branch outside London. That was followed with branches in the City, Manchester, Bristol and this September’s launch of a centre in Leeds, which will see the long standing York branch shut. 

Breaking ground on new buildings was not Savage’s only penchant. He joined battle with BPP Law School and its “City consortium” by poaching magic circle players Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters to a bespoke College of Law legal practice course. 

Two years later, the Privy Council granted the college degree-awarding powers and it launched an LLB in 2006. In 2007, Savage cut a deal with the International Bar Association to launch a joint venture LLM in international legal practice. That course was predominantly conducted on line, setting the tone for future remote learning developments at the college. 

But success came with a degree of controversy. Savage was renowned for wanting his own people, and in the early days of his tenure that involved the spilling a fair amount of old college blood. 

Also, he has been well remunerated for his trouble. Between 2009/11, Savage faced the type of blunderbuss media attention normally reserved for bankers when he collected several years’ of bonuses, which, combined with salary, meant that over a two-year period he reportedly trousered the best part of £900,000. 

He has also faced criticism for stoking what many see as the flames of oversupply in the law student market, although to be fair, Savage’s main competitors have equally been in the line of fire in that debate. 

For his part, Savage remains unrepentant, claiming the market should dictate LPC places and that currently the number on the course more or less matches the amount of available training contracts. Savage has also consistently championed reform of the English training system, describing the solicitors’ training contract regime as obsolete and arguing that those headed for transactional roles in at commercial law firms should qualify on completion of the LPC. 

And for all the branch openings in England, Savage was never able to cut the ribbon on an overseas outpost of the university, a challenge he was keen to meet. 

Savage is rumoured to be lining up several legal education consultancies for a soft landing when he jumps ship from the university at the beginning of April. While the paying gigs are currently unknown, it is understood he will definitely be volunteering services to leading charity, the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law, which promotes understanding of the justice system for young people. 

What does Savage see as his own legacy? In announcing his retirement for the university he said the core of its success “has been remaining true to our core values and commitment to legal practice and excellence in teaching and learning”. To that could be added a strong dose of ruthless commercialism and an inability to suffer fools.