Nigel Savage is an inescapable presence in the legal education sector. Later this month he will retire as President of the University of Law (ULaw) after an 18 year tenure at the largest law school in Europe. He has had – as ULaw chairman Alan Bowkett said in a recent statement – ‘a transformational impact’. This is no exaggeration. Under Savage’s stewardship, university status was attained with relative ease before the former charity was sold to Montagu Private Equity for an estimated £200m. His devotion to his job has been obvious; typically assiduous in strategy, his business acumen have gone unrivalled. Initially regarded as someone who would not amount to much, Savage quickly established his statesman appeal and achieved totemic status.
His legacy however is laced with covetousness, its glint is a newsflash of the commercialisation of legal education. He has not been a friend of rigorous academic standards. He has been a friend of shareholders. Like in other areas of commerce, the supply has created the demand. Attempts at mass psychology in ULaw’s glossy and corporate marketing was not without immediate success. Students were, and continue to be, hoaxed into believing that if they clamber onto this Medusa’s raft of holding a ULaw qualification they will guarantee high-paid employment in the legal sector. But do they? Many of the ULaw’s contingent end up despondent, even angry–with some show of reason. Not long after graduating they are forgotten about by both education provider and statistics. Then again, disclosure never was one of Savage’s strong points. Curiously, little has been disclosed about the number of students with 2.2 degrees admitted onto the LPC and BPTC. Such information as we–that is, the wider community–possess on this, and other things, has come to us through regulator reports. In their most recent monitoring report of the Birmingham branch, the BSB note that 60% of the 2012 full-time cohort had either a first or 2:1 degree class. One can infer that 40% of the cohort had a 2.2 or third degree class. And the branch management’s aim, we are told, is to recruit high calibre students. It seems their definition of ‘high calibre students’ differs greatly from mine. How much sympathy unquenchably gullible aspiring practitioners deserve is another matter. Of course, this race to the bottom is not exclusive to ULaw, but attempts at mimicry by other providers are unmistakable. When it comes to pupillage prospects, it might not be surprising to learn from the 2011 BSB monitoring report of the Bloomsbury branch that despite a large increase in the number of students gaining an Outstanding grade, fewer students managed to gain pupillage.
In 2011, Nigel Savage declared, with a tincture of resentment, the LLB unfit for purpose. In that terse statement he faithfully reproduces a tired false dichotomy between academia and the needs of the practitioner. Following BPP’s lead, with an almost affected pleasure in the lowering of academic standards, Savage soon launched ULaw’s two-year law degree. He later described this as ‘the most successful launch of a new LLB in the last 10 years’. Showing there is no level he would not stoop to boost his employer’s turnover, he annexed the law degree as a rather tacky anti-intellectual shortcut. The fact that so many applied for the course is not an indicator of its quality, but of an effective marketing strategy. ULaw’s law degree produces graduates with equally limited knowledge, learnt at breakneck speed, capable only of legal practice. While it is too early for meaningful statistics on two-year LLB graduate prospects, if employers recognise my description, they will make uncomfortable reading.
His salary; ineffaceable to his legacy. In 2009, he received ‘a financial-crisis-busting’ 40% payrise. That meant he earned £440,000 in salary and bonuses. Except for the London Business School, it was more than the Vice Chancellor of every university in the country. This went unchanged in 2010 when he took home another £440,000. Bear in mind, at that time, the education provider was still a registered charity. Arguments over pay have not been confined to his own. Staff concerns over their performance related pay and union recognition led to a spate of angry correspondence over the period 2005-07 between Savage, with senior colleagues, and Amicus, the forerunner of Unite Union.
There is a significant polarity to Nigel Savage’s ‘transformational impact’. He led ULaw to an unparalleled period of growth. It is apt, in a reflective piece, that Savage points to Sir Alex Ferguson as a figure of inspiration. To his friends – the shareholders – the loss is a comparable one. As far as legal education is concerned, his tenure is an unpleasant patch in its history. Nigel has savaged legal education.