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's actually really good.”
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 (RAE), a five-yearly inspection run by the national funding councils, gave the law department a five-star rating for the second time in succession.
Despite its strong track record of academic excellence in both teaching and research, Essex students claim that they are still ignored by some of the major law firms, which prefer to lavish their attentions on graduates of the elite, 'old' universities.
“I have a friend who is at the same stage as me at Warwick University, which attracts a higher quality of guest speaker than us, and which is even given money from firms for events. We seem to get shunned,” Fitzgerald 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.”
Now that students south of the border have to pay for higher education, universities are under far greater pressures to compete for their custom. Yet while the older universities can rely on the strength of their reputations – both past and present – to guarantee a steady stream of applicants, the fleet of 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, keen to mark out their territory in a very competitive field.
This year's judging panels awarded top grades to law departments at institutions that included Keele, Queen Mary and Southampton, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, which were the only recipients of a five-star rating in the last RAE 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 the fact that universities are now so used to handling the RAE machinery that they know which buttons to press for the best results?
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive at 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 of the staff that they employ, leaving the department 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 University, which has a five-star research rating 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 that 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'll always be a number of staff who are not very good at it,” she comments. “But at Keele, all of our staff produce very good research.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is Westminster University's law department, with a newly awarded grade five rating, which has been based on the work of less than 20 per cent of its staff.
Head of department Andy Boon 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,” he says.
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 it 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 that a healthy set of research ratings can be an “important measure” for law firms that are 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 is 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, said that his firm 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, said that his firm tends to recruit from a selection of universities in the North West, 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,” Webb adds. “But we're very happy with their academic approach and track record and we've had good graduates from them.”
Despite the best intentions of employers 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 law firms. Phil Harris, professor of legal education at Sheffield Hallam University, Phil Harris, professor of legal education at Sheffield Hallam University, says that the older institutions, such as 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”. “The old universities traditionally put far more importance on research than the former polytechnics ever did,” he adds.
But the mounting pressures on institutions, both old and new, to improve their research, as well as the slow shift over to a modular law curriculum, means that LLB degree courses have become, according to Harris, “pretty much of a muchness”.
Faced with the prospect of 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, University of London, says his department will be announcing news of its five-star rating loud and clear to anyone who will listen.
“In general, people just don't know what we were doing,” says Dignam. “They just know that we're part of the University of London, but aren't the LSE [London School of Economics] or UCL [University College London].
A student's view
Elizabeth Shanks chose to study law at Warwick University because of its “revolutionary approach” to the subject. “I knew it was a good law school, and I also knew it was a bit different,” the third-year undergraduate recalls. Founded in 1969, Warwick's law school moved up from a grade four to a five in this year's RAE, indicating that around half of the research submitted was considered to be internationally excellent by the judges. Students at Warwick are encouraged to consider how law affects life outside the courts, as part of a contextual approach that has been developed over 25 years. The school is also proud of its international perspective. “The department is so young compared with most law schools in the same bracket,” says Shanks. “It's very practical without leaving out the academic and it's not stuck in an old system. You really get the feeling that you have a voice.” Contrary to the experience of students at other universities, who claim to be “shunned” by would-be employers, Shanks says that most major law firms are “extremely pro-Warwick”. “They're not reluctant to come to Warwick. Every single firm seems to give a presentation. The milk round now goes into the second term,” she adds. Shanks believes that Warwick's weakest link is its relationship with the bar, and is currently using her role as the university's law society president to bring about a closer partnership between the two.
“Now that 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.”
A lecturers 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, part of the 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.” Queen Mary is one of eight institutions to proudly emerge from the ruck of the five-yearly RAE clutching a five-star award, a grade which Dignam says will let Queen Mary “mix with the big boys”.
A medium-sized department with 43 staff, Queen Mary does not claim to specialise in any particular area, but proudly points to the enormous range of subjects on offer. “We have a good balance of public, international and company law, as well as a very good European unit and a strong intellectual property department,” Dignam says. Perhaps the most important thing that the new grade will bring is better treatment for students. “Some big firms have the perception that Queen Mary isn't a top law school, meaning that our students sometimes struggle to get training contacts,” says Dignam.
“We have a very high ethnic mix [of students]. They don't always get treated like they come from a top law firm. I hope this will help.” The department's next step will be to forge better links with more law firms. “We don't seem to have any traditional associations,” he says. “But this is an amazing thing for us and we want everyone to know about it.”
How the RAE works
The five-yearly Research Assessment Exercise (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.
This year's judging panels consulted overseas experts to confirm that work was of an internationally excellent standard. Final funding allocations are based on a calculation between the grade and the number of staff submitted.
Figures in the table relate to the grade awarded and the proportion of staff selected. The first column shows the results from the 1996 RAE; the second shows the 2001 grade, where a five-star grade means that over half the research was considered internationally excellent, while a grade one shows that virtually none of the research was thought to be nationally excellent.
The third column shows the proportion of staff put forward by each institution. An A represents at least 95 per cent of staff, a B 80-94 per cent, a C 60-79 per cent, a D 40-59 per cent, an E 20-39 per cent and an F less than 20 per cent.