Taking the university challenge

Lawyer 2B s Corinne McPartland went behind the scenes at three law schools outside London and found plenty of viable and cost-effective alternatives to studying the LPC in the capital

How are you enjoying freshers week? a handsome-looking rugby type asks me as I sit waiting for Steven Dinning at the University of the West of England (UWE). I smile inwardly to myself. The hours Ive spent partying and drinking havent started to show just yet, then.

I actually left university four years ago. Im here for a meeting, I reply. His smile vanishes as he realises he wont be encountering me on a sticky student union dancefloor anytime soon.

But sitting in UWEs reception area, I do get a slight pang of nostalgia for my university days. I miss the laid-back atmosphere, the many clubs and societies you can join, not to mention all the erm extracurricular entertainment.

And I think these are just a few of the factors many students take into account when choosing a law school outside London. They want to study their LPC at a reputable law school but still have that connection to university life.

Today the College of Law (CoL) and BPP Law School in London dominate the legal education market, notably in the area of the commercially focused LPC.

But what about the students who dont want to make the move to London? Is there a choice outside the M25? And if so, will top City law firms look at students who dont choose to study in the capital as serious contenders for training contracts? I went behind the scenes at three top regional law schools to find out.

Value for money

As reported in the last issue of Lawyer 2B, the most expensive law school is BPP in London, which charges students a whopping 11,550 to study a full-time LPC. CoLs full-time LPC will set you back 10,340.

However, before you sign up for a 40-year high-interest loan, there are many reputable institutions charging significantly less for their LPC courses.

The Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP), which is part of UWE, has set its price at a very competitive 8,280 for a full-time LPC.

And if you care to drive an hour and a half up the M40 from London to the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp) you could save yourself more than 2,000. To study your LPC there costs 8,910.

Nottingham Law School is the most expensive of the three schools I visited and charges 9,375 to study its full-time LPC.

Full-time LPC student at BILP Dan Ballard doesnt think he would be able to afford to live and study in the capital.

Londons really expensive in terms of rent and the cost of living, he says. Here you can rent fairly cheaply, and because Bristol is a university town things are generally geared towards students, therefore making it cheaper to go out and socialise.

E-learning

One of the major differences between many of the regional universities and their London counterparts is their stance on e-learning. In a radical move CoL has scrapped all its lectures in favour of i-tutorials that students access via the internet.

BPP, meanwhile, puts all its GDL lectures on MP3 files and, following a trial on its LPC business law and practice module, this facility will be offered across all LPC modules.

However, all three schools stress that they dont want to replace tutors with computers. Instead they are using e-learning as an extra teaching tool rather than scrapping face-to-face contact.

We welcome change and want to evolve, says BILP head Steven Dinning, but we dont want to replace the student-tutor contact that we enjoy here. Its a great teaching tool, but I dont think we should solely rely on that.

The school provides online support for the face-to-face sessions it holds. Students can monitor their academic progress through Blackboard, the schools e-learning medium, by completing self-test exercises that provide instant feedback.

Mature student Paul Liles, who is studying his LPC at BILP, is enthusiastic about the way the school balances its online resources with student-tutor contact.

Nothing can beat actually sitting in a lecture theatre or in a seminar, because tutors will inevitably expand on some points and you can look around the room and realise that youre all in the same boat. But its great that you can go back and look at something that you dont quite understand at a time that suits you.

At Oxilp e-learning is also integrated into the LPC curriculum to support rather than replace traditional teaching. Students have electronic access to Oxilps legal databases and to all course materials via The Vault its virtual learning centre.

Students can also use this resource to participate in forums, quizzes and chatroom sessions. But part-time LPC students get all of their lectures delivered by podcast so that they can listen to the lectures at times that suit them.

Oxilp institute director Julie Brannan says:
E-learning can add to teaching it doesnt replace it. We use online teaching methods as part of our full-time LPC course, but nothing can be as beneficial as the relationship between the tutor and the student.

At Nottingham Law School, which is part of Nottingham Trent University, students will mostly get face-to-face contact with their lecturers too.
If you study here youll get taught by humans, says course director Bob White. Sometimes well lecture by IT remote delivery, but only sometimes, and only if that really suits the task.

Teaching methods

All three schools really seem to value the time they get to spend with their students in small group sessions, otherwise known to you and me as seminars.

Dinning says he is proud of the fact that students who go to BILP will get around 350-420 contact hours.

The focus is very much on learning through doing, through our interactive workshop sessions, he says. Students carry out tasks designed to simulate the work of a trainee solicitor, such as drafting, problem-solving, interviewing and so on.

The students work in base rooms, dedicated for the use of allocated workshop groups of around 18 students. The rooms are kitted out with computers and mini-law libraries.

We get dedicated working rooms here which were allocated at the beginning of the course, says LPC student Roxanne Magee. Its great, because you can just go in there and study alone or as part of a group.

Oxilp, which has just moved into Oxford Brookes historic Headington Hill Hall, uses its relatively small intake as its unique selling point.

We love that fact that we can really get to know our students because of the small numbers we have here, and they can get to know each other, says Brannan. Our seminar sessions are really hands-on and they do a great deal of group work.

Careers advice

Okay, so studying for the LPC is all very well and good, but what about the careers advice? I didnt think students would take into account the careers service when choosing a school, but I found it was an important factor among many. Especially those who didnt have a training contract in place at the start of the LPC year.

Prospective BILP students have access to the careers service from August, when they are allocated a supervising principal a member of the tutor team who offers careers advice. There is also a dedicated careers officer who gives advice on CV drafting, completing application forms and writing covering letters.

And the students cant speak any more highly of the service on offer at BILP. Magee, who is already making use of the facility by finding pro bono work to add to her CV, thinks the service at BILP is second to none.

We have a great web support system called Blackboard, with links to help with applications for training contracts, and the university has a place where you can go to find voluntary work, she says.

A whopping 96 per cent of Nottinghams LPC graduate students secured training contracts or paralegal work in 2007, according to a recent survey. Many people start the LPC without a training contract, says LPC graduate Dan Leather, but Nottingham recognises these individuals and provides careers advice throughout the course, with regular meetings, events and opportunities highlighted.

Examination time

Oxilp and BILP operate open-book policies when it comes to exam time, whereas Nottingham has what White describes as a middle of the road stance on what materials students can bring into exams.

Its not simply about spewing out facts its about applying the law in the exams, he says. Our students can take in defined materials because we take the view that you dont go through life having to remember, for example, what section of the Companies Act you need to go to.

I dont think you should have to remember things like that, but I think you should know where you should find out about things like that. They can take in primary sources, but they cant take in their own notes.

Life on campus

Many students who choose to study outside London enjoy doing their LPC in a campus environment. Not just because they cant quite cut their ties to university life, but because they want to take advantage of what universities can offer them.

Robert Foster from Nottingham became involved with the rugby team while he was at university and says he wanted to study somewhere that he could continue to hone his game.

I really like the fact that Im studying my LPC at a school which is affiliated to a university, because I can get involved in societies and things like the rugby team, he explains.

And full-time LPC director leader at Oxilp David Day says he encourages his students to take advantage of what Oxford Brookes University has to offer.

There are great facilities on offer here for students and I think its good for them to take time out from their studies to relax and concentrate on something other than their LPC, he states. Its about getting a balance, and when they come back to the classroom theyre refreshed and ready to study.

Sarah Boston, who is studying her LPC at BILP and who has a training contract with Osborne Clarke, knows she has made the right decision in giving London a miss.

Im pleased I didnt have to up sticks and move to London to pursue my chosen career, she insists. I love spending time with my family and am lucky enough to be able to keep my horse 10 minutes from where I live in Bristol.

For more information on LPC providers inside and outside London, check out the brand new law schools index on Lawyer2B.com