All aboard the BPP Bar Vocational Course train… plenty of room….

RollonFriday reported the story that BPP Law School is asking students to defer taking the Bar course until next year (and providing an incentive of a £2000 reduction on the fee to do so) because they have taken on too many students.  I felt that the RollonFriday story, although designed to be cutting, was pregnant with a number of unstated possibilities.

We are not dealing with airlines overbooking, or holiday companies selling more holidays than they have – we are dealing with a fairly serious and important matter of legal education and the hopes and aspirations of prospective members of the Bar. In the interests of getting the story straight I contacted BPP Law School and the Bar Standards Board.

In my emails to BPP (below) and the Bar Standards Board I took the following line:

The issue is a simple one.  Did BPP exceed the number of authorised places or not?.   I would be surprised if this is the case – but if it is, then it should be made clear.  If you did not exceed your authorised accreditation numbers why is the BSB asking you to reduce your intake? If BPP did not exceed the number they are authorised to take the BSB is acting inconsistently with its own stated policy of not placing a cap on numbers applying.

When I telephoned Peter Crisp, CEO and Dean of BPP Law School, this morning he told me that the BPP response was in a Press Release:

“Following a marked increase in demand for this year’s Bar Vocational Course (BVC), we have been working with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to explore the possibility of students deferring their place until 2010.

All students with places on the BVC were notified of this on Thursday 17th September, and those who would consider deferring have been invited to contact the Director of BVC Programmes to discuss.

BPP has emphasised that any decision to defer needs to be carefully thought through, and that any deferrals will be guaranteed a place on the Bar Professional Training Course (which replaces the BVC from 2010) as well as eligibility for a loyalty discount of 15% on next year’s fees.

As discussions are currently taking place, we are unable to tell how many will take up the offer at this stage.

The demand for places this year demonstrates the quality of our provision as well as our reputation and standing in the legal profession”.


The Bar Standards Board statement received following my telephone call to the BSB late this afternoon:

The BSB is committed to the highest standards of education and training.  The BSB has not recommended to BPP that their students should defer for a year on the basis of the current job market. The BSB are currently in dialogue with the BPP about the number of students recruited on their BVC course this year.

BPP Law School is a leading provider of high quality vocational law courses and, most recently, has been accredited to award their own degrees by the Privy Council.  This provides BPP, now owned by US education firm Apollo,  with many advantages and opportunities – but with rights go responsibilities – the responsibility of complying with authorised numbers, the responsibility of ensuring that students are properly advised and taught to the very high standards they themselves set and which are set by the Bar Standards Board.

BPP Law School has developed in a very short time to deserve their  place in the top tier of vocational legal education and I have no doubt the school will soon earn respect and validity for their law degree offerings.  I have said this before.

***

I have not, as yet,  had a direct answer to my very simple question:  – Did BPP exceed the number of authorised places or not?

I’ll leave the question on the table and it may be answered at any time. As soon as I receive an answer from BPP I will publish their response.

In the meantime – there are only two possible constructions:

(a) BPP  have broken the terms of their Bar Vocational Course validation as to maximum numbers – deliberately or inadvertently

(b) BPP have not broken the terms of their validation  and they are asking students to defer for some other unspecified and non-contentious reason – but not because of the current job market,  as the BSB makes clear in their statement (above).  The original BSB statement issued to Legal Week and others last week made no mention of the point about the BSB not recommending to BPP that their students should defer for a year on the basis of the current job market. This has been inserted, one assumes, to counter rumours circulating to that effect in the market.

I raise a number of points which I believe, in the circumstances, are fair to raise.  They may be answered very simply with a response from BPP

1. It is worth noting that all fees received over and above the maximum validated number go straight to the bottom line and it is pure profit, it being unlikely that an institution would recruit additional lecturers and take on additional space and resources to service the extra students taken on.

Institutions are validated to take a specific number of students on – based on the BSB assessment of resources, space and lecturer-student ratios available or projected at the time of the validation.  This is why institutions are not permitted to exceed the validated number of places. This, when fees are at the £14800 mark, could be a very substantial profit. How many students are BPP oversubscribed by on the Bar course?

I am assuming that there may have been a fairly significant over subscription to have attracted the need to reduce the numbers.  It is, I suspect, unlikely the BSB would be concerned by an overbooking of one or two students.  De minimis?

2. If BPP has broken the terms of their accreditation to run the Bar course -  this does not reflect well on an institution recently validated by the Privy Council to award degrees.

3. If BPP has broken the terms of their authorisation -  this should be (and I assume will be)  investigated and dealt with by the Bar Standards Board. The BSB is in dialogue with BPP about “the number of students recruited on their BVC course this year.” and will, one assumes, make public this dialogue, in time,  given the publicity t this story has attracted on RollonFriday,  Legal Week and  elsewhere?

4. If BPP has not broken the terms of BVC validation and  If students are happy to accept deferment until next year and take the 15% reduction in fees (£2000) next year – all well and good.

5. On the other hand, if BPP has broken the terms of their validation and are required to reduce numbers and students are required to defer – subject to a duty to mitigate loss -  they will have an action for breach of contract.

6. If a student has deferred and taken BPP’s offer,  it is not unreasonable to speculate on what information was provided to the student by BPP underpinning the request.  If it  transpires that BPP has broken the terms of the validation and did not make this clear to deferring students then contractual issues may arise in relation to the deferral agreement.

There may be no story at all here and if that is the case well and good.  It is, I hope, fair to raise these issues and get the story onto the table fully – given… and I use BPP’s quote from their press release…” the quality of (their) provision as well as (their) reputation and standing in the legal profession”.

I have In the meantime left the two possible outcomes on the table.  As ever, you may use the comments section to comment. If BPP responds to my emails and phonecalls earlier  I will, of course, publish their response in full.

UPDATE

Wednesday 30th September 10.30 am

I have received an email from Peter Crisp, CEO of BPP law School:

As the BSB has stated, it has not recommended to BPP that students defer due to the current job market.

Our statement clearly says that “we have been working with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to explore the possibility of students deferring their place until 2010”.  Our discussions with the BSB have been as a result of an increase in demand for this year’s course, and are a confidential matter between the two parties.  There is no question of students being “forced off the course”.

The story was (rightly or wrongly) covered in the legal trade press last week, and there is nothing further that I can add at this stage.


It is important to understand that all law schools invest heavily in providing good infrastructure and on a course like the BVC, where numbers are smaller than for the LPC in most institutions,  judging the number of applicants to maximum validated numbers can be a very key issue in terms of viability. I know from personal experience that it is not easy.  Some students given offers drop out and have to have fees refunded, others don’t meet the grade requirements set by the Institution and do not get a place (if applicable). It is important for all institutions offering the BVC, an expensive course to run, that they ensure viability.   The BSB has confirmed that the issue is being discussed and that it is not a significant problem.  The BSB also confirmed that no student will be prejudiced by being forced to defer.

POSTSCRIPT

Of course… it is always possible that other BVC providers have exceeded their numbers and in the interests of fairness and objectivity I am asking each of the providers.  If any institution admits to having a possible over subscription I will indicate this in a postscript below.

Thus far I have had confirmations from:

Nottingham Law School, Kaplan,  The College of Law, and Manchester Metropolitan confirm that they have no over-subscription issues.  I have left messages with other providers – but with the beginning of term it is inevitable that the Course Leaders are involved with students/teaching so it may take time to get a full report on this out.

Northumbria University

I have spoken to Deveral Capps, the course director for the BVC.  Deveral Capps was very open with me on the telephone when he told me that Northumbria did have a minor over subscription problem and that they had dealt with it last week to the Bar Standard Board’s satisfaction last week.  The over subscription is on the fullt-ime course but their part-time course is under subscribed by 44%.  There are, therefore, no issues of resource, space, pressures on the lecturing team and resources can be re-deployed.  The quality of provision is being maintained. Deveral Capps did make the point – and I agree with him – that over-subscription this year to the BVC has come about – because of a marked increase in students applying for the BVC before the Bar Professional Training Course kicks in next year.  The BPTC is going to be a more demanding course.  I recall the same increase in BVC applications arising when the Bar had deferral of call plans some years back.

University of The West of England

I have spoken to the administrator at UWE.  They do not have an over subscription issue.

Cardiff University Law School

I have spoken to the Course Leader for the BVC.  She confirms that while they were two oversubscribed earlier in the summer,  two students have had to withdraw (for personal reasons) and they are spot on the number permitted.  The course director did make the perfectly valid point that it is  a difficult judgement call to get the numbers spot on because most institutions will make slightly more offers than places to ensure that if people do withdraw (and they do) they are not left in a situation where they have less than the permitted number and fall below their budget expectations.

City Law School (Formerly The Inns of Court School of Law)

I have spoken to the Course Director for the BVC – They do not have an over subscription issue.

I have now heard from all the providers – The providers  were more than happy to discuss the position with me.

21 thoughts on “All aboard the BPP Bar Vocational Course train… plenty of room….

  1. some points…
    1 you have little chance of getting anything out of the increasingly clam-like bpp. they have already taken the attitude that ‘we are private and we’ll tell you what we damn well like’ (which is nothing). it was hard enough as a bvc student to persuade them to tell us what classes were scheduled when.
    2 given the current climate, what might the damages be for reneging on a contract to take students on the bvc? i would assess damages as payable TO bpp not BY them. could it be a subtle plan to make even more money? and might disgruntled students find assistance at bpp’s very good pro bono centre? they don’t filter by income you know!

    a bit more seriously, bpp laid off a number of (coincidentally) quite senior lecturers last year. it seemed to bear no relation to the quality of their work because they got rid of some that were clearly good and some of the weaker staff were still retained. this happened during the course – at christmas. if the course was adjudged fit for x students at the start, presumably this was (at least partly) on the basis of the number of staff available. i’m not aware that great numbers of students left the course en route for unemployment. was there ever a check that after the staff were shed it was still fit for purpose? i doubt it.

    it’s all idle talk from me though, because bpp will ride out the storm and count the cash safe in the knowledge that the bsb will do nothing.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in fact, the BSB did make the request due to the current climate and are simply lying in their statements.

    It certainly isn’t unheard of for certain bodies or organisations to say “It’s nothing to do with X” then, a number of years down the line, come out and say “Actually, it was all to do with X, we just didn’t want to say that at the time.”

    -AP

  3. I can’t help feeling that there is a bit of self promotion going on here.

    The kind that goes “everyone wants to come to BPP, we’re THAT popular that we couldn’t say no”, regardless of the fact that something has obviously gone wrong somewhere down the line (as they’re only allowed to allocate x number of places). No publicity is bad publicity, and its not really all bad…unless the penalty for overbooking outweighs it.

    Also, I wonder what happens if there is not enough take up of the “offer”? How many students are we talking? Will they start choosing who will have to wait until 2010? So many questions…

    Other under subscribed providers could jump on the back of this to fill their spaces…they’d have to work fast!

  4. Not that I am cynical, or anything, but given the timing of the annual signing up students, did BPP accidentally, oops, “book” the propsective revenue from the over-subscribed students pre Apollo takeover ?

  5. Barboy – as you know… I have a policy of…looking at issues and, I hope, giving a fair commentary and opportunity to respond.

    One thing is certain – the press and non mainstream media is watching carefully. Not just legal education… all education… dumbing down of degree programmes, degree inflation…. the lot….. and the Apollo takeover of BPP will, inevitably, be looked at with a magnifying glass.

    Apollo, I am sure, is well aware of this.

  6. Writing as someone who knows a thing, or three, about manipulating a company pre sale, I cannot but feel that there might prove to be much more to this than the “whoops, it is only because we’re so popular” line of the usual 3rd rate bs that BPP think they can spin. Forget Apollo, if Carlyle take the view that BPP has tried to flog an inflated income stream, Mrs Carlyle coulld well be soon be sporting a fetching new pair of ear rings; looking very similar to Peter Crisp’s nads.

    As has been said many times before, and usually best by Simply, BPP has jack to do with education, or its student body, and everything to do with money and BPP’s shareholders.

    My guess is that this has only come to light because BPP deliberately exceeded their accreditation limit with a view to cajoling the BSB to adjust the limit accordingly, but that the BSB have knocked them back.

    If the BSB was up to anything, they should not be tolerating a poxy £2K discount, but demanding that BPP pay the full £15K to deferred students in cash, thereby giving those students the opportunity to take their business elsewhere.

  7. To quote the above comment, “BPP has jack to do with education, or its student body, and everything to do with money and BPP’s shareholders.”

    Here is the broader underlying problem: does a profit motive compromise educational values? Can private, money-oriented providers provide ‘real’ degrees? There is not space here to disccuss this huge subject.

    However, it is not relevant to the BVC. BVC providers are training people for a trade, like the old 100 guinea pupillage, or the medieval apprenticeship. You pay your money and you get (or hope to get) an entre’ into a closed shop, along with picking up both practical skills and acculturation.

    The strange aspect is this. The Bar prides itself on quality. The Inns of Court set up the BVC system. The BVC system now has a dreadful reputation among Barristers (according to my personal impression). Why do the Bar continue to sponsor a training system in which they have lost confidence?

    What happens now is that, along with pupillage, the Inns provide excellent supplementary training for BVC students and pupils, by Barristers and Silks who give their time gratis, to supplement the inadequate training provided by ferociously expensive BVC colleges. How does that make sense?

    Given the Bar’s long tradition of having major ‘shake-ups’ in the interests of its own survival, one can anticipate the emergence of men and women with the courage and independence of thought to demand, and in fact bring about, a radical overhaul of the system of training advocates.

    It will probably take a few scandals (of which this may or may be one) before ‘the establishment’ relieve the BVC providers of their (presumably lucrative) monoply.

    John Birchall

  8. Pingback: Questions over BPP’s BVC deferral request | Solicitr

  9. I recall a couple of years ago, when I did the BVC at the College of Law, on our first we day before we had done anything we were all given a letter telling us that the College had taken on 40 (this is what I recall, it may have been less, may have been more, but it was around that figure) more places than they were permitted to by the BSB.

    However, the BSB had exercised its discretion and allowed them to do so as they had been assured that there would not be a strain on resources/teaching etc.

    So its certainly not a new thing.

    (By the way, that year I recall the fee was around £12k. 40 x £12k = a lot of free money).

  10. The word education is used here when it may be inappropriate. Education is about teaching people to think, criticize, and create ideas. The BVC and by extension the LPC are not education. They train people; they impart skills; they serve economic need.

    In this respect they have a limited focus. It’s one that is directed to a specific end–getting a job as a barrister or solicitor.

    I adhere to the idea that trainers, especially, have to be regulated. Not so educators. If trainers are to be regulated then transparency is paramount. There is no justification for keeping matters secret. It doesn’t matter if the provider is private or public. And no trainer should be allowed to educate people unless it meets this condition first.

    If BPP can’t and won’t be accountable to its constituents (“stakeholders”), it should not be permitted to run degree courses.

    BPP should publish or perish.

  11. By the way, the urge to downsize is being felt elsewhere. The Harvard Crimson reports that 20% fewer law firms are recruiting at Harvard Law School this year because of law firm cutbacks. David Wilkins, a professor, says it will lead to lower starting salaries.

    It’s the globalization of tough love for law students everywhere…

    (ref: Harvard Crimson)

  12. Are there regional differences to the high BVC demand?
    London only or uk-wide?

    Is the BPP deferral request to students in Leeds and London? Or just in London? And is it to part time as well as full time students?

  13. BVC Training : BPP have declined to comment further than their statements published above. As the matter is now being investigated formally by the Bar Standards Board I am not able to get further detail at this stage.

    I am hoping that the results of the investigation – given the publicity which this has attracted in the legal press and on blogs – that the BSB will publish their findings in due course.

  14. charon – is it just me or has every other provider been happy to give you details on whether or not (and how) they are oversubscribed?

    if so i reckon it’s gonna be a case of having to kidnap a certain pair of short-legged dogs until the information is forthcoming from bpp! sounds like a case for the don.

  15. Every provider except for BPP was happy to discuss the matter with me and answer my questions. I asked Peter Crisp to clarify the position at BPP and he told me, specifically, that BPP had issued a press statement on the matter – set out in the main body of my post and when asked again on follow up after I had spoken to the BSB he sent me an email – also published in the main body of the post.

    This, he is entitled to do

    For my part – it would have been more helpful had he explained that the over subscription was inadvertertent (or otherwise) – failing to do this leaves the issue of whether the oversubscription was or was not intentional open until the BSB investigation is concluded.

    I understand – but have not checked myself, as yet – that the BSB is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but I would hope, given the publicity this story has generated in the legal press and on the blogs that the BSB and BPP will issue a clear statement in due course.

    I shall certainly be asking both the BSB and BPP what the result of the investigation is – as I believe that students have a right to know what law schools are doing on matters such as these.

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  17. I am at BPP this year. The reason I had understood the oversubscription occurred (although I stress this is based on anecdotal evidence, not on any information provided to us by BPP) is that BPP was too keen to withdraw places from students who were late in paying.

    I am aware of several people who, after failing to pay the first installment of their fees on time, were informed by BPP that they no longer had a place on the course. These individuals’ names were not included on the original list of students that was circulated to the rest of us before term began. That list included 298 names.

    However, it seems that these people were later allowed to take up their places after all. A revised student list was recirculated a week later with 324 names on it.

    I don’t know whether this explanation accounts for all of the extra people, but if it does then that just looks like slightly scrappy administration. Sorry to all the conspiracy theorists!

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