The Law School/University Grant/Bursary Game

The changes to UK university funding are about to unleash myriad unintended consequences that the UK government has no doubt not thought of. Fees and bursaries are meant to go together like horses and carriages.

This was brought home to me when I read an article on US law school grants in the New York Times. Grants for law students in the US are recent. They were considered unnecessary because law students would get high-paying jobs on graduation and therefore could afford to pay off student loans. It was the less-fortunate grad students (eg. those doing sociology PhDs) who needed studentships and fellowships.

Then a stray elephant wandered into the room--a new ranking of law schools by US News and World Report which started in 1987. Commentators such as Bill Henderson and Brian Leiter have railed against the shoddy statistics of the US News rankings but they are now so engrained in the public consciousness and that of university administrations that their influence is overweening.

Law schools now compete and game the system to climb the rankings. Of course money is at stake here.

Two significant variable for US News are college grade-point averages (think A levels) and Law School Admission Test scores. According the NYT 22% of the ranking is determined by these two scores. And this is something schools can control for. How? By offering studentships to talented new students to entice them. It works.

But to take the animal metaphor one step further--there's a fly in the ointment. Law schools make it very, very hard to maintain those studentships. If your law school grade-point average slips, you've had it: you will need to fund your own tuition and at $30,000 or $40,000 a year, that's expensive.

Such is the situation in the US. Why should this be of concern to UK universities and law schools? Under the new funding rules whereby the UK will charge up to £9,000 per year for tuition, government is commanding universities to institute a system of bursaries. (We use the word bursary: I suppose it has the connotation of a religious order about it and therefore isn't really about filthy lucre.) And one can easily foresee tuition rising from here in the near future.

For the moment I'm excluding the fact that UK law students are undergraduates rather than graduate students.

But by stealth the UK is fomenting its own rankings. Two are quite prominent: the Guardian and the Times. For many experienced observers of these rankings they are flawed as are others but nonetheless relied on by parents and offspring. While the top end of the scale appears uncontroversial--apparent not real--it is the middle and lower parts that are trying to establish their identities in the new emerging markets. These university law schools will be chasing students to ensure full classrooms but with an eye on the rankings also.

While our rankings are somewhat less pachydermal than those of the US News, I can foresee a time when they grow in importance and UK universities will be thinking how to game the system. Bursaries are a heavy burden but could be worth the weight if they lead to an improved student entry. Will our students find themselves ensnared by strict requirements as in the US? It's possible.

Job markets for lawyers have shrunk over the last few years although some think they are coming back. Moreover, in several months time alternative business structures for legal services will be coming on line and will be offering more jobs potentially than those of the standard legal profession. The thing is they won't look like "normal" law jobs, but that's not necessarily bad.

However, law students should be reading Alex Aldridge's article on "Five ways to get the best value out of your law degree". It could be essential reading.



PeterD said…
Let me add a quibble and introduce a layer of complexity. You write:

"Grants for law students in the US are recent. They were considered unnecessary because law students would get high-paying jobs on graduation and therefore could afford to pay off student loans."

But way back in the 1950's, probably some half of my law school classmates (and I!) received scholarships. And starting salaries were certainly not 'high-paying'. In 1959, both a university research fellowship and a Midwestern law firm paid graduates some $5,000 to $6,000 a year. But tuition for all three years at a top tier state law school (Michigan) came to less than $1,000! (No, that is not a typo. Michigan publishes a handy chart of it's tuition charges over the years:

Now fast-forward 50 years. That same Michigan legal education has cost the in-state graduate $114,010. And that research fellowship probably pays about one-third of that -- or less -- per year. So we have "progressed" from where two or three months of work would pay for a legal education, to where three years of one's pay may not be enough.

What has happened? Have law schools gotten that much better? Are their graduates now all super-lawyers compared to the past?
John Flood said…
You have reminded me that it's important to consider a reasonable historical period and mine was too short.

I don't think law schools have improved to the extent your figures would illustrate, but they have improved especially with wider-ranging faculty, adoption of clinics, etc. Maybe students are graduating with a mix of skills. Of course we know much of the increase is due to the inflation in faculty salaries. And that will remain for a while.

The rankings, however, back then were informal and probably not so competitive as now with US News. One other point to mention is that there were fewer law schools so the competition for students was less.