Face up to market forces or drop out

Is the cash-cow that is professional legal education in danger of drying up for the lesser players in an increasingly competitive market?

Quite possibly in the case of the Legal Practice Course for intending solicitors, according to figures from the Central Applications Board that reveal a number of institutions facing the downside of market forces.

So much so, in fact, that it is even being suggested in some quarters that the two main providers, the four-site College of Law, and Nottingham Trent University, cut their intake.

The LPC may have looked at one time like easy money. But the board, which processes applications to the 30-odd institutions that offer the course, found that six have less than 55 per cent of their anticipated numbers for the coming academic year, while 14 have less than 70 per cent.

The usual drop-out rate as enrolment - ie. the payment of up to pounds 5,000 or more in fees - looms is likely to mean that about half the providers could be only half full come October.

The crisis - which has not been helped by fears about job prospects and calls from the Law Society president, Martin Mears, for a smaller profession - comes in the wake of already waning demand for Common Professional Examination courses in another over-extended market that has seen applications drop by 40 per cent in the past two years.

In a recent paper to the Legal Practice Course Board, Sheffield University's course leader, Philip Jones, declared: "I would not be surprised to see significant course closures in 1997-98. On the most optimistic assumption courses in areas of low student demand may close, leaving sufficient numbers for courses in areas of high demand to survive."

Leaving the market to resolve the problem is not good enough, Mr Jones says. "It could ... lead to real problems in the pattern of overall provision.

"The situation could become catastrophic if a number of the existing institutions all withdraw at the same point, potentially in the middle of the applications process. Apart from the ensuing panic this could lead to a pre-LPC level of provision with one dominant supplier, the College of Law, along with anywhere between six and 10 other providers."

Rather than complain about their predicament, Staffordshire University, already 72 per cent subscribed for this autumn's course, has taken a practical step to increase numbers by offering a fee rebate at the end of the year to the top 20 per cent of full-time students.

Steve Evans, associate dean of professional legal studies, says: "We want to maintain our market share. We realise we are a business."

Nigel Savage, formerly in charge at Nottingham and now chief executive designate of the College of Law, says: "The Law Society has created a marketplace and in a marketplace there are winners and losers.

"Some of the universities made a wrong strategic decision to get into professional education because they hadn't got a history of doing it. You have to ask whether they would be better sticking to what they do well - research and undergraduate study."