The news this week, first reported in Rollonfriday.com and then covered by Legal Week, that The College of Law may be up for sale is not entirely unexpected. With a reported turnover of £75 million – and I am assuming a good net profit – it is a valuable property, even in a difficult legal education market. The recent re-accreditation of the College of Law’s degree awarding power enhances the value. BPP University College, another new authorised degree awarding institution, has yet to face re-accreditation and while that may well be a formality, the directors of BPP and their American owners are unlikely to take that for granted.
Interviewed by Legal Week, CEO Nigel Savage said ” A sale is only one of a number of options the College is exploring, including forging new joint ventures with universities and commercial players around the world.”
Well, as the old saying goes, he would say that, wouldn’t he? No CEO of a large organisation is going to tip the wink at this stage of the play. The veil of incorporation is one thing, the veil of coy corporate negotiation is quite another – and a subtle game it is to play. The difficulties lying behind a sale – in the main, unwinding a charity incorporated by Royal Charter – are not insurmountable and comfortably within the expertise of Allen & Overy which RollonFriday believes is the law firm instructed to handle the issue.
The next issue is to find a buyer. It isn’t likely that the Governors would be keen to sell to BPP / Apollo, quite apart from potential competition law issues, for reasons of past rivalry. And, of course, Apollo now have more experience of the legal education market and know better the price of acquiring a UK based law school which, arguably, in 2009 when they acquired BPP for a reported £303.5 million, they did not. The price of 620p per share at the time was viewed by some as ‘pacy’ and more favourable to the sellers. No buyer is ever truly ‘thrilled’ with the acquisition price despite protestations of joy pumped out to the market through financial PR. Kaplan Law School, a law school growing in reputation, is owned by The Washington Post, another US based company. This may rule them out.
Would Pearson or Lexis-Nexis be interested? I suspect they would. Would the consortium of magic circle law firms be interested? It would certainly be an interesting idea, but not one I would advise given the reputational issues, which plague all law schools, with fee-paying students running riot on RollonFriday.com and other student online forums – particularly in the case of the two leading players, BPP and The College of Law who make substantial profits. Would any law firm want their core brand to be affected by such online comment, some of it not always objective or fair? In any event, the magic circle law firms would likely rule this out on grounds that their ‘core business’ is lawyering. There may well be other non-law or non-education based corporates out there which would regard the acquisition of a major law school as an attractive proposition. The drawback there is one of expertise. There are always dangers in buying out of sector or market expertise.
I have known Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law, for nearly twenty-five years. We worked together when he was Dean at Nottingham Law School and agreed a joint venture with BPP Law School in the early 1990s for three years which gave BPP the lead into the legal education market – and BPP Law School’s independent accreditation by the Law Society and Bar Council when the joint venture agreement expired.
It is not hyperbole or exaggeration to state that Savage had a profound effect on the College of Law’s fortunes.
It is in the public domain that I was hired by the magic circle consortium to do a report on the City LPC and other options more than ten years ago. The College of Law lost some of the magic circle consortium members’ trainees after my report confirmed the reasons for some dissatisfaction with The College of Law’s provision in the years preceding Savage’s arrival at The College in late 1990s. There is no doubt in my mind that Savage’s policy of hiring some ‘big guns’ from private practice and academe – Professor de Friend from Kent University, being but one example – and his ability to grasp the fundamentals of new style education and technology, helped to bring the College back up to its top level rating in the legal education sector and the minds of law firm buyers in a very short time after, a place it enjoys to this day.
Savage is another ‘veteran’. He won’t mind me saying this – but like the gunslinger in Cat Ballou, veterans can’t (and don’t wish to) go on forever. There will be succession issues at The College at some point in the not too distant future. The value of a CEO will not be overlooked by a potential buyer. The Governors of The College rightly gave Savage the resources to deploy to build a very successful law school. Is there a successor with the same vision waiting in the wings; one able to take hold of a complex organisation with fairly influential unions and run it in a way which will meet the approval of hard nosed business owners? Will hard nosed potential business owners be put off by the influence of unions at the College? When I was running BPP Law School with BPP holdings PLC in the 1990s there were no unions to have issues with. Arguably, this was not an issue for most staff as we tended to pay the highest salaries for law lecturers then. I suspect that both salary scales and lack of union involvement may continue to be the case today. I haven’t asked.
Procrastination is the thief of time…. but not always.
The legal education sector is facing two difficulties at present: (a) Declining revenues – there are fewer students applying and (b) Competition – new entrants to the market are building their market share. On that premise, I would not have thought that this is the ‘optimum’ time for a sale and The Governors may well be best advised – even if they are considering a sale – to continue with the policy of growth through co-operation with traditional universities, develop their range into the MBA, business and economics sector and look to opportunities in China and India. It is not as if the Governors of the College of Law are desperate for a firesale sale…one assumes, given the charitable status and profitability.
BPP was a slightly different case, arguably. The founding directors of BPP Holdings PLC back in the mid-seventies, Richard Price and Charles Prior, retained substantial shareholding in BPP when they took BPP to the stock market and an exit plan had to be executed.
We shall see soon enough which way The College of Law goes.