Dr Alex Nicholson
Alex Nicholson is an Associate Professor in Law in the Centre for Innovation and Research in Legal Education (CIRLE) at the University of Leeds.
I should start with an important disclaimer: this blog post is not about money.
For most people, on hearing the word “value”, their attention immediately turns to financial matters. Indeed, my interest in the idea of value within legal education was first ignited by a conversation I had with an old friend – somebody from outside the sector – back in 2018. ‘What would you say is the value of a law degree?’ I asked him. His reply would strike me like an arrow to the heart. ‘Not what they pay for it,’ he said.
What bothered me most about this response, was not the fact that I believed that he was wrong (which I did), nor even was it the implicit suggestion that my colleagues and I in the academy might be the primary beneficiaries of the UK’s ever-expanding higher education system. No, what bothered me most, was that deep down I knew that his words reflected what was fast becoming the dominant political and societal rhetoric on higher education.
Indeed, over the last decade or two – likely trigged by the introduction of tuition fees – those of us who work in the sector have witnessed its radical marketisation, and the value of a particular course is now invariably (and in my view regrettably) construed in terms of the extent to which those who have studied it are able as a result to secure a well-paid graduate job (Tomlinson, 2018). This reduces higher education to a bipartisan economic transaction, and the adequacy of the exchange is frequency called into question. The many other benefits of higher education – to graduates and to society more broadly – are typically either downplayed or missed entirely, and with nearly 40% of all 18 year olds in the UK now going to university (UCAS, 2021), by definition they cannot all secure “highly paid” jobs, at least not in the UK. If this is to be the new dominant metric, the sector’s legitimacy hangs by a thread.
Ever since I became aware of this existential crisis, it has been a key aspiration of mine not only to challenge the rhetoric (in the sense of identifying and articulating the full extent of the value currently offered by legal education programmes in particular), but also to challenge myself, my colleagues, and my peers, to ensure that we play our part in creating “valuable” legal education.
What is “value”?
Just as my friend did in my earlier example, many people construe “value” primarily, if not exclusively, in economic terms: value is what somebody is willing to pay for something. However, in the context of a public good such as higher education at least, instinctively as educators we know that there is more going on here than a purely financial exchange between a university and a student.
To facilitate a more holistic exploration of “value” in the legal education context, I have often turned to theory from the discipline of marketing. Marketing is the process of strategic value creation and communication, and is not to be confused with the much narrower concept of “advertising”. Advertising is a marketing process concerned only with the promotion of existing product/service features to stakeholders. By contrast, the American Marketing Association defines the broader concept of marketing as:
‘…the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large’ (AMA, 2017).
Marketing is then a strategic process, which ensures that organisations deliver maximum value. When understood in these terms, its application to the higher education context is not as controversial as it might initially appear to be. Even as academics, working for the public good, it makes sense for us to invest our time and energy into activities that maximise the value we can create, whatever, and for whomever, that “value” might be.
For marketeers, “value” is something inherently subjective (Kelly, Johnston & Danheiser, 2017). Woodruff (1997) concisely defines it in the following terms:
‘…a customer’s perceived preference for, and evaluation of, those product attributes, attribute performances, and consequences arising from use that facilitate (or block) achieving the customer’s goals and purposes in use situations.’
Marketing theory can therefore help organisations both to identify and articulate the wide range of value components that already exist, and to design new products, services, and processes that create new value that will be perceived by key stakeholders. It is in this sense that the applicability of marketing theory to questions of value within legal education starts to become clearer.
The Value Slices Model (Figure 1) illustrates how the holistic value of legal education in fact comprises a wide range of value components, which may be perceived by individual stakeholders to a greater or lesser extent (Nicholson, 2020). The categories of value in this model (or “SLICES”) which make up the whole, are: “symbolic value” (i.e. personal meaning, how we see ourselves, and how others see us, because we have studied a particular course); “lifetime value” (i.e. longer-term benefits of a course that might not be immediately identifiable for a recent graduate); “instrumental value” (i.e. a course’s potential to help a student achieve specific objectives, which may include – but which are by no means limited to – lawyer qualification); “community value” (i.e. the extent to which the student, by studying the course, may indirectly deliver benefits to the local, national, and global communities of which they are part, and to society more broadly); “experiential value” (i.e. the positive feelings and emotions experienced whilst studying the course); and “sacrifice value” (i.e. the net difference between what a student must invest into a course in terms of time and energy and what they ultimately receive) (Nicholson, 2020).
As Figure 2 illustrates, once one takes a step back to think deliberately about the value of legal education in these terms, even students themselves are able to easily identify a wide range of aspects of value that a law degree (and indeed many other degrees) provides, beyond the financial benefits associated with lucrative graduate employment (Nicholson & Johnston, 2021b).
In this diagram, the relative sizes of each of the value slices, and also the order in which the value components are listed, reflect the extent to which the particular students in that study discussed and prioritised them. Clearly, the value that students will perceive a particular course, module, or other related activity to have, will vary dramatically across cohorts, geographies, demographics, types of institution, types of course, etc. However, the Value Slices Model provides a framework that legal educators might find helpful in identifying and articulating the current value of their programmes as distinct from others, and to frame strategic discussions about how and where it may be appropriate to create new value within a programme.
Why think about “value”?
If you are a legal academic, you may still not be convinced that “value” is something that you should be concerned about or aspire to when designing and developing legal education programmes. After all, higher education should not be about money, it is misleading to describe students as customers, and what we do is already “valuable”. If that’s how you feel, I agree with you. But nevertheless, even when we know that what we do has value, it means little to those around us if they cannot perceive the value in what we do.
One response could be for us, as legal academics, to try to better articulate the value of our programmes, in the hope of changing hearts and minds. However – as Figure 3 illustrates – the extent to which individual students perceive the relative value of different aspects of legal education is influenced by a complex matrix of different factors (Nicholson & Johnston, 2021a).
Better articulating the benefits or “value” of our programmes certainly has its place; do our students really appreciate, for example, that graduates live longer (Buckles et. al, 2016), or that they are happier (Trostel, 2015), than non-graduates? However, if all we ever do is try to influence our stakeholders to perceive the value that already exists, then I believe that we are passing up on the chance to create a more diverse legal education market, and more bespoke courses, which collectively deliver more overall value for students, and for society.
Times are changing. Against considerable criticism from academics and practitioners alike, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has now implemented its reforms to solicitor qualification in England and Wales, which substantially reduce the significance and regulation of the so-called “qualifying law degree” (QLD) (SRA, 2022) (particularly since the Bar Standards Board’s regulation of law degrees is very light touch indeed). This is a unique opportunity for law schools to move away from a vanilla, “red ocean” market (Kim and Mauborgne, 2004), where all courses are broadly the same (Nicholson, 2021), and many students are left feeling “short-changed” by their experience. This deregulation and ensuing market disruption is an opportunity to rethink what a law degree looks like.
What will we, as legal educators, do with this new found freedom? Are we bound to focus predominantly if not exclusively on preparing students to pass the SRA’s super-exam in order to ensure that our predominantly instrumentally-minded students perceive the value of our programmes, or are there other, new opportunities for us to create “valuable” legal education that we could pursue? Are there other, perhaps less mainstream, aspects of value that certain groups of students might perceive as strongly (or even more strongly) than the current employability rhetoric gives them credit for? Could a course tailored to such an aspect of value be sufficiently distinctive and perceived as sufficiently valuable so as to attract a sufficiently large cohort, from across the nation, or even from across the world?
Legal employers certainly have their own views about where law schools could make change in order to add more value (Nicholson, 2022), and so even the most ambitious and career-minded students would surely perceive value in a course more effectively tailored to modern employer requirements than the QLD has been. Beyond this, there must be opportunities for individual law schools to tap into particular aspects of course design that appeal to particular groups of students (or “market segments”), and focus more strategically on developing an offering that they would perceive as being more valuable. If individual academics and/or teams develop value within their courses indiscriminately, the chances are that legal education courses across the market will continue to look and feel very similar to each other, and the extent to which students perceive the overall value of their programme to be high, may be limited. However, by building on existing strengths, and being more strategic about what value we will create and for whom, it may be possible to enhance the value offered by the sector overall.
How to create “valuable” legal education: The Value Creation Loop
Creating truly “valuable” legal education then is about more than simply identifying and articulating the full range of benefits that already exist. Creating valuable legal education means identifying specific aspects of value that are likely to be perceived by particular stakeholders, proactively seeking to develop those aspects in a way that results in a differentiated offer, and then clearly articulating those aspects to the stakeholder(s) most likely to perceive them.
Law schools already do this to some extent, particularly when it comes (yes, you guessed it) to employability – though our collective single-mindedness in this area has regrettably I think only served to confirm the current rhetoric and make it a reality. For example, when marketing programmes to students, law schools in the UK overwhelmingly dangle the carrot of lawyer qualification, and emphasise the instrumental value of their courses for helping prospective students to achieve this common aspiration (Nicholson, 2021). They do this apparently regardless of the extent to which the particular course on offer performs well on this metric compared to its competitors.
Undoubtedly, employability has become an “expected deliverable” within the sector (Levitt, 1980), and few if any law schools will be able to deliver “valuable” legal education without it. Similarly, there are many other obvious aspects of value that all legal education programmes will need to provide (e.g. quality teaching, or library facilities). Beyond this however, there is now the opportunity to do something different.
Here is a mnemonic that outlines what I see as they key steps for using our new found freedom to CREATE valuable legal education:
CONFIRM Confirm what value components your students perceive, and how they prioritise them. Rather than assuming which aspects of value particular groups of students perceive, or indeed assuming that all student cohorts are the same, the starting point for a legal educator must be to develop a more nuanced understanding of the value perceptions operating in their context.
RALLY Rally your colleagues together. Creating valuable legal education is a team game. If academics across a school are all individually designing initiatives to enhance value, then the course as a whole is unlikely to have a clear and coherent value proposition, and the programme is likely to retain its vanilla flavour.
EVALUATE Evaluate the core competencies that already exist within the school. Research shows that organisations are most likely to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage if they focus on developing value using their existing strengths (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990).
ALIGN Align the value slices as perceived by your students, with the core competencies that already exist within the school, and look for opportunities to combine these in a way that will create new and distinctive value.
TARGET Target your programmes to the right students. Once you have a clearly differentiated and deliverable value proposition, emphasise this in your marketing materials and at open days, to ensure that you attract students with whom your value proposition resonates. This in turn will help to create a snowballing effect. As you recruit more students who perceive the value you create, the perceived value of your programmes will begin to grow organically.
EXPLAIN Explain the value you have created. Take opportunities to articulate to students (past, present, and prospective) and to wider stakeholder groups exactly what makes the programme “valuable” for individual students and/or wider communities.
The SQE reforms are an opportunity for law schools across the country to evaluate their strengths, and to design differentiated offerings, which build on those strengths. For example, students who particularly value business, enterprise, legal practice, interdisciplinarity, social justice, technology enhanced learning, or whatever it might be, are likely to value highly a programme which delivers enhanced value in these areas.
As members of the academy, we might not like the use of the word “value” in this context, precisely because of its financial connotations, and because it conjures up this image of higher education as a commodity. However, I believe that by taking ownership of this word, using a different theoretical lens, and being proactive, it is possible for us as legal educators to not only rage against the current rhetoric by shouting loudly about the wider benefits of what we do, but actually to respond to it by creating a diverse and exciting market of “valuable” legal education programmes.
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