Monday, 9 December 2013

BPP: Business Priority Profits

Alex Aldridge over at Legal Cheek brought to my attention BPP's announcement that they were offering a "career guarantee" to new Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) students, giving them the opportunity to take the Legal Practice Course (the route to becoming a solicitor) for free if within 12 months of completing the BPTC at BPP they have not obtained pupillage (the apprenticeship necessary for becoming a barrister) and take up the offer within that period.

This is not something, as a current part-time BPTC student at BPP, that I am interested in doing, and just as well, as current students are excluded from the offer "guarantee".

When you break it down, this has 'marketing stunt' written all over it (in very, very, very small legalese at the bottom of the last page; possibly in Finnish, using Cyrillic script, and written in lemon juice).

Firstly, the odds on gaining pupillage at the first attempt are approximately 1 in 5, and many good candidates don't gain pupillage until their second or even third attempt.  While doing the LPC would not require giving up the hunt for pupillage, going down this path after failing at the first attempt would potentially indicate a lack of stomach for the sort of commitment and perseverance that is required to both gain pupillage and be successful at the Bar.  Consequently, I can't see many former BPP students taking up the offer, which of course is the general idea from BPP's profit margin perspective.

(For background, BPP University, as it recently became, is a for-profit university owned by Apollo Group, a private equity group that owns two of the largest for-profit universities in the United States - the University of Phoenix and Western International University - and is part of a sector that has been coming under intense scrutiny from politicians and regulators in the United States for what some have viewed as sharp practices, predatory marketing and unacceptably high dropout rates: see here and here for examples.  No such specific allegations have been made against Apollo Group institutions, as far as I am aware).

Secondly, the offer is not available to BPP's current crop of BPTC students.  This annoyed me: I have no problem in principal with educational establishments being run like businesses, but I do have a problem with educational establishments being run like bad businesses that treat their customers poorly.  This is not a criticism of BPP's teaching, but another example of its poor management style.

(Disclaimer: I was already negatively predisposed towards BPP's management style as a result of the manner in which I repeatedly received emails every time a part of the £17,000 in fees I have paid to BPP for the BPTC was due, threatening me with suspension, court action, excommunication and crucifixion if I did not make my payment, despite the fact that on each occasion I had paid, on time and the full amount due, and included the relevant reference number, but for some reason their systems were not able to identify my payment.  Each time I had to forward them a confirmation from my bank that the payment had in fact been sent.  At no point did anyone ever feel it appropriate to apologise to me for a problem that existed at their end and for the hassle that it caused to me, the customer).

I emailed my course director, and told him that I felt that this was a bit of a slap in the face to BPP's current students, and amounted to nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy.  He passed my email on to the person with overall responsibility for the BPTC, Anna Banfield.  Ms. Banfield graciously replied, expressing her sorrow that I felt this was a cynical marketing ploy, and assuring me that was a genuine attempt to assist students.  She also pointed out that I was free to "apply to do the LPC and pay the commercial rate" if I wished to do so.  At this point I was really annoyed, and felt the need to reply (click to zoom).

Once again Ms. Banfield responded:

BPP charges around 2/3 of the UK's annual average salary to teach its students the art of persuasion and advocacy.  I had been rather hoping for some slightly more compelling arguments as to why I was wrong and the "guarantee" was not just a marketing ploy.

I should emphasise again that overall I am relatively happy with the quality of the teaching at BPP, though I think there is room for improvement here and there, as in most institutions.  What we are faced with here is a classic situation where your current customers are unlikely to be repeat ones - so you have free reign to piss them off in other ways, so long as you generally deliver to them the product they paid for.  It is a risky strategy though, in a market where not a great deal separates the quality of the product being delivered by the main providers (Kaplan, City University, BPP and University of Law).

Given the importance of word of mouth recommendations in this market, creating the perception that you feel can treat your current customers poorly once they have handed over their money is not a marketing strategy that I would be comfortable pursuing.  But then again, I don't have a degree in marketing from the University of Phoenix.  Do you feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?

Like the legend of the Phoenix,
All ends with beginnings.
What keeps the planets spinning,
The force from the beginning.

We've come too far
To give up who we are,
So let's raise the bar
And our cups to the stars

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