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Remaking legal education – after 18 years at Europe’s largest law school, Savage confirms retirement

In a career spanning dead-end jobs and the upper echelons of the global legal market, Nigel Savage, the man who almost certainly did more than any other individual to shake up legal education in the UK, has announced his retirement.

In a statement issued today (6 February), Savage confirmed his retirement as the president and provost of the University of Law after 18 years heading the institution. He stands down from 1 April 2014 to be succeeded by chief executive John Latham.

The iconoclastic and often controversial Savage presided over a period of dramatic growth at the former College of Law, driving its transformation from slow-moving vocational provider in the mid-1990s to an expansive institution with deep links with many of the City’s largest law firms.

Savage also helped the College secure degree-awarding powers and then led the institution into a £200m sale to Montagu Private Equity in 2012.

The deal saw the 50-year old college converted from a charity into a profit-making business with funds to match its global ambitions, while proceeds from the sale were funnelled into a charity branch called the Legal Education Foundation, a £177m endowment that would hand out around £8m a year in bursaries and schemes for the promotion of legal education.

The commercially-driven Savage has frequently made waves in the world’s second largest legal education market, indeed being one of the figures who created the notion of an actual market for vocational law education.

The former dean of Nottingham Law School was once described in a 1995 issue of Legal Business as a self-confessed ‘wide boy’ who smoked cigars in his office, used an oversized mobile phone and drove round in a Honda emblazoned with Nottingham Law School’s logo.

His entrepreneurial style helped revive the College of Law when it was snubbed in the creation of the original City LPC consortium in 1999, leading to a fight-back that saw the institution sign a host of exclusive deals with leading City firms including Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance. During the 2000s, the increasingly intense competition between the College and arch rival BPP came to define to the UK legal educational sector.

However, this commerciality grated with some who felt it and Savage were out of step with the ethos of professional education or the College’s charitable status.

Savage was also criticised for his City-level pay packet, with his take-home pay rising from £270,000 in 2006 to £440,000 in 2009. Legal website once named him ‘Nigel £440k Savage’.

Savage once retorted in typically robust style: ‘All the crap about my salary is [just] a manifestation of the tension of trying to run a business in a charity. We are not like bloody Oxfam or Shelter. I think that it’s those sorts of issues that meant we had to address our model to separate the business from the charity.’

The body, which had 700 staff and 8,000 students at the time of its sale, changed its name to the University of Law in 2012 reflecting its enhanced ambitions.

In recognition of his ‘unique’ contribution to the body, the university’s board has awarded Savage the title ‘Emeritus President’.

Chairman of the board of University of Law Alan Bowkett said Savage had a ‘transformational impact’ over his 18-year tenure. ‘We owe him an enormous debt for the foresight that he has provided, both to the sector as a whole and the institution. Under his stewardship, the university has become a genuinely national and international law school with a much more diverse and flexible range of programmes, becoming a powerful force in terms of thought leadership to the sector.’

Savage told Legal Business: ‘After the sale, I said I wanted to stay for a maximum of two years, and we had to manage my succession and we got a great guy to do it. I’m bloody 64 – I’m knackered. I was also getting people approaching me for projects for law firms. I can’t do that while I’m on the payroll here. It’s nothing more sinister than that.’

He added: ‘I’m going to do some work in Nottingham with an organisation I used to work with, the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law. It’s about bringing school kids into the courts and getting them performing in mini-trials and understanding the justice system. They want me to help them as their national development director and using my contacts.’

Even having left the university, Savage’s influence will be felt for years to come.

For an in-depth profile of Savage see, The College of Law – For Sale