BPP is looking past its heritage as a trainer for legal, tax and accountancy qualifications to broaden its appeal to those looking to specialise further in their chosen field, gain MBAs or even university degrees.
The move is an evolution from the company’s focus on the professions: “What we want is to offer the opportunity to increase skills,” says Roger Siddle, the chief executive who joined from Bain & Co last year. “There’s a desire for skills from employers and employees, and we’re well-positioned to deliver that.”
That the head of BPP – which teaches 45,000 students a year – is not an academic reflects its status as a listed company rather than a publicly funded college.
It is a difference in culture that the company emphasises: tutors are qualified in the areas they teach – just over half of the students take accounting courses, with the rest split between professional development courses and BPP’s law school – and there is no academic research to speak of.
The direct approach has helped BPP to almost a monopoly of training for corporate lawyers, with courses that focus on topics deemed relevant to the top City law firms, which often fund students’ tuition.
Mr Siddle admits the level of dominance BPP has achieved in the legal field – where the “golden circle” law firms recruit only from within its ranks – is unlikely to be replicated in other areas.
The options for expansion are myriad, especially as BPP was recently granted degree-awarding powers, but Mr Siddle is clear the fundamental profile of the school will not change overnight.
“We’re not going to start teaching three-year, campus-based courses for 19-year-old school leavers,” he says. “That’s just not something we know about.”
Even branching out into MBAs is a move Mr Siddle approaches with caution, despite BPP’s experience with part-time teaching to City workers.
“It’s clearly on our list of considerations, but it’s a well-served market, so we have to be quite thoughtful as to how we can be a unique competitor.”
The one area that is growing quickly is teaching skills to post-qualification employees looking to differentiate themselves with niche skills. Courses focusing on Islamic finance, wealth or risk management appeal to professionals keen to stand out from their peers with more general accounting and finance qualifications.
“The professional institutes are asking us to act on their own research, which is telling them that their qualified delegates are increasingly interested in gaining more depth of knowledge in the area in which they work, rather than looking at a smattering of courses across the field,” says Si Hussain, who heads the school’s professional education arm.
Some of the demand for new courses is linked to developments in the market, with risk management courses in particular attracting many candidates. Others look at fields where the required skills were not taught to professionals because the need for them is recent. The Securities & Investment Institute’s Islamic Finance qualification, for example, is increasing the supply of professionals able to create Sharia-compliant financial products.
The course assumes a basic understanding of financial markets and will appeal only to those either already qualified in, or with some experience of, the financial sector.
Tony Osude, head of professional development at ACCA, the chartered accounting institute, says the increasing complexity of business transactions has forced its members to focus on narrower fields.
“The more financial products gain in complexity, the more the training to deal with them becomes complex and hence specialised,” he says.
“With the emergence of derivatives, for example, the job of financial reporters changed. The specificities of the product required focused training to get to grips with how to value them. Something similar has happened in corporate finance and tax, fields that became more complex with the emergence of globalisation.”
That has led to a plethora of new qualifications to meet the demand. “People want the training, but they increasingly want recognition for their skills, to make sure they have a marketable asset” says Mr Hussain.
Mr Siddle claims this need for new specialised skills will counter any slowdown from current market conditions.
“The credit crunch will have an impact, but it won’t detract from the long-term trend of demand for skills.”