Insisting on a 2:1 degree for barristers “could discriminate against BAME students”

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29 October 2015

Dr Steven Vaughan

Vaughan: arguments based on “false assumptions”

Insisting on an upper second class degree for future barristers could impose a “discriminatory burden” on BAME students, who are less likely to obtain them, a leading academic has argued in response to a Bar Standards Board (BSB) consultation that raises the possibility.

The BSB currently requires a lower second as a minimum standard, but training providers and chambers are free to ask for more.

In its consultation on Future Bar Training, which closes tomorrow, the BSB seeks views on whether to increase the minimum to a 2:1, saying “we believe that there is a significantly lower risk that an individual with an upper second-class degree would not possess the relevant intellectual abilities than that an individual with a lower second-class degree would not possess them”.

While also citing the possibility of grade inflation over time, the BSB noted that 73.2% of white British students were awarded a 2:1 degree in 2012/13, compared to 57.1% of British black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students.

It said any proposal to raise the standard of degree would need to include measures to make sure that these groups were not disadvantaged to a disproportionate extent, for instance by allowing alternative means by which the standard could be demonstrated.

In his response, Dr Steven Vaughan, senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, said arguments in favour of requiring 2:1 degrees were based on “false assumptions” and ignored the fact that universities differed in the way they assessed levels.

Dr Vaughan asked the BSB: “How comfortable are you as to the equality and diversity implications of this proposed course of action? Given, as you note, the increasing number of upper seconds over time, all this requirement may do is serve to exclude (even more) BAME entrants from the Bar.”

Dr Vaughan cited three “false assumptions”. The first was that all degrees were comparable. Reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education and using external examiners, appointed ad hoc by each university, did not “guarantee equivalence”.

He went on: “The second false assumption is that all degrees (law and non-law) will assess the intellectual abilities in which you are interested in the same way. Where is the evidence that, for example, ‘effective research skills’ are taught in comparable ways in maths degrees as in law degrees?”

Dr Vaughan said the consultation noted that students with upper second class degrees may have some marks at lower second level.

“This is true. What is also true, but not acknowledged, is that universities (and schools/colleges within those universities) differ significantly when it comes to the calculation of overall awards (i.e. what combination of what marks at what level gives someone an overall upper second, lower second etc).”

Dr Vaughan said the BSB did “rightly acknowledge” the attainment gap in relation to BAME students, but did not acknowledge that the gap was “significantly different” depending on the particular university and the particular subject.

A BSB spokeswoman said: “We recognise the concerns about an impact of raising the requirement (for instance, to a 2:1) on access and diversity, though we want to gain a better understanding of overall proportionality in setting academic requirements for entry into training and/or for authorisation to practise.

“We will be keen to flush out the best available evidence of impacts, too. We trust that it will be immediately apparent from the consultation that we are considering all options, in terms of setting the requirement at an appropriate level, the means by which it is assessed, and the point at which we make that assessment. Equality and diversity are central to our interest in ensuring that the appropriate standard is met.”

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