Academics who decline to pursue diversity in their teaching wrongly think that the content of curriculums for qualifying law degrees is detailed by legal regulators, a leading academic has suggested.
“We can basically do what we like,” said Dr Steven Vaughan, a former solicitor, in an address to Oxford University law faculty’s ‘Diversifying the curriculum’ event earlier this month.
The choice of authors of texts on student reading lists was left to course leaders, he said.
Environmental law specialist Dr Vaughan, a senior lecturer at University College London, said he had discovered this when chair of the Joint Academic Stage Board – the body responsible for validating all qualifying law degrees under powers granted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board.
He was appointed to the role in 2012. Responsibility for appointments alternates between the regulators every three years.
He argued it was important that legal academics queried their choices for reading lists.
“Diversifying the curriculum, at is heart, asks us to step outside of ourselves and to try and see things from other perspectives…
“It’s about accepting that we might have inbuilt preferences and views that are the complex products of our upbringing, education, geography etc etc.
“It’s about reflecting on how the choices we make can impact on those we are committed to educating. It’s about debating the choices we make.”
If an academic assessed their choices and decided no changes should be made, that was okay, he said, adding: “I’m not convinced that diversification is something which should be imposed top down (at least not at the start of a process of change).”
He stressed law academics had significant “agency” over their choices about what to teach, despite “dozens of academics at dozens of law schools” who had told him the legal services regulators had given them little leeway in precisely what was taught.
“This is simply not true. We can do what we like content-wise, and that has been the case since 1999.”
Dr Vaughan underlined that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which gives guidance on the content of academic degrees, “says nothing about content in the sense of ‘all law students must study X’”.
For example, he said, it would be perfectly possible to have “a criminal law module in which students studied theft and nothing else”.
It was crucial that law academics considered the question of whether the curriculum they taught was diverse, he urged. If they did not, “there is the risk that we are simply reproducing and reinforcing the inequalities that already exist in society”.
A diverse curriculum was said to ensure that higher education “continues to act as an agent for liberal and democratic values, and encourages mutual understanding of different viewpoints”.
Dr Vaughan explained: “It has the potential to make our students reflect on their identity and their place in society, and to lead to better well-being for those students and improved attainment.”
He said research he has done on diversity “opened up to me how choices that are made reflect – and potentially lead to – systemic and structural, implicit and explicit inequalities for women and minorities”.