Not accepting students with 2:2s is ‘discriminatory’, argues top legal academic

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By Katie King on

Dr Steven Vaughan says degree class doesn’t tell the whole story


Ex-City lawyer and leading academic Dr Steven Vaughan has argued that legal employers are wrong to insist on graduates having 2:1s — because degree classifications only tell part of the story.

Vaughan — who has worked at both Freshfields and Latham & Watkins — made his comments when responding to a Bar Standards Board (BSB) consultation which looked into whether entry into the bar’s minimum requirement of a 2:2 degree should be raised to a 2:1.

The BSB has been very open about its preference for strong academic candidates, stating:

[W]e 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.

Vaughan — who Legal Cheek understands was himself was awarded a 2:2 in his first year at law school — argues that the outcome of a candidate’s application to the bar shouldn’t hinge on his or her degree classification. And presumably the former magic circle man would extend this thesis to law firm graduate recruitment.

The senior law lecturer believes that employers make “three false assumptions” when pushing for applicants with an upper second class degree.

The first assumption is that all degrees can be compared to one another — that a degree at X level from X university is equivalent to a degree at Y level from Y university. Degrees from different institutes are not, Vaughan argues, comparable. Drawing on a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), he goes on to say that it is “neither feasible nor desirable” to compare degree outcomes in an education system as diverse as today’s.

The second false assumption that Vaughan explores is that degrees from different subject areas assess the skills required by the BSB in the same way. He explains:

Where is the evidence that, for example, ‘effective research skills’ are taught in comparable ways in Maths degrees as in Law degrees? Are you sure that subject level learning outcomes, and marking criteria are the same…?

Oxford graduate Vaughan also believes that universities — and schools and colleges within individual universities — differ significantly when it comes to calculating the overall classification awarded to their students. To increase the BSB threshold to a 2:1, Vaughan says, fails to consider this.

Vaughan’s report undermines the BSB’s heavy focus on academic qualifications, and specifically its scheduled change to the minimum bar entry standard. If the BSB were to tighten up the requirement as proposed then, Vaughan goes on to argue, a “discriminatory burden” would be placed on ethnic minority candidates. The BSB notes that only 57.1% of BME students were awarded a 2:1 degree in 2012/13, compared to 73.2% of white British students.

The BSB has not yet announced whether it’ll be changing its academic criteria, but has made clear that all evidence is being seriously considered. A BSB spokeswoman has said:

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.