Law schools in dock over race

December 2, 2005

Law schools have been less likely than other university faculties to offer places to candidates from some ethnic minorities, according to a report.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England found that Bangladeshi students were particularly affected, being seven percentage points less likely to be offered a place at a law school than their white counterparts.

The funding council said that candidates' names should be withheld from universities, and law schools in particular, to protect against potential racial bias.

Hefce has re-examined research carried out on the admissions system in 2002, which found that applicants from ethnic minorities were disadvantaged on a wide scale when applying to old universities.

The funding council has concluded that bias reported in the original study, based on data from 1996-97, was due to the way the statistical model had been formulated.

It says there is "no evidence of large general differences in the treatment of applicants from different ethnic backgrounds" at either old or post-1992 universities.

But Hefce found that there was a "small unexplained disadvantage" across the board for Pakistani students, who were two percentage points less likely to be offered a university place compared with white applicants.

And, while there was evidence of disadvantage among ethnic applicants to law schools, Hefce noted in its report that, despite the low absolute and relative offer rates, an analysis of the data showed that the proportion of students from ethnic minorities studying law was 19 per cent, higher than for any other single subject area except medicine (28 per cent).

Funding council chiefs this week called for further research to be carried out using recent data sets to see whether the findings from the original study were still relevant.

But Hefce also recommends that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service withhold applicants' names "until there is an invitation to an interview, or an offer is made, whichever is the earliest" to reduce the possibility of discrimination.

Hefce also recommends that the Committee of Heads of Law Schools (CHULS) should commission research into the application process for law.

Michael Gunn, of Nottingham Trent University and chairman of the CHULS, welcomed the recommendation.

"We are talking to Hefce about the possibility of gaining funding for some research," Professor Gunn said.

"We do take the matter seriously and we do want to look into the matter very carefully."

He added: "But there was a meeting recently of the committee with about 50 to 60 law schools represented and no one was saying that this chimed with their experience of how the application process is working.

"But this is a genuine issue that we need to investigate further. We will do whatever is necessary, depending on the findings of the further research."

Sir Howard Newby, the chief executive of Hefce, said: "It is clear from this analysis that prospective students from ethnic minorities should not be put off from applying to study at the most highly selective universities.

"Gaining a place may not be easy, but applicants from ethnic minorities will, in general, have similar chances of gaining an offer as equivalently qualified white applicants.

He continued: "This is good news, but we do need to do more research in this area, particularly with respect to ethnic minority students who wish to study law."

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