Access to law study ‘a closed shop’

LAW and other professions are still a closed shop to people from poorer backgrounds, even for the small few who manage to get into related degree courses, a higher education boss has claimed.

Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), said the problems getting entry to third-level courses in law, medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy for those from outside high -earning families are compounded when graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds try working in the relevant field.

HEA figures last summer showed that those from professional family backgrounds continue to dominate these disciplines. One-in-three entrants to medical school in 2008 were from families of doctors, solicitors, barristers, engineers or other top-earning professionals, but just 10% were from the three lowest-paid social categories, who filled almost one-in-five places in all university courses.

“We also know that the small numbers who do make it, subsequently struggle to get a foothold in the profession. Law is a particular case in point where, all too often, successful graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds can’t get the essential work placements they need to make a successful career,” Mr Boland said.

His comments come at a time when job opportunities in the legal profession are scarce, with up to 1,200 solicitors estimated by the Law Society to be unemployed. Mr Boland told access officers from third-level colleges who have just completed a postgraduate course on equality policies that they can not overcome these barriers on their own and the relevant professional bodies are instrumental to the concerted effort that is needed.

“There is a challenge here to the professions to question the appropriateness of this outcome in terms of social equity and the role of these professions in society, to openly debate the issues and to explore the measures they can put in place, in partnership with the universities and other agencies to ensure greater diversity among their members,” Mr Boland said.

Law Society director general Ken Murphy said he accepts that a more diverse intake into professional training courses for solicitors would benefit the public and the profession, but successful efforts are already being made through its access programme which has funded 11 qualified solicitors since 2001 and is assisting 73 current students.

“Firms who take in these students do not have to pay their fees of around €13,000 so it may even give them an advantage in getting a placement,” he said. Despite overall improvements in access to higher education for poorer students, mature entrants and those with disabilities, Mr Boland said he has the impression there is still an element in higher education institutions that believes the equal-access agenda is “some warm, feelgood add-on to the ‘real’ business.” “Nothing could be further from the truth. Widening participation ... is as important to higher education and to Ireland as scientific research,” he said.


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