Embracing and reflecting BME diversity in law school curricula: why and how?

A Social and Legal Studies Association (SLSA) funded research project led by Dr Suhraiya Jivraj

A curriculum is ‘inclusive’ if it is ‘meaningful, relevant and accessible to all’ (Hocking, 2010:1).

Universities are increasingly being required to address the so-called attainment gap, namely that white students tend to graduate with higher degrees (2.1 and above) than their ‘BME’ (black and minority ethnic) peers. According to the Equality Challenge Unit (now part of Advance HE) in 2015/16, the gap was largest in England, where 78.8% of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 compared with 63.2% of BME qualifiers – a 15.6 percentage point gap. This disparity in attainment is also likely to be reflected in many law schools who will also be subject to the Office for Students requirements for universities to achieve strict targets to reduce their gaps.  This Social and Legal Studies Association (SLSA) funded research project is therefore timely in focusing on embracing and reflecting increasing BME diversity in law school curricula. It aims to improve our understanding of the ‘inclusivity’ of contemporary law curricula to highlight instances of failure and success and to begin to co-develop an agenda for change supported by the legal profession. The project will do this by:

  • Drawing on critical race theory (CRT), outsider jurisprudence and post/de-colonial theories and praxis to develop a conceptual framework through which to explore the concept of ‘inclusivity’ in the context of the perceptions, expectations and experiences of BME law students;
  • Applying that conceptual framework, in collaboration with law students of colour and staff in law schools engaged in student success and/or race equality projects, to identify the extent of ‘inclusivity’ in law curricula, and the potential impact on the attainment of students of particular ‘race’ or ethnicity;
  • Adopting an inclusive approach to the research by producing and disseminating an accessible resource with insights into processes and findings of good practice for academics as well as others in the legal sector.

A variety of initiatives have been launched to address attainment diparites, most notably by Kingston University including using key performance indicators (KPI) to ensure institutional commitment; a value-added metric which measures whether students have out-performed or under-performed compared with what was expected when entering university; and an Inclusive curriculum framework to help staff to think constructively about diversifying the curriculum.

However, these initiatives do not necessarily take account of the ethical imperative inherent in CRT and decoloniality to understand the role of power in how certain racialised (as well as gendered, classed and cis) forms of knowledge come to be promulgated through the education system and circulate to what becomes known as the ‘canon’ (See: ‘Decolonizing Universities’ Bhambra et al, 2017 and ‘Dismantling Race in HE’, Arday and Mirza, 2018). Moreover, the existing leading initiatives are not specifically formulated for law schools and legal education taking into account regulatory requirements or professional law bodies being conditioned to expect specific type of knowledge in new entrants, disregarding non-traditional knowledge as surplus or left to be valued by market forces there seems to be little impetus for change in this area (R. A. MacDonald and T. B. McMorrow, ‘decolonizing law school’. (2014) 51:4 Alberta Law Review, pp. 717-737.

Nevertheless, there are methods and ways to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum or make it more inclusive that already exist as highlighted by CRT and outsider jurisprudence as well as in practice in law schools, particularly those with a critical or law-in-context ethos. This research project is therefore necessary in highlighting and furthering our understanding of effective approaches within legal education and knowledge production; both within core subject areas as well as those where critical approaches are often deemed to have a more rightful place. It also builds upon the decolonising the curriculum project by University of Kent students in 2018/19 led by Dr Jivraj. See here for more information on this project and how it is being taken forward by the Centre for Race, Sexuality and Gender Justice (SeRGJ) of which Dr Jivraj is Co-Director.

If you are a university law teacher and would like to participate in the online survey please click here and/or if you are willing to be interviewed for the project please contact Dr Suhraiya Jivraj on s.jivraj@kent.ac.uk.

The project runs from May 2019 – September 2020.