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Only a few low-decile students get into law schools, claims investigation

20 September 2018 - By Angharad O’Flynn

The New Zealand Herald claims, in a major investigation, that law is among a handful of subjects that is most difficult for people of lower incomes to enroll in.

The Herald website published an extensive article in its Weekend edition exposing the accessibility issues New Zealand has when it comes to enrolment of poorer students into “elite” courses at tertiary level.

The condensed version, entitled “Want to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer? Don't grow up poor” says only one in 100 entrants to the elite university courses come from the most deprived homes.

It notes that one university took only a single decile one entrant - out of more than 2000 - into its engineering programme in five years but more than 500 decile 10 students.

And it adds: “Admission rates to law and medicine were similarly dire, with only a handful of poor students in each intake, data uncovered by the Weekend Herald shows.”

The Herald’s full investigation is detailed in its ‘Big read’, “The gap between the rich and poor at university

Victoria University

The article sites the Victoria University Law School with information gained from an Official Information Act request.

“Victoria law school took just eight decile one students. Otago law took three,” journalist Kirsty Johnston writes.

The university admits that is alarming.

“The limited number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds studying law is an area of concern for us,” says Professor Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law at Victoria University, in response to the statistics.

“This is both because of the strong opportunities a law degree offers for young people on a personal and professional level, and because it’s advantageous to New Zealand to have a talented legal profession that represents the diversity of our society.”

Economist Brian Easton is quoted as saying that “despite its egalitarian beginnings, New Zealand is now the eighth most unequal society in the OECD - worse than the United Kingdom.”

The articles expose problems in the pre-tertiary schooling systems, with overall admission numbers showing that “while only 17 per cent of low-decile students go to university, 50 per cent of high-decile students do.”

Professor Hickford says there is ongoing debate about how best to prepare students for university study saying, “the question of where and when it is most effective to try to intervene to alleviate disadvantage is a complex one”.

“We continue to look at how we can best work with secondary schools to ensure we’re preparing students from all backgrounds to succeed at university, including in limited-entry courses.

“Diversity, including socio-economic diversity, is a priority for the Faculty and the University and we’re committed to improving these results,” he says.

Action plan

Professor Hickford says Victoria’s law school has several scholarships and grants in place to help students who may be struggling financially, and that over the past three years they had secured an additional $60,000 per year in alumni-funded scholarships.

“We’ve also just announced a programme of 35 scholarships over five years, supported by LexisNexis. A number of these will be targeted at second and third-year Law students in need of support – the goal being to ensure they complete their LLB.”

The information in the Herald article has been supplied by official sources, including the universities and OIA requests. Victoria University’s responses from Professor Mark Hickford to this Law Society piece were solicited by us and were not taken from the NZ Herald article.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019