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Widening Participation in Law: Q&A with Colm McGrath

Stephen Matthews

Faculty Communications Manager

01 March 2022

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Dr Colm McGrath, the School’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions, says he felt like ‘a bit of an outlier’.

“I suppose I come from a community where not many kids went to that sort of university. It made me really conscious of the importance of making sure that students from a wide range of backgrounds, and regardless of their background, understand the opportunities that are open to them.”– Dr Colm McGrath

With the School of Law's appointment of six colleagues as Borough Co-ordinators, Stephen Matthews, Faculty Communications Manager, spoke to Colm about how we are aiming to widen participation.

When we talk about Widening Participation, in the context of King’s, what are we talking about?

“Widening participation is the work done, both at the university level and at the level of individual schools, departments or faculties, to ensure our classrooms are open to the very best students, regardless of their background or the circumstances they have experienced in life up to that point.”

And why is that important?

“At the very broadest level, you might say it's important because a university education is an immensely powerful influence in anybody’s life and a hugely powerful driver of change in what it is people wish to – or can – do. It’s important therefore that that opportunity of a university education is open to everybody and that if they have the skills to study at a world-class institution like our law school, that their background is not something that should be a barrier to them doing so.

“We might also say that that as a public institution, as almost all UK universities are, it is vitally important that our student body reflects the society that we're part of and the communities that our institution sits within.”

Is this something which is of specific importance to the School of Law?

“I would say that within the School this is particularly important because of the nature of the subject itself. Learning law in a law school is really about an ongoing dialogue between you the student, the members of the faculty who teach you, and the students with whom you share that learning environment.

“We want to have rich, diverse, broad and deeply reflective conversations about the world in which we live and that's very, very hard to do if you are not making sure that conversation includes a wide range of voices. Law is nearly unique in that we have fewer requirements in terms of the subject matter that our applicants take than other potential degree subjects, and in that sense our application base is, I think, broader than others. As such, a large number of students would be capable of studying law at the highest level if they were interested and understood that the leading law schools in this country were open to them.

“In addition, many of the characteristics that might define students who come from Widening Participation backgrounds reflect the law in action and, as such, learning law can be an empowering experience that equips you to tackle a particular problem or challenge in our society.

“What drives our interest as a law school is a combination of those factors: realising the broad base of potential talent for studying law and, in a forward-looking way, realising the potentially huge impact of helping people from a diverse range of backgrounds where they have experienced disadvantage to better understand and be better equipped to affect change in the world they graduate into. We would wish that for any of our students, but I think that power and potential is particularly potent for students from Widening Participation backgrounds.”

So what are the barriers we need to overcome, to widen participation?

“I think one obvious barrier is information: in some communities, there is not the background information that there is in other communities, that general sense of what it is to study law. That is one reason why outreach work is so important.

“It’s also very easy to assume, when one has had the privilege of having studied at a good university, that everybody knows that these institutions exist and that the opportunities they offer are open to people from your background - people that look like you, that sound like you, that have your experiences. We need to avoid making such assumptions and recognise the active role and responsibility that the School and King’s more generally has to ensure potential applicants understand this. We want our applicants to be able to look at our wonderful School and think, 'Yes, I am welcome in this community, this is something that I feel that I can meaningfully be a part of and will be supported within.'

“That barrier is often much harder to articulate, much harder to see in potential applicants and much harder to overcome than just providing information, but it's vitally important that we work to address it nevertheless."

So, how do you convince young people this is for them?

“I think you've got to be conscious that it's not as straightforward as putting a hammer to a nail, but I think creating opportunities for potential applicants to meet my magnificent colleagues and our fabulous students is a great way to start that process. Whether to experience a taster session on a legal topic or to be able to ask whatever questions they have, work together on key skills or debate something from the world around us, there are lots of different ways that we can provide the opportunity for potential applicants to get a feel for what life in the School would be like and, ultimately, whether the academic study of law is something that they are actually interested in (which, of course, for some, the important revelation will be that they are more passionate about a different subject!)"

Presumably, we all have a role in this long process, in terms of how we communicate about the School. Does the ‘prestige’ sometimes get in the way?

“There is a double-edged sword to being the world-class institution we are. It's certainly a privilege - we are regarded as globally excellent and we attract a wide and diverse and international body of students. The challenge that creates is helping applicants understand what it is that makes what we offer undergraduate students here at King’s so very special, without making it seem exclusive or beyond the reach of students from any background.

“At the very heart of what motivates our work here is ensuring that any student who thinks that they are capable of meeting the high bar that we set - and there are students from all sorts of backgrounds within the UK who are capable of doing that - understands that the School is an option for them. Our Widening Participation efforts acknowledge that the burden of that labour is rightly on us.”

You have been recruiting for Borough Coordinators. What will those colleagues help achieve?

“Our new Widening Participation Borough Coordinators in the School will focus on what King's regards as its home boroughs – the communities in which our campuses are located, and in which our staff and our students work and live and relax.

“We have three home boroughs – Lambeth, Southwark and Westminster – and we have a team of two coordinators focused on each borough, so six members of our academic staff in total, working in conjunction with the School’s Widening Participation Lead, Henry Mares, and myself.

“Those colleagues will provide long-term points of contact for schools in their boroughs and also pivot points for other colleagues in the School who are interested in providing support activities for students.”

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