The numbers’ game

I got copied in yesterday to an interesting puzzle that Shakeel – our Information Manager at UKCLE – had uncovered for Gary Slapper at the Open University. Recent UCAS statistics apparently indicate that just under 90% of those applying for law are getting in. So what, Gary asked, has happened, and what about that still widely held belief that law is a massively oversubscribed subject?

I don’t actually know the answer, but I have no particular reason to doubt the data. The following I think is a reasonable supposition based on what I do know about the admissions system over the last 10-15 years (the older stats quoted below pretty much all come from UCAS, courtesy of the study on “Access to and Participation in Undergraduate Legal Education” (Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2, UWE Bristol, 1996) that Vera Bermingham and I undertook for the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee in 1995.

1) The extent to which law was oversubscribed was probably always a bit mythical, reflecting the way students applied to the old UCCA/PCAS system pre-1993-4. Under that system students could apply through UCCA to six universities (I think) and then separately to about the same number of polytechnics (now post-92 universities) via PCAS. There were a lot of insurance applications across the two schemes as students tried to protect their position – especially in case they did worse than they expected. This would have inflated the admissions figures. In the last year of the old scheme UCCA and PCAS together handled 31,760 applications. In the first year of the combined UCAS scheme (for 1994 entry) UCAS handled 20,988 – that doesn’t mean almost 11,000 less students applied to read law, it just means that the number of applications became a truer reflection of the real number of applicants across the system as a whole.

2) Since then we know that institutions have recruited significantly more students to LLB coursess, and that the number and range of courses has also expanded. In 1994 about 8,000 students were admitted to qualifying law degrees. It appears that, subsequently, that number has more than doubled.

3) In 1994 the overall ratio of UCAS applicants to admitted students was about 2.5:1 – itself way below the old UCAS/PCAS average which I believe was nearer to 12 or even 15:1. Interestingly, the number of applicants in 1994 and in the latest figures are strikingly similar. I suspect the figure may be relatively constant in the intervening period. If that is correct, then, logically, if the number of applicants remains constant, and the number of places continues to grow, we would reach the position we seem to have now: near parity between applicants and places.

That of course represents an interesting challenge, particularly as yet more law degrees are due to come on stream in the next year or so, eg, at York and Winchester, and British universities seem to be doing less well in the highly competitive market for international students. While the elite law schools may be protected by their status and popularity from the worst effects of these trends, and will, I am sure, continue to be oversubscribed, the lives of admissions tutors in some law schools may be about to become even more interesting. How long can you keep fishing at a nearly empty pool?


One response to “The numbers’ game

  1. I always thought the “massive oversubscription” was into the profession rather than into the classroom. However, the impetus for this particular perspective seemed to come from a profession that was keen to protect itself and insure closure against incursion. Perhaps the nearest one gets to a numerus clausus system. Now that profession has begun to give way to market as the defining principle, market becomes the determinant for the educational/credentialling rite of passage for the profession/occupation. To which we can add the desire of universities to want and to need to increase numbers. So depending on where the blockage used to occur–whether it was from the profession or an alliance of academia and profession–changes in approaches to credentialling and their marketization would indicate that Slapper figures don’t come as a surprise.

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