Law School Admissions: The Case for Balancing Diversity and Meritocracy
By Priscilla Gan
The school announced earlier this year that it would look into its admission procedures to: first, provide for more diversity in the “backgrounds, abilities and interests” of law school students and secondly, “increase the opportunities for students to read law”. This marks a departure from its usual stringent and grades-focused criteria. Professor Simon Chesterman, also the new Dean, explained that a student population with a variety of backgrounds would allow students to be “good lawyers” by “learning how to understand different people”. This is premised on the fact that the current admission scheme tends to bring in students from the same few pre-university schools like Raffles Institution. However, it has been pointed out in the media that this may assume that such students do not come from a range of backgrounds and are, to put it in The Sunday Times’ words, “cut from [the] same cloth”.
Though Vice-Dean and Associate Professor Joel Lee has reassured the public that merit would still be the grounds on which students would be chosen, the review of admissions raised a few eyebrows as some feared the law school might still lose sight of Singapore’s long upheld principle, meritocracy. Others have welcomed the review, agreeing with the school that there should be a wider range of students admitted. It is submitted that the school’s goal of admitting more diverse students is commendable but should not stray to the point where social engineering is brought into the picture. The root of the “problem” of a lack of diversity may also lie elsewhere.
Are we really not diverse enough?
The assumption that law school students in NUS do not come from diverse enough backgrounds is hard to test. As The Sunday Times has shown, the fact that students come from the same junior colleges may not necessarily mean they are “cut from [the] same cloth”. Indeed, the assumption places too much importance on the impact one’s school and socio-economic background can have. Can a school really define one? To go with it would be to play into and reinforce the stereotypes that Singapore faces and tries to eradicate.
Meritocracy vis-à-vis diversity
The desire to let more students read law is to be commended but the school should be wary of engaging in some form of social engineering and ignoring meritocracy in the process. Admitting, for example, a student living in a HDB flat instead of one who resides in a District 10 area, may be demeaning to both of them. The student from a poorer background may not want to be judged purely on the basis of his upbringing, whereas the other student will be robbed of a chance to read something he rightfully deserved.
Assuming that more diversity is really required and that one’s school and background indeed affects one’s development, perhaps it may be more apt to tackle the root of the problem rather than tweak the law school’s admission procedure. Meritocracy and the need for diverse backgrounds could be balanced better if the local education system could take the two factors into account in primary and secondary schools. By looking out and providing for students of lesser backgrounds at an earlier stage, this may well ensure that their grades are on form and allow them to enter top schools in the future. Universities will then be able to admit students of diverse backgrounds without neglecting the other important academic criteria. The law school admissions should not be used as a means to push forward social mobility in lieu of deserving students who would make potentially good lawyers.
However, one concedes that something of a national scale may take more time and effort to implement and produce results. The school should take its own measures but as mentioned above, not to the extent that it errs on promoting too much social mobility. A discretionary scheme in law school has already been established to allow students with “exceptional achievements beyond their academic results” enter, but with a limit of “up to 10 per cent of places”. It is suggested that this can be expanded on to increase the number of “discretionary” students, while considering at the same time that these students have potential to excel in their studies and as a future lawyer. Besides the grade criteria, the school also currently carries out entrance examinations and interviews to judge if students should be admitted. Perhaps this should be another means of ensuring diversity instead of solely referring to one’s socio-economic and academic background.
This author believes that current law school students are not so much “cut from [the] same cloth” but form a patchwork of designs when put together. However, if the school’s plans to increase diversity are to be carried out with the consideration that it will balance this with the need for meritocracy, it should by all means be encouraged.