LEGAL EDUCATION, BUT AT WHAT COST?
Written by: Gayathri K. K., Student, The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi
Law is considered an instrument of social change and lawyers are considered social engineers. This concept confers upon legal education the duty to carve out socially responsible individuals whose roles evolve constantly in a dynamic society. The much-needed overhaul of legal education post-independence began with the advent of Advocates Act in 1961, whereby the Bar Council of India (BCI) became the regulatory authority for the legal education sector in India. Today, an approximate of 1.5 lakh students graduate every year from over 1,500 law colleges in India. Private colleges account for a lion’s share of the total number of colleges and the rest of the universities are set up either by the Central Government or the State governments and some are affiliated to these universities.
A shift in the traditional paradigm of legal education was seen in the late 80s with the introduction of 5-year integrated courses. The universities that followed suit would collectively become to be known as to National Law Universities or NLUs. Due to the peculiar nature of these institutions, they suffer from affordability and accessibility issues more than any other mode of legal education provided in India. Hence, the ambit of this analysis is limited, to this cluster of law universities which are relatively newer additions to the legal education landscape but have proved to be game-changers and has made law a promising career option.
An Idea is Born
The Legal Education Committee of BCI put forth a revolutionary idea in 1984, to reform the legal education system in the country and to attract young minds to the field of law. The Committee's recommendation was to create institutions imparting high-quality legal education with a 5-year integrated course that would offer a combined Bachelor's degree (such as B.A., B.B.A, B.Com, B.Sc.) and a graduate law degree (L.L.B). This idea was finally materialised in the form of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore which welcomed its first batch in a converted bicycle shed in 1986. It took more than 10 years for the next NLU, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad to come up. Today, a total of 23 NLUs have sprung up across the breadth and width of the country which admits students through a national level entrance examination, Common Law Admission Test or CLAT.
Before 2008, each NLU conducted separate entrance examinations, making it extremely difficult for students to travel to different cities in various states to give these tests. This practice was strongly condemned by the Supreme Court in Varun Bhagat v Union of India and Others, which paved way for the institution of CLAT as a single-window exam to admit students to these institutions. Other NLUs joined this endeavour in later years except for NLU Delhi, which conducts a separate entrance examination, All India Law Entrance Test (AILET). In addition to the NLUs, many other private institutions accept CLAT score. The steady growth and popularity of these institutions have garnered them the title “IITs and IIMs of law”. Students from NLUs have time and again won many prestigious national and international moots, secured admissions to foreign universities, and have been offered jobs in many leading law firms in and out of the country. Recent trends show that young aspirants veer towards securing a seat in these institutions. But this system is not without any faults; in fact, it is riddled with inconsistencies that prevent them from becoming truly national.
Improper conduct and management of CLAT over the years led to the demand for establishing a permanent body for CLAT which was raised in a public interest litigation filed by Prof. Shamnad Basheer followed by another PIL in 2018, in which the court directed MHRD to look into the conduct of CLAT. Finally, a permanent CLAT Secretariat was established in 2018. The Consortium of NLUs has three permanent members, i.e., NLSIU, NALSAR and National Law Institute (NLIU), Bhopal and all other NLUs except NLU Delhi is a member of its General Body. Providing the highest standards of and promoting reforms in legal education are some of its objectives. But even after this reform, getting into a dream NLU has become a triple-hurdle competition for a majority of aspirants where one has to get through various social, political and economic barriers.
One of the most prominent issues with CLAT is that the only medium of language used to conduct the test is English. AILET follows a similar pattern. Thereby, these exams exclude a majority of students who have completed their schooling in vernacular languages. According to the latest All India School Education Survey conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Hindi is the medium of instruction in 51.45% schools at the higher secondary stage. Even in schools that administer classes in English, the level of exposure to the language a student receives will depend on the socio-economic background of the place they are hailing from.
Recently, the CLAT Consortium, in an attempt to move closer to the model of English-speaking countries, has announced a complete shift to comprehension-based questions in all sections for the upcoming CLAT examination, namely: English Language, Current Affairs, including General Knowledge, Legal Reasoning, Logical Reasoning and Quantitative Techniques. Comprehension based questions require the students to first, understand the question and then apply logic to solve the question and hence demand an above-average proficiency in the English language. As CLAT is a time-bound exam, a student who has relatively lesser exposure to the English language will take up a considerable amount to decipher these questions and those who have access to schools that impart good quality English language will always be one step ahead of the former. Thus, these entrance examinations end up testing the English language proficiency rather than the aptitude of the candidate.
It is no more a secret that the economic position and merit of a person is determined significantly by caste. The IDIA Diversity Survey Report, 2018 – 2019 released by IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education), reveals that a sizeable percentage of students enrolled in 2018, in various NLUs are from upper-caste Hindu families and also belongs to families where both parents are proficient in English. Whereas, the number of students coming from rural areas and those who have completed their schooling in vernacular languages don’t even cross 4%. The demand to conduct CLAT in Hindi has been doing its rounds since 2014 and it has always been shot down with the counter-argument that English is the “career language” of many Indian lawyers. On 19th June 2020, the Delhi High Court has ordered the BCI to consider a petition to hold CLAT in local languages. As COVID-19 has affected CLAT 2020 significantly, it is highly unlikely that this change will be reflected this year.
With Great Dream Comes Great Expenditure
Even if an aspirant can get past through the language barrier, they will have to then cross the socio-economic barrier on three levels.
CLAT application fees cost 4,000 rupees for an applicant belonging to general/ OBC /Persons with Disability (PwD)/ Overseas Citizen of India (OCI)/ Non-Resident Indian (NRI)/ Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) category. For SC/ST/ Below Poverty Line (BPL) category candidates, the application fee payable is 3,500 rupees. AILET application fees for different categories of candidates are as following: General Category-Rs. 3,050/- PwD and SC&ST- Rs.1, 050/. Though, they do not charge any fees from SC/ST candidates below the poverty line.
In contrast, the application fees for JEE (Joint Entrance Examination JEE) Main entrance examination for securing admissions to prestigious IITs and NITs would cost only 650 rupees to a candidate in general/OBC category and 325 rupees to girls and SC/ST/PwD/Transgender candidates and the application fees for NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) examination for admission into various undergraduate medical and dental courses in government or private medical and dental institutions costs 1500 per application for general category candidate and 1400 and 800 rupees for other reserved category candidates.
The growing popularity of premium legal education has led to the mushrooming of CLAT coaching centres in an exponential rate. But these institutions are mostly situated in the Hindi speaking belt and in other main cities as their target consumers are also situated in these areas. This assumption is corroborated by the IDIA Diversity Survey which shows that 65.44% of the students in the 2018-19 batches are from the Hindi belt and 79% of the total students who took part in the survey have attended coaching classes for CLAT/AILET. This goes to show how coaching classes for CLAT have become a norm. Access to these classes also serves as a privilege marker due to the high costs associated with them. Some branches of Career Launcher’s LST, which retains the reputation of the most preferred coaching program for CLAT/AILET charges up to 1.34 lakhs for a two-year classroom coaching program. Since CLAT is an online test, these coaching programs would require the students to attempt multiple mock tests to improve efficiency and to learn time management. Due to the impact of COVID-19, most of these classes have shifted to online teaching which would require the students to have a steady internet connection and preferably a laptop. The inequality in data accessibility will again act as a barrier for many aspirants.
Students coming from lower-income families who clear the entrance test and get allotted into different universities are then welcomed by a fee structure that will put holes in their and their family’s pockets. The minimum tuition fee demanded by NLUs is 1 lakh per annum. Combined with fees under other heads including but not limited to library fees, infrastructure fees, hostel fees would come up to a whopping total of more than 2.5 lakh per year, placing it even above India’s per capita income for the financial year 2018-19 which was recorded to be approximately 1.25 lakhs. Thus, for a five-year course, a student ends up paying an average of 10-12 lakhs. Despite oppositions these universities continue to increase fees. This may not be a concern for a considerable amount of students who come from affluent families with an annual income of INR 10 lakhs and above.
But students hailing from lower-income families will have to rely either on a scholarship provided by the government or private organisations or individuals or on educational loans to pay exorbitant fees. Raising money through a loan is also not walk on the cake for many as most of the banks collect collateral security from the applicants, for loan amounts more than 4 lakhs. Sometimes the application may be rejected at the outset due to a lack of CIBIL score, a practice that has been strongly condemned by Madras High court in R. Gayatri v. The Regional Manager. In addition to this, the rate of interest for educational loans ranges from 8% to 15%. In an interview, Dr Faizan Mustafa, the Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR, opined that students, who take up educational loans to pay hefty fees demanded by the universities, settle for corporate jobs to pay back the loans as senior lawyers seldom reward juniors with a sufficient amount. Noam Chomsky has rightly observed that,
“If you burden students with large amounts of debt, they are unlikely to think about changing the world”
Students who are already crippled by this economic burden will have to further find the money for buying good quality textbooks; and also for accommodation, food and travel expenses during mandatory internships which are mostly unpaid or underpaid.
From the above analysis, it is clear that a myriad of problems plague these "islands of excellence" as the former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has once described NLUs as. The aforementioned state of affairs renders quality legal education a privilege of a homogenous group of urban elites who do not face adverse issues on the socio-economic front. Even the course structure of many of these universities is designed to cater to the needs of the ever-growing corporate law firms. A close look at the student profile in NLUs, especially those in tier 1 and tier 2 colleges reek of severe underrepresentation of persons with disabilities, minority communities, students from North-Eastern states and lower-income families. This capitalist model of education strips these institutions off of the “national” character creating a generation of young lawyers divorced from the ground realities.
The Blame Game
The term “national” attached with the name of these 23 universities and the common perception of them as institutions bearing a “national character” leads to the misconception that these universities are established by/under the Central government. But contrary to the popular belief, each of these institutions is established under a State legislation by the respective State governments. As a result, they are funded by the State governments. But State governments usually grant a generous fund in the initial years and then leave the institutions to fend for themselves. Bereft of a constant flow of incoming funds, universities rely on fees collected from students to run the campus smoothly. The same reason has been cited to refuse the implementation of the recommendation to reduce CLAT application fees to 1,500 rupees by a Committee constituted by MHRD which looked into the conduct of CLAT 2018. The findings of the Committee revealed that NLUs make more than 90% of profits from the application fees received for CLAT.
Universities also fear giving up autonomy in exchange for funding. This is illustrated by the increased domicile reservation introduced by the state governments in various NLUs, except for NLU Jodhpur and NLUD; all other universities have either horizontal domicile reservation or reservation for backward communities in their respective states. The Administration and the student communities have time and again opposed this move arguing that this will dilute the “national” character of these institutions, and making diversity even scarce. In some cases, the state governments, in addition to the introduction or increase of domicile based reservation grant themselves more authority as has happened in the case of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) where the State government amended the NUJS Act to allow them greater interference in fee fixation and student admission. Even the universities that receive adequate funds either as grants from state governments or as fees charged from students fail to deliver expected facilities associated with high fees as is evidenced by the growing number of protests by the student community in various NLUs alleging fee hikes, rampant sexism, poor infrastructure and maladministration. The nitty-gritty of the dismal state of affairs might intimidate potential aspirants or even dissuade them from pursuing law as a career, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
All for One and One for All
A majority of these issues ensues from the lack of a central legislation to regulate the affairs of these NLUs. Realising the need of the hour, then DSNLU Vizag final year student Debadutta Bose had drafted a National Law Universities Bill 2016, which aimed in declaring the NLUs as "Institutes of National Importance", a tag that will bring them par with IITs, NITs and many other universities recognized as such. This will ensure a steady grant of funds from the Central government and will also give way to more accountability and transparency. Nationalisation will also reduce the latent hierarchy amongst the NLUs. The Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha but it floundered there. Nevertheless, it has inspired students to be vocal about the need for nationalisation. Member of Parliament and advocate Meenakshi Lekhi introduced National Law Universities Bill 2019 with similar objectives. The 2016 Bill tries to maintain a federal distribution of powers, whereas the 2019 Bill seeks transfer of administration and management to the Central government. But the Law Ministry has at least twice stated that they do not intend to move forward with this idea and meddle with State governments powers and functions.
The latest budget announced by the Central government comes as a relief to the Indian higher education sector which has been historically neglected. Not surprisingly, the Finance Minister referred only to engineering, medical and management institutions. Thus, it is high time that legal education gets much-delayed recognition as affordability and access to legal education have a direct correlation with bridging the gap between law and justice. Earlier this year, Senior Advocate and DMK Member of Parliament from Tamil Nadu, P Wilson, expressed his concerns regarding the alarming number of vacancies in our judiciary. Most of the High Courts are understaffed. NLUs churn out nearly 2,500 graduates per year and these graduates, if not all, but many, choose high rewarding jobs offered by law firms and ignore litigation and judiciary.
Until a structural reform that includes nationalisation of NLUs and the subsequent reduction in CLAT application fees and academic fees materialise, students who find it difficult to afford legal education in NLUs will have to rely on government-administered scholarships, of fee waivers provided by the universities themselves. Another way is to facilitate the availability and repayment of educational loans without much hassle and procedures. They could also be provided financial aid by private donors. In this arena, IDIA, a voluntary sector organisation has successfully pooled contributions from lawyers, alumni, firms etc. The Confederation of Alumni for National Law Universities (CAN) Foundation has also been helping out financially backward students. It is also imperative to explore the possibility of conducting CLAT in local languages and increasing the number of CLAT centres to promote accessibility. There also exists a need to prevent the coaching centres from capitalising on the needs of deserving aspirants.
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