A question of equitable access to legal education

As legal education becomes increasingly expensive, government intervention to support NLUs, increase scholarship grants and roll back fees is the need of the hour.

Published : Sep 24, 2020 20:07 IST

National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru.

National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru.

The recent decision of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) to conduct an online, home-based, remote-proctored test − the NLAT, its own entrance test − has brought the question of equitable access to legal education to the forefront. The NLSIU justified its decision saying that it broke ranks with other institutions specialising in legal education to avoid delay. On September 21, the Supreme Court cancelled the NLAT, but by then thousands of candidates had already braved an epidemic to take the test, all for nothing. The court directed the NLSIU to conduct admission on the basis of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) to be held on September 28.

During the three weeks of this controversy, much of the debate centred on the exclusionary nature of such a testing model, with commentators observing that high-end technological access and proficiency was being made a prerequisite for admissions in the most coveted law college of the country. This article argues that exclusion in legal education is far more deep-set and systemic than just the entrance barrier, taking NLSIU Bangalore, the oldest, and supposedly a “model” institution for NLUs, as a case in point.

In a society as stratified as India’s, meaningful and affordable education is the gateway to social mobility and economic equity. Hence, everyone, irrespective of his/her socio-economic background, should be able to avail herself/himself of affordable education on equitable terms. Obviously, it is incumbent on the state to ensure equality of opportunity. It is an undeniable reality that high quality and meaningful education is not guaranteed as a public good in India. This leads to a situation where one’s position on the socio-economic ladder of privilege and the accident of birth predicates his/her educational and professional attainments.

At what cost?

While public outrage may have tilted the scale in the entrance test controversy, far more exclusionary steps that failed to catch the public eye were taken by NLSIU in the recent past. The university rolled back its scholarship policy recently. The administration turned a voluntary repayment clause on its head to treat the entire model as a loan instrument. The university declared the majority of these loans as “bad debts”, citing poor re-payments, without making sincere efforts to recover them and conveniently ignoring the fact that most beneficiaries are yet to enter the job market. This step, taken unabashedly in the middle of a recession, reflected base apathy towards prospective aspirants. In post-truth fashion, the university now seems to have redefined the word “scholarship” itself, while still using the term in its entrance notification. What it actually stands for now is just covering interest payments on externally provided student loans. To replace a benign scholarship policy with onerous bank loans does not merely erect a formidable barrier on aspirants but also risks increasing dropout rates.

The attitude towards current students has been no different. The same fee notification announcing the scholarship policy withdrawal applied to current beneficiaries and advised them to approach banks for loan. The administration also refused to refund any other service fees except nominal mess charges to current students, even after a six-month break in on-campus classes. One convenient “relief” offered in the fee notification was an “option” to take a “gap year”, betraying the university’s real attitude towards its financially weaker students.

Barriers to entry

Historically, legal education in India has remained unfeasible for aspiring youth hailing from the lower strata of society. The country’s legal community, including the judiciary, has for long been marked by nepotism and a lack of diversity. A diverse and well-organised legal profession is essential for the administration of justice, and the quality of a profession always depends on the quality of its members and that of the training imparted to them. Thus, by making law a viable career option, NLUs have played a vital role in allowing first-generation lawyers to come up in recent times. Surveys indicate a healthy rise in students from tier-2 and tier-3 towns, lower-income groups and marginalised backgrounds making it to the universities. Nevertheless, the recent protests raise serious questions about the ability of the current regime of National Law Schools in achieving their fundamental objective.

Most NLUs are characterised by poor infrastructure, lack of qualified faculty, administrative irregularities and exorbitant fees. As government support decreases, the universities are shifting the burden to students. This has disproportionately affected those funding their education through scholarships and student loans, jeopardising their future and also that of new aspirants. This year, the Karnataka government reduced NLSIU funding to a mere Rs.50 lakh. To place this in context, each student pays about Rs.2.7 lakh as annual fees. Nationwide, legal education now costs Rs.13-18 lakh in all, against about Rs.5 lakh that students pay in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs.)

Socio-economic diversity and inclusion are critical to the creation of a holistic environment for legal education. This in turn ensures equitable access to justice and representation in law and policy formulation. Unfortunately, the current student composition in most NLUs leaves much to be desired: it lacks diversity and mainly comprises students educated in English-medium schools from upper or middle-class families. The numbers from rural areas, small towns or non-English medium schools are deplorably low. The composition clearly suffers from under-representation of the economically and socially backward classes, minority religious groups, minority ethnicities and physically challenged students.

The entrance examination to NLUs is a cost barrier in itself. The examination fee for CLAT is Rs.4,500, while for AILET (NLU Delhi) it is Rs.3,500, compared to some Rs.650 for IIT Mains. There is no concession for BPL (below poverty line) candidates. This fee far exceeds administrative costs, and the supposedly “open” examination is actually utilised as a source of revenue with the CLAT Consortium dividing shares of the “profit” among NLUs.

Increased course fees are directly correlated to a fall in the number of students from poor socio-economic backgrounds opting for such career choices. This affects diversity on the campuses, with fewer and fewer students enrolling from rural and tribal areas. The higher financial burden makes it cost-prohibitive for them to travel to and reside and study in these universities. Women are particularly affected, with parents reluctant to make large investments in their education. This exclusion is then reflected in the judiciary and legal fraternity.

The high costs are also burdensome for most middle-class families who earn enough to be ineligible for government assistance but still feel the pinch. Students are burdened with the guilt of draining family savings and are under increased pressure to start earning as soon as possible.

Law School Culture

Then there is the manner in which extracurriculars, internships and placements happen in law schools, reinforcing class divisions. Aditya Krishna, a third-year scholarship student of NLSIU Bengaluru, described it thus:

“Placements are contingent on the kind of internships, ADR [alternative dispute resolution] and moot court competitions one does. Internships are also mandated by colleges. Legal interns are usually paid no stipends and have to bear their own living and travel expenses. This is disadvantageous for non-affluent students hailing from tier 2-3 cities, who have to travel and stay in Delhi or State capitals, where the major courts are located. There is no financial support for participation in competitions for such students too. All this hampers their career prospects.”

Internships at the chambers of judges and senior advocates can usually only be secured through personal contacts. Law students hailing from multi-generational legal families are thus found to have better internship and experience records. Stipends, even token ones, are an exception rather than a rule in internships, with employers relying on the saying that “learning itself is the payment”, unmindful of even the bare subsistence costs of living and commuting in metro cities. This is a reflection of the nepotism that pervades the country’s Bar and bench. While law firms conduct a more open CV-based process for accepting interns and graduates, they place undue value on performance in prestigious student competitions, accessible only to privileged law students.

The NLSIU also recently withdrew its financial assistance policy for all kinds of student competitions. The university will thus no longer cover even a fraction of the travel and registration costs of teams representing the university, which can amount up to a lakh in case of international competitions. The move places a number of prestigious moot court and ADR tournaments out of the reach of the majority of the students, whose performance in these competitions had once helped the university cement its position in the first place. The fallout has been immediate, with an approximate 60 per cent drop in participation observed this year in intra-university moot court qualifiers and a deleterious effect on the college’s moot culture. Participation rights in these international competitions, which were earlier determined after gruelling intra-university qualifiers, can now only be claimed by the privileged few who can comfortably bear the costs. In the long term, such policy shifts may cause more exclusionary effects in student demographics, as future aspirants may opt for universities that are more supportive to students pursuing individual advancement in such prestigious competitions.

Student Loans

With limited funding, NLUs are mostly dependent on private donations to support non-affluent students, which are insufficient to educate more than a lucky few.

The IDIA (Increasing Diversity Increasing Access) trust trains underprivileged students to crack CLATs. Fund crunch is the main barrier, as few NLUs offer any fee waiver to IDIA scholars (NLSIU withdrew its waiver from this year). The trust depends on private donors to sponsor these scholars, which severely restricts the number they can sponsor—just nine scholars out of the 2,000 or so seats available over the last two years.

Student loans are not an easy option either. They are characterised by high rates of interest (12 to 15 per cent), lack of availability (especially in rural areas), and stringent terms. It is easier to secure a corporate or car loan instead. Families often lack the collateral and the sound credit scores needed for banks to be willing to advance loans. This option is also not open to people from all backgrounds. Recent Human Resource Ministry data show that general category students secure 67 per cent of education loans.

Sudden jumps in fees also increase uncertainty for students who depend on scholarships and loans. They will now be forced to borrow the excess funds or risk their education, affecting their families adversely. Charity, scholarships and loans remain token measures; the sheer scale of inequity and exclusion in a vastly underserved educational context demands institutional programmes to meet the challenge.

Career choices

NLUs have had to bear more than their fair share of criticism from members of the Bar and the bench, many of whom also serve as members of the governing bodies of these institutions. They lament that a large number of graduates do not enter litigation and sign up for corporate jobs instead.

To what extent did the NLU model actually succeed and what factors were responsible for its failure are pertinent questions. Former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi raised the issue when he addressed the annual convocation at NLU, Delhi, in August 2019. He spoke of how the purpose of law schools was to produce lawyers who would serve the country as leaders of the Bar, adjudicators on the bench, and educators. He underlined the importance of lawyers in moulding the law. He called for introspection to understand why a law graduate’s natural choice was not litigation and how the five-year law school model had not brought about the expected transformation.

Higher education costs also impact career choices of graduates. Greater debt and drained savings put pressure on students to start earning immediately, affect their choice of specialisation, forcing them to forego their actual interests and let go of further opportunities. They have to settle for lower-paying, lower-skill jobs just so they can start paying their bills right away. A number of these young graduates have to sign up for corporate jobs because of this lack of real choice, as the latest statistics show (see table).

This is not to look down on those opting for corporate jobs, but to question whether they had an actual choice of opting for something else. Students bearing mounting financial burdens are deprived of real choice and are forced to opt for what the market incentivises rather than what society requires or what they themselves dreamt of.

For instance, taking up litigation and joining an advocate’s chambers is thought to provide more hands-on experience and skills than a firm job can. Indeed, many luminaries of the Bar frequently reminisce about working under legendary advocates without pay in their starting years. They were the lucky few who had the wealth to take care of their subsistence during this training period in their early years. Yet, these limited positions are characterised by poor pay (Rs.20-30,000 a month) and are thus beyond the reach of the average graduate under pressure to pay off his/her student debt. There are even fewer takers for policy think tanks, the judiciary and the civil services because of similar reasons.

The way ahead

It is important in this context to emphasise the aim of establishing the National Law Schools. As the NLSIU Act of 1986 stated, the aim was to “to develop in the student and research scholar a sense of responsibility to serve society” so that he or she would actively participate in social engineering, transformative research and policymaking, and to promote permeation of law and justice in society. Rising costs have had an adverse impact on the class composition of the student populace and even its career choices, imposing an immeasurable cost on society itself.

If the rising cost of legal education goes unchecked, it will have dangerous implications for the future. The fallout would be these institutions becoming ivory towers with students from poorer backgrounds being forced into debt traps or dropping out. This issue should figure in the priorities of anyone who professes support for education and justice.

Government intervention to support NLUs, increase scholarship grants and roll back fees is the need of the hour. Instead of only finding fault with NLUs and their beleaguered students, eminent members of the Bar and the bench should also recognise their responsibility to provide real support to such initiatives. They wield great lobbying power and resources to effectuate real change.

Prannv Dhawan and Devansh Kaushik are students at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Dhawan leads the National Constitution Society at the university, while Kaushik is Deputy Team Leader (Karnataka Chapter) of the Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) organisation.

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