With a vast residential campus, an emphasis on academic rigour and selection of students through the highly competition Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), National Law School, which is sometimes wishfully referred to as the ‘Harvard of the East’, is without doubt elite and exclusive. The students who gained admission through the ‘general’ category at NLS are typically extremely meritorious in the CLAT every year, with ranks ranging from 1-60 out of around 30,000 test-takers (this number increases every year).
A team of students, currently studying at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, carried out a diversity census to assess demographics of the student body and found that the composition of its students is also elitist and exclusionary. The exercise involved 16 volunteers going to each and every student to get their data recorded. With 97.9% students covered, the data collected threw up interesting and disorienting results.
While the students are somewhat evenly divided across sexes, the income, caste and religion statistics are telling of what constitutes ‘merit’ in this country. While 15% of the students reported their family’s annual income to be above Rs 36 lakh per annum, more than 50% reported an annual income of more than Rs. 12 lakh per annum. Eighty two percent were Hindus and the next largest religious group was the wealthy Jain community (5%), which constitute less than 0.5% of India’s population. On the other hand, Muslims, who constitute 14% of India’s population, make up only 0.5% of that of NLS. The NLS also has predominantly upper-caste students at 65% with about 27% identifying as Brahmins.
To assess whether the NLS was a sui generis case or reflective of larger inaccessibility and exclusivity in NLUs and other five-year law colleges, we carried out a survey across 14 such colleges and found worrying trends. While the income distribution is much more equitable and the upper-middle class dominates in a majority of the law colleges, but when looked at NLUs - which are ranked similar to NLS, ie, NALSAR, WBNUJS and NLU Delhi - the student population there too is as elitist as at the NLS. And it is the Jindal Global Law School that has students belonging to the most elite backgrounds - 75% come from families with annual income greater than Rs. 12 lakh per annum compared to 50% at top NLUs. This is hardly surprising given that Jindal charges an exorbitant fee of nearly Rs. 6 lakh and being a private institute, it has no compulsions of implementing reservations and rendering the much required social justice.
The NLS and most of the other NLUs charge upwards of Rs 1.5 lakh per annum as fees. The cost of a CLAT application form was Rs. 4,000 in 2015. By way of comparison, the cost of an IIT-JEE application form last year was Rs. 500 for boys and Rs. 250 for girls. The CLAT exam itself is administered only in English - with English skills further forming a major component of the exam. No wonder that 97% of the students who get into NLS come from English medium schools and only 10-12% of students across the country reportedly study in English medium schools. The very nature of the examination clearly excludes an overwhelming share of the talent pool.
Increase in diversity
Fortunately, the trend in demographics is slowly changing and the NLS is becoming more diverse every year. The data shows that while almost 50% of the senior-most batch currently at NLS come from Tier-1 cities and barely 10% are from small towns and villages, amongst the junior-most batch nearly one-fourth comes from towns that are not Tier 1 or 2. Moreover, there are fewer students from metros such as Delhi and Mumbai, and more from cities such as Jaipur, Lucknow and Bhopal.
Perhaps, this could be a testimony to the growing popularity of the legal profession, efforts of organisations
like Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) and the fact that the CLAT - common entrance examination to all NLUs - is now administered in around 40 towns and cities.
Need for inclusiveness
However, while NLS seems to be fostering more diversity every year, there arises a greater need for examining its inclusiveness.
While the CLAT has ensured that students from all parts of India can attempt to gain admission into the coveted NLUs, the prohibitively expensive forms, the pattern of the paper and the sky-high fee structure at NLS ensures that the top university remains out of the reach of many. There is still a long way to go for NLS to become a truly ‘national’ institution.
Worryingly, the survey shows that there is also a relationship between family income and the students’ performance at NLS, with those from higher-income families averaging higher grades. Students with English skills below 8/10 have a very poor representation in the extra-curricular activities. It also shows that there are only six first-time college goers at NLS. Nearly 63% of students are those whose great-grandparents also attended college meaning they come from families which would have been a part of the minute Indian elite during the colonial era. The debate about merit versus reservations falls flat when we see that as far as in context of NLS at least, merit largely overlaps with ‘privilege’.
Hopefully, upon a close examination of the systemic factors that determine performance in the law schools, there will be a time when the NLUs will pave the way for equitable higher education.
The authors are currently engaged in a detailed analysis of the data collected and are conducting interviews, surveys and group discussions in order to prepare a comprehensive report which shall look at intricate patterns between socio-economic background and performance at NLS and hopefully would make legitimate and strong recommendations to make NLS and other NLUs more inclusive and accessible.
(The authors are students at NLS. Views expressed are personal.)