Recently, the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the National Testing Agency (NTA) offered to take the reins of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the gateway for admission to National Law Universities (NLUs) in India.
Besides proposing to hold the CLAT, the BCI and the NTA have also indicated that they can conduct the exam in regional languages, akin to exams like All India Bar Examination (AIBE), Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).
Presently, the Consortium of National Law Universities conducts CLAT. The BCI has argued that it currently has no supervisory role in the examination and wants to be given a more prominent role in legal education.
This important development unfolds in the context of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a law student who wishes to increase the accessibility of CLAT by conducting it in regional languages specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, in addition to English. The Consortium of NLUs had previously cited difficulties before the High Court in holding CLAT in regional languages.
Even so, the BCI has backed the PIL and argued that doing so would increase access to legal education and ensure that no deserving candidate is turned away due to a lack of English proficiency.
The BCI believes it has mechanisms to conduct admission tests for law courses nationwide because of its experience in administering the AIBE in 23 languages. An identical stand has been taken by the NTA.
As the case awaits hearing before the High Court, it raises significant questions not only about CLAT, but also about the role of BCI in shaping legal education in India. Additionally, it prompts an examination of the NTA’s proficiency in conducting examinations.
In this article, we will delve into various aspects surrounding this proposition. We aim to examine the manner in which CLAT has been conducted so far, the pros and cons of it being offered in regional languages, the role played by the BCI in shaping the country’s legal education landscape and the efficacy with which it has been administering the AIBE.
We will also explore the NTA’s involvement in this context to provide a comprehensive understanding of whether the BCI or NTA should be entrusted with conducting CLAT.
Evaluating the fairness and adequacy of CLAT, AIBE, NEET and JEE
The CLAT, introduced in 2008 upon the directions of the Supreme Court in Varun Bhagat v Union of India, remains dogged by persistent controversies. These include allegations like out-of-syllabus question papers being asked (CLAT 2012), instances of plagiarism in questions (CLAT 2015), irregularities in result declarations (CLAT 2015), flawed seat allotments (Nagar Sankar Rajendra v Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal National Law University of Juridical Sciences and Ors), failure to provide OBC candidates with mandatory reservations, and the non-inclusion of new NLUs (TNNLU and DSNLU).
In light of these mishaps, there have been calls for a uniform, centrally administered entrance exam.
It is essential to keep in mind that the BCI, which is in charge of conducting the AIBE, has also grappled with its share of controversies. Cancellation of results for the 17th edition of the exam for Rajkot Centre, delayed release of the results for the same edition of the exam, postponement of the exam (AIBE XVI), delay in commencement (AIBE IV) and a lack of convenient exam centres (AIBE IV) were all observed in the past. Candidates have also raised concerns regarding the content of the examination. Allegations of widespread sharing of answers in AIBE XVII also prompted questions about the fairness of AIBE. Allegations have also been levelled against the BCI for financial irregularities in the conduct of the AIBE. Despite making attempts to streamline the process, efficiency remains a pressing issue, with candidates repeatedly calling for smoother conduct of the exam.
While the NTA also has expressed interest in taking over the conduct of CLAT, several factors must be considered before such a transition is deemed suitable. Firstly, the NTA itself is a relatively new entity, established in 2017, and may still be evolving in terms of its operational capabilities and experience. Secondly, it is essential to examine the track record of NTA in conducting examinations so far. Over the years, the exams conducted by NTA have also seen their fair share of controversy.
For instance, the NEET has witnessed allegations of question paper leaks (NEET 2021), use of substitutes to write exams (NEET 2020), uncomfortable frisking of candidates leading to litigation (NEET 2022), incorrect results leading to suicide by candidates (NEET 2020), states insisting to opt out of NEET (Tamil Nadu), cheating rackets involding hacking into the systems to solve the paper for a candidate (2022) etc.
Similarly, the JEE exam has faced issues, such as discrepancies in answer keys, allegations of lack of basic facilities like drinking water at test centres and server glitches (JEE 2022) resulting in student protests and court interventions.
These controversies, often resulting in uncertainty and distress among students, highlight the need for a robust and experienced organization to oversee critical entrance exams like CLAT. While the NTA’s intent to take over CLAT should be acknowledged, it is crucial to thoroughly assess its readiness and ability to administer such a complex examination effectively. It is important to ensure fairness, transparency, and the overall integrity of the process.
Considering the above examples, it is difficult to say whether entrusting the responsibility of conducting CLAT to these entities would be prudent. Moreover, both the BCI and the NTA have lesser experience when it comes to conducting an examination. NTA was established six years back, in 2017, the first AIBE was conducted in 2011, and the first CLAT in 2008. Over the years, the organizers of CLAT have gained substantial experience in organizing this exam.
While CLAT has faced its share of challenges, the Consortium has been proactive in addressing irregularities and improving the examination process. Given the Consortium’s longer track record and its ongoing efforts to minimize discrepancies in CLAT, entrusting the BCI or NTA with the responsibility of conducting CLAT may pose a significant risk.
The way forward
Entrance test processes in the United States and the United Kingdom offer valuable insights in this context. In the US, the administration of standardized tests like the LSAT and GRE rests with private entities. Similarly, the LNAT in the UK is not directly managed by Oxford University, but by the LNAT Consortium, consisting of some of the members of participating universities, akin to the Consortium of NLUs.
There is a clear need for a more robust and accountable mechanism to conduct the CLAT in India. The examples of the GRE, LSAT and LNAT highlight the advantages of entrusting standardized tests to independent bodies and consortiums comprising educational institutions rather than solely relying on single entities. An impartial and efficient regulatory framework could enhance the fairness and adequacy of the CLAT examination process.
One potential solution could be the establishment of a statutory body that conducts adequate checks and balances, comprising core members from the legal profession, the judiciary, academia and representatives from all NLUs. The primary role of this body would be to provide the necessary oversight and guidance for legal education and entrance examinations. While the Consortium of NLUs should continue to conduct CLAT for now, this statutory body would serve as an additional layer of supervision, and would address grievances related to the Consortium’s decisions.
The proposed body should function in a democratic manner, respecting the academic and administrative autonomy of the universities. It must ensure that its intervention, if necessary, is balanced and well-considered, with the ultimate goal of maintaining the integrity and quality of legal education and entrance examinations in India.
Entrusting the pivotal responsibility of conducting CLAT solely to the NTA or to the BCI, which have faced their own share of controversies, might not be the optimal approach. A more inclusive and transparent regulatory framework is essential to address the current challenges.
Is a multilingual CLAT a possibility?
Several competitive examinations in India - including NEET, JEE, and AIBE - are conducted in regional languages apart from English and Hindi. The aim behind this endeavour is to provide equal opportunities to candidates from diverse linguistic backgrounds.
In 2020, the Director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Rohtak initiated discussions with the Director of IIM Indore - the coordinator for the Common Admission Test (CAT) at that time - to explore the possibility of conducting CAT in languages mentioned in the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
While it is technically feasible to conduct CLAT in regional languages, there are practical considerations to take into account. The primary medium of instruction and examination at NLUs across India is English. Therefore, if CLAT were to be conducted in regional languages, questions arise about the readiness of candidates to adapt to the English-medium model prevalent at NLUs. It must be noted that changing the medium of instruction at NLUs from English to regional languages presents significant challenges. It is neither practical nor feasible, given the diverse student and teacher population in NLUs and the national character of these institutions.
If a multilingual CLAT were to be implemented, a significant responsibility would fall on the NLUs to provide mandatory English language classes for students who may not be proficient in the language. This would help bridge the language gap and ensure that candidates can effectively engage with the curriculum.
Language of instruction at CLAT NLUs for 5-year integrated UG programmes and LL.M. programmes
The table above shows that none of the establishing Acts of the NLUs specifically direct English to be the only language of instruction. It is stated explicitly in the Academic Regulations of Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University (RMLNLU) Lucknow, Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL) Patiala, Chanakya National Law University (CNLU) Patna, National Law University and Judicial Academy (NLUJA) Assam, Himachal Pradesh National Law University (HPNLU) Shimla, and Dharmashastra National Law University (DNLU) Jabalpur, that English shall be the language of instruction and examination. The regulations of National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS) Kochi call for students to answer the questions in English unless otherwise stated.
The absence of language-specific directives in the establishing Acts can be viewed as a measure to give NLUs a great deal of autonomy in choosing their academic policies, including the medium of instruction, as has been done by NALSAR Hyderabad. The regulations provide a nuanced approach by specifically stating that the medium of instruction and evaluation may, in appropriate cases, be a language other than English.
Figures also show that NLUs are highly homogenous in their choice of instructional medium. Irrespective of their geographic location and the establishing Acts, NLUs prioritise using English for instruction and evaluation. This homogeneity contributes to maintaining a constant academic atmosphere among NLUs.
The proposals of the NTA and the BCI to conduct the CLAT in multiple regional languages represents a significant development in the realm of legal education in India. Although this move promises greater inclusivity, it also raises fundamental concerns about the effectiveness of CLAT, the relevance of regional languages and the BCI’s suitability as the governing body for the same.
The continuing challenges seen in CLAT and the exams conducted by the the NTA and the BCI highlight the requirement for a strong, independent regulatory agency that can ensure fairness and transparency in entrance exams.
While the prospect of a multilingual CLAT is theoretically feasible, practical considerations related to the predominance of English as the medium of instruction at NLUs pose a challenge. Ensuring candidates’ readiness to engage with an English-medium curriculum in NLUs is essential if such a shift were to occur.
Ayush Jaiswal is an Assistant Professor in Law at National Law Institute University, Bhopal.
Vishwas Jaiswal is a LL.M. Scholar at National Law Institute University, Bhopal.