With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the closure of colleges in India, the traditional modes of education took a hit overnight with lectures switching to online mode. The social and economic disparity across the country posed challenges to students from lesser privileged backgrounds who have limited access to infrastructure.
The insistence of law universities on payment of fees for services that were unable to be rendered during the pandemic posed another issue to law students, many of whom protested against the same.
So how big of a hit has legal education taken during the pandemic? And how have law students adapted to the new normal?
Advantages and disadvantages of online classes
The transition to online modes of learning has been both beneficial and burdensome on students. When classes were held physically, significant time was spent on travelling and other activities; that has been eliminated with the introduction of virtual classes. The additional time at the disposal of students has allowed them to explore new avenues to earn an extra buck or to develop new skills to enable them to stand out from the crowd.
While extra-curricular activities in the form of moot courts, negotiation and client counselling competitions etc have been a significant part of the law school experience, the pandemic has been a catalyst for students to explore the virtual versions of these competitions.
The future of legal education lies in skill-set training
Manav Gecil Thomas, Name Partner at Thomas George Associates, spoke about how firms like his proactively ensured to widen their bandwidth of interns and also conducted online moot court competitions for students across law colleges. He said,
“Ever since lockdown in March, we decided to provide online internships to students. We began with 7 students per month, which increased to 15 students per month, and till date over 150 students have interned with us. Our applications are full till December 2022.”
Speaking about the internship provided at the firm, he said,
“I personally make sure I have a video call with all our interns every evening where we discuss the work they've done throughout the day. I also correct their drafts in front of them during these calls so that each of them learns from each other's mistakes and are better equipped to refine their skills. There are trainings conducted for the interns to understand the practicality of filings, court decorum and the legal language to be used.”
What sets these internships apart from most is that students get a chance to work on real-time cases and draft notices, plaints, petitions, written statements, etc.
On the online moot court competition that the firm conducts, Manav said,
“I really believe that moot courts are a great way to improve research and oratory skills for law students and that's how the first edition of the moot court was held in May last year which saw participation from 28 teams across law schools. The second edition was held in May this year with over 90 participants registering. Senior lawyers from the Supreme Court judged the competition. We also had [former Supreme Court judge Justice Kurian Joseph] grace the inaugural session. ”
On the aspect of online legal education, he mentioned,
“I believe students don’t learn through the online mode of classes, unless they are very interested. Since they are not mandated to switch on their camera, most students log in for class and do something else.”
Paying a price? The fees conundrum
A significant issue that students have faced is the charging of fees despite the online transition. Most law school fee structures continued to remain the same even with lectures being shifted online and despite most facilities going unutilized. There has been no proportionate reduction in the fees charged from students. Students from some law schools like Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL) Patiala and Galgotias University even filed petitions in this regard.
With several students making representations and requests for reduction in the fees, aof India urging centres of legal education to frame flexible schemes for fee payments to ease the financial burden on students and their families during the pandemic. The BCI urged institutes to factor in the savings in maintenance and electricity charges owing to the non-functioning of physical classes and urged that the reduction in these charges be proportionately adjusted against the fees charged.
Bar & Bench spoke to some students who have been relentlessly pursuing the issue of law school fees being collected in their respective institutions in the wake of the pandemic.
A student of School of Law, University of Petroleum and Environment Studies (UPES) said,
“We were provided with a fee invoice of ₹1,77,000/- which was ₹17,000 more of what was assured to us by the college authorities at the time of admission this semester. The college has been shut for more than one year and the offline infrastructure has not been used for over a year, and the college has asked us for both tuition fees and other academic services fees.
On August 6, 2021, when the Student Facilitation Centre forwarded our grievances to all the authorities, there was no response. We were only given a provisional email which clarified that ‘Other academic services” fee includes all infrastructural use. The college is asking the entire amount of us without deducting COVID subsidy or the non-use of offline infrastructure and that is when we put forth the issue to media outlets, UGC, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE)."
The student reveals that the University Grants Commission (UGC) took cognizance of the issue and forwarded it to the Vice-Chancellor of UPES. However, there has been no response from the authorities yet.
"Secondly, no student has been provided with a proper response as to why the full fee is being charged. Thirdly, when everything is running online, why is there an increase in fees demanded? The college is spending more on online examination platforms when there is already one functioning well. An additional fee of ₹5,000 was levied on us,” the student added.
The student went on to mention that the same services were being charged under two separate heads by the University.
“The Registrar also clarified in her email that the academic service fee also includes the maintenance of SAP portals. But the invoice shows that maintenance of these portals is happening with the fee received under Technology support as well as Academic Services fee. To add to this, there is an additional Personal Development Program for which we are being charged ₹10,000. On demanding the expenditure particulars from the authorities, there was no response whatsoever."
A student of United World School of Law, Karnavati University spoke to Bar & Bench and brought to light that in addition to the University charging full fee during the pandemic, an arbitrary rule has been floated for payment of ₹100 as fine per day for delay. On non-payment of such a fine, there is a threat that the final year students will not be given their documents from the college.
Another student from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL) spoke to Bar and Bench on the matter of fees charged by the University. The student said,
"The University did not extend any COVID-19 relaxations and continued to charge the entire fees including hostel charges, WiFi, and other physical infrastructure which we have not utilized ever since the lockdown. Only mess charges have been exempted."
A petition was also filed before the Punjab & Haryana High Court (Aditya Kashyap & Ors v. State of Punjab & Anr) in this regard. In addition to charging the entire fees, the University also imposed a late fee of ₹1,000/- per day for every day there is a delay in remitting the semester fee.
18 months have elapsed, the academic session has changed, two semesters have passed and the next semester of the new academic session has begun. In all this time, the High Court has not passed any order in this matter, even as 900+ students are being forced to not only pay fees for unutilized facilities, but also late fees. The plight of the students continues for a third semester in a row.
The students had moved the High Court seeking early hearing of the matter. However, the High Court declined to grant an early date and is scheduled to hear the matter next on October 14, 2021.
The finance committee of the University in March 2021 decided to give a waiver of ₹58,000 to the LL.M. batch, but failed to give any relief whatsoever to the undergraduate batches. The said waiver to the LL.M. batch was later rolled back in July and reduced to around ₹14,000 despite status quo being maintained regarding non-utilization of facilities.
Attempts at mutual settlement of disputes with students agreeing to pay fees under certain expenditure heads have not borne fruit.
The student reveals that the University also coerced students to pay full fees by demanding an undertaking to that effect within a month before sitting for exams. Though the University didn’t debar any student from sitting for the exam, it withheld the results of all the students who have not paid the full fee. It has also withheld the provisional degree of final year students who have not paid the disputed amount, the subject matter of which is sub-judice in the High Court.
The University is also imposing a heavy late fee amounting to the tune of ₹10,000 without giving heed to the representation sent by the student community for proportional fee relief due to complete closure of the campus and non-utilization of facilities.
Lack of access to infrastructure
Apart from these glaring concerns on payment of fees, several other issues have also cropped up with the virtual conduct of classes.
A conducted by IDIA indicated that students from marginalized backgrounds are facing a host of concerns including lack of access to infrastructure, decreased access to reading material for persons with disabilities, financial constraints, mental and physical health issues, and lack of conducive home environments. These are continued struggles for students in semi-urban and rural areas. The report also put forth suggestions that could be adopted by law schools to ease the situation for students amidst the lockdown.
What the courts have said on the digital divide
As mentioned earlier, the digital divide that has occurred as a result of the move to online classes has prompted students across disciplines to approach the courts for relief.
The Madras High Court last year heard a batch of pleas on infrastructural and access concerns ensuing the pandemic. It passed detailed directions to address issues of access to online education, privacy during online classes and to ensure that government guidelines issued on online education are strictly complied with.
On similar lines, the Delhi High Court had directed private unaided schools and government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas to supply gadgets and internet packages to students from economically weaker sections.
The State of Karnataka took certain initiatives to ease the digital divide for school-going students by providing worksheets along with classes being conducted via Doordarshan. A Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court in July this year, while appreciating these initiatives of the State, also mentioned that these measures would not suffice and that more needs to be done.
The Court in its Order stated,
“Economic backwardness or poverty should not become a reason for the lack of continuity in education. There is an urgent need for the State to address this issue irrespective of the decision of reopening of schools. We direct the State to place on record an action plan with regard to bridging the technological divide and make available technology to those who are unable to afford it.”
Most recently, the Kerala High Court in Archana Ajeesh v. The Principal Secretary directed the State government to examine the feasibility of setting up a website where students from economically weaker sections can register themselves to get access to digital gadgets. The Court suggested that the government could take the assistance of the Kerala State IT Mission for setting up a website where individuals, companies, NRIs, or NGOs could voluntarily contribute for the purchase of devices for students
The impact of COVID-19 has been significant and far-reaching for students of law and other fields across the country. While efforts are being made by the government and institutions to devise solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic, students with limited access to infrastructure continue to bear the brunt. Law students who entered college at the onset of the pandemic have yet experience law school physically. Others in their latter years of law school are adapting to the online version of activities, with some taking it as an opportunity to explore newer avenues.