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The Irony of Law School
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The Irony of Law School

Bar & Bench

Aditya Swarup does a comparative analysis of the top Indian law schools in terms of the tuition fees they charge for an academic year, in order to impart the best legal education and in terms of a student’s socio economic background.

If law schools are brought into existence to serve a social purpose and create ‘socially conscious’ individuals as they claim to do so, then the prevailing structure of law schools in India is flawed. In this article, I would like to further elucidate this argument in a detailed, factual analysis. While the idea has always been on my mind, I mustered up the courage to write this piece after reading David Segal’s article in the New York Times.

Reading law school recruitment statistics is like finding Neverland. You never really know the truth, till you’ve read it. Each institution considers it its claim to fame to have ‘X’ number of people joining law firms with a salaries ranging from Rs. 8,00,000 to 25,00,000 (Rs. 8-25 lakhs) p.a. There are few who join foreign universities to pursue higher studies. The remainder of the students, those joining the bar or pursuing social careers (NGOs etc.) form part of a group characterized by the irony they represent. On one hand law schools propagate their commitment to society and Convocation dignitaries urge students to join the bar and stress on the ‘social commitment’ of lawyers, while on the other hand these students don’t form a part of the law schools achievements or even get their picture in the prospectus for the courageous step they’ve taken.

At the same time, one probably needs to take a closer look at the demographics of the students entering National Law Universities the kinds of students and the various economic classes of the society to which they belong. While I shall argue it further, I assert that national law schools are generally catering to the needs of the upper middle class society thus alienating themselves from a vast majority of the Indian population that wish to receive quality Indian education.

Central to answering both these arguments is the existing fee structure of national law schools. Below is table of the ten best legal institutions in the country according to India Today and their fee structure:

Res Ipsa Loquitor ?

And might I add that this fee structure has not been stagnant over the years but has witnessed a steady increase. When I joined NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad in 2005, a final year student used to pay a fee of about Rs. 35,000 per annum. I, on the other hand used to pay about Rs.70,000 per year. In five years time, I had never imagined that the fees would jump more than twofold for students joining National Law Universities. Including the cost of living and the money spent to pursue internships, we are talking about nearly Rs. 2,20,000 a year.

The economic impacts of such fees on the present Indian society are huge. We can altogether leave out the lower classes of society earning about a maximum of Rs. 3,00,000 (Rs. 3 lakh) a year in having access to such institutions. There is hardly any concession for backward classes in terms of fees with it being a meager Rs. 3,000-Rs. 4,000 less than that of a normal student. Thus, inevitably, 60% of the Indian population is excluded.

As regards the middle class, i.e. families earning about a maximum of Rs. 9,00,000 (Rs. 9 lakh) a year, another peculiar problem surfaces. Unless they have previous investments to cater for this need, such families would have to take loans which over a five year period would amount to about Rs. 11,00,000 (Rs. 11 lakh). For a family earning about Rs. 50,000 a month after tax deductions and already perhaps having housing loans, vehicle loans and the like, this is a huge financial strain. It then seems that it is only the upper middle class and upper class sections of the society that have comfortable access to a good legal education.

One can argue that this is perhaps the price that one has to pay for a good legal education, but surely this argument cannot stand as in the case of the various IITs where the fee is only about Rs. 20,000 per semester. About a decade ago, the Supreme Court stated that education in this country still ought to serve a socialist purpose and not be regarded as a profit making industry. The present structure of National Law Universities defy both these ideas. On one hand one rants about foreign education or private universities in India charging about Rs. 6,00,000 a year and on the other hand one fails to notice that Government institutions themselves are defying constitutional ideals and depriving a vast majority of the Indian population to quality legal education.

A student from a disadvantaged section of the society then surely doesn’t stand a chance in this system. Nevertheless, to ‘show’ that we are a socially advancing nation, we reserve a few places for them and talk of their inclusion. And ofcourse the inclusion of the socially backward is not economic based, but socially based. All that we heard about the creamy layer is a farce. For all purposes, the heir to a multi-crore industry can still have a place reserved for him if he qualifies under the SC/ST tag. With such a student having to pay only about Rs. 3000 less than a general student (being about Rs. 1,70,000), one can forget social advancement. All the ranting about providing for free and wholesome education to uplift the masses is actually eyewash.

In another dimension, the impact of the fee structures on the recruitments is quite monumental. One would always like lawyers from National Law Universities to participate in social causes, enter the Bar or explore other options with their career. Needless to say, a law degree, unlike a science or engineering degree, opens up a plethora of career options for individuals. However, the fact that one’s family has spent about Rs. 11 lakh already in his or her education in a way forces the student to look towards job opportunities that pay good money at the entry level. If there is a loan for the education, the burden is even higher. And with such a financial strain, it is quite impossible for one to continue living on their family’s income for a further couple of years if they wish to join an NGO or the Bar. Such avenues then, are still left open for students graduating from Government legal institutions.

Around the world, quality education manifests itself in two main ways. One is the American way, charging huge amount of fees from the students who are left paying up the education loans for the next ten years of their career. Another, a rather socialist model, where the fees is low, (or even free) so as to enable access to quality education to all sections of the society and the Government financing such institutions. The latter model is prevalent in Europe and till a few years ago, was thought to prevail in India. In a society which still has 30% of the population living below the poverty line, it is the latter model that must continue to be implemented.

Short terms solutions to the problem are initiatives that reach out to the poor sections of the society and pay for their training and education. One of which I can think of is Prof. Shamnad Basheer’s Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA) project. On the other hand, if the Government subsidises the education, things will be a lot simpler. It’s been a while since I’ve been hearing Law Minister Veerappa Moily making promises to grant Rs. 100 crore to National Law Universities in the country and I’m just waiting to see his promise being implemented.

At the end of the day let’s not fool the world, but call a spade a spade. While National Law Universities claim to be creating a social revolution, none can and are being created. It leaves a bitter, but real taste in ones mouth. The irony of a law school.

Aditya Swarup is currently pursuing his Bachelors in Civil Law at the University of Oxford.

PS:

“This article is not meant to be a criticism about the career options of students graduating from national law schools. Neither am I stating that one career option is better than the other. What I am suggesting however is that the current fee structure removes that essential element of choice from a law student in deciding his career option. Each student should always be to choose his future and everyone must respect that.

On a broader perspective, the thrust of this article is not about law students and their careers, recruitments etc.. It is more to do with law school structures and policies. Students are not in the firing line. It is that the current fee structures make law schools alienate themselves from a large section of the Indian society which is not desirable in an Indian social setup.”