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Law School Insights – The cost of a legal education

Law School Insights – The cost of a legal education

Aditya AK

In 2013, we ran a column on the costs associated with a legal education at one of the country’s National Law Universities. At an average annual cost of 1.6 lakh (excluding personal expenses), the five-year course would have meant spending around ten lakhs in total. This was, and is, no small sum especially if you add the 11% interest rate that most educational loans attract. Two years later, the situation only seems to have become worse.

The increasing popularity of the five-year course has meant the establishment of more National Law Universities, as well as private institutions. Perhaps the only thing in common for each of these institutions, apart from the “integrated degree” they offer, is their fee structure. At an average of nine and a half lakhs, a five-year legal education remains an expensive affair.

It isn’t the high costs of legal education alone that is a cause for concern; the sheer number of newer institutes that are being set up is equally worrisome. More often than not, these newer institutes lack the required infrastructure, be it physical or otherwise. The youngest NLU at Mumbai is a prime example of this.

And as anyone with even a cursory understanding of legal education will tell you, there is, amongst other shortcomings, a severe shortage of trained faculty, and an institutional lack of accountability. If legal education in the country is to truly move ahead, these are issues which need to be resolved on an urgent basis.

Nonetheless, the law degree continues to grow in popularity. In many ways, this trend can be compared to the growth of engineering colleges in the latter half of the last century. In fact, one of the terms that is often bandied about is that these new law universities are the “IITs of law”. For the purposes of this piece, it is presumed that being compared to an “IIT” is actually a positive comparison.

But does that really hold any truth?

Another question to be asked is whether a three-year LLB course, which costs substantially less than the five-year version, would actually be a far more sensible option.

National Law Universities

The average first year fees at NLUs that come under CLAT 2015 hover at around Rs. 1,90,000 for the first year. While the fees at most NLUs remains unchanged from last year, five universities have hiked their fees – GNLU Gandhinagar, RGNUL Patiala, CNLU Patna, NUALS Kochi, and NLUO Cuttack. The highest increase is seen at NUALS, with a hike of 14, 750, perhaps indicative of the costs associated with a new campus. The young NUSRL at Ranchi still remains the highest, at Rs. 2,42,000 for first year students.

RMLNLU Lucknow, this year’s organizing university for CLAT, is the only NLU to actually decrease its fees over the last year from Rs. 1,05,500 to Rs. 99,500.

(The figures below may not include mess and other allied fees)

The IITs

In comparison, studying at one of India’s premier engineering institutions costs an average of around Rs. 1,43,000 for the first year, So, at the end of the four-year course, a student would have paid Rs. 5.75 lakhs plus personal expenses.

So is this substantial difference in fees justified?

While it would be an oversight to presume that NLUs and IITs are funded in the exact same way, but even then, one might ask why law students have to pay more than prospective engineers for a quality education.

Touted as the pride and joy of higher education in India, IITs tend to get funded heavily by the central government, perhaps at the price of autonomy. For the 12th Five-year Plan (2012-17), the government had allocated nearly 12,500 crore for the IITs. National law schools, on the other hand, are funded by state governments who tend to be less benevolent.

Justifying the sky-high fees

So how do the heads of the top legal institutions explain why students have to shell out so much for an education in law? According to Dr. BC Nirmal, Vice-Chancellor of NUSRL Ranchi, the university has received a one-time grant of only 50 crore from the Jharkhand state government. This, he says, leaves the university with little choice but to manage its expenses by charging high fees.

However, support from the state government varies in different states. NLIU Bhopal for instance, received a grant of Rs. 12 crore in 2012, according to Vice Chancellor Prof SS Singh. Despite this fact, NLIU Bhopal has one of the highest fee structures among the NLUs, charging nearly Rs. 2,20,000 for the first year.

There are others like Dr. Ranbir Singh, Vice-Chancellor at NLU Delhi, who argue that the facilities provided at NLUs are comparable to those at the world’s best institutions.

A common argument made to justify the high fees is that students get placed in high paying jobs at the end of five years. However, this would apply only to the corporate side of things, leaving young litigating lawyers in the lurch. NLU graduates often draw flak for opting to take up cushy corporate jobs as opposed to joining the Bar. But the critics fail to see that the meagre salaries litigation offers cannot possibly make up the deficit accumulated as result of an expensive legal education.

In an earlier interview with Bar & Bench, Assistant Professor at JNU Ajay Gudavarthy spoke about the exorbitant fees charged by NLUs. He said,

“Education has to be funded by the State and not personally funded that too at such a high cost…And even if they want to raise funds from within, it has to be in proportion to who can afford, how much they can afford, what kind of students you require etc.”

Which brings one to the three-year degree. Although it has declined somewhat in popularity over the last two decades, is it time that this post-graduate study of law be brought back into the mainstream?

The 3-year course: An equivalent alternative?

A prospective law student who may not be able to afford the fees charged by NLUs, may choose to opt for the three-year course. And if one were to focus on just the economics involved, it is easy to see why this three-year course is such an attractive option.

Most universities, with the exception of JGLS and ILS (see table) charge below Rs. 20,000 for the entire LLB course.

While some of these universities may lack the infrastructure and other facilities that NLUs have, they are fairly well-established and boast of some stellar faculty. Some of the biggest names in legal education, like Professor Ved Kumari for instance, believe in the three-year model. And they have their own reasons for this. Dr. Kumari, for insance, believes that students straight out of school aren’t prepared to study law.

Dr. Kumari’s viewpoint finds a certain measure of similarity to that expressed by Dr. Umakanth Varottil, Assistant Professor at NUS. Dr. Varottil believes that the value of the three-year course cannot be undermined.

“Those who take the 3-year law course have a distinct advantage as they have already been exposed to another discipline in their undergraduate course. Their approach towards law after obtaining a grounding in another discipline is advantageous as it broadens the outlook…In the age where interdisciplinary expertise and work is becoming more important, the value of the 3-year law course cannot be underestimated.”

D B Malik, Former Prinicpal of GLC Mumbai makes an interesting point in support of the 3-year course. He said,

“…if you are in the third or fourth year of the 5-year course and you go through a low phase in life…If you were to fall out from that fourth year, what are you left with? You have already wasted four years of your life and you are only 12th pass. Whereas in the 3-year course, even if you ultimately feel that law is not for you, there is a safety net.”

“It is good for academics because only those students who have made up their mind to join the legal profession will join an NLU.”

While opinions remain divided, perhaps one of the more verifiable facts relate to career prospects. In this field, and again with a focus solely on the economics involved, some of the NLUs take precedence. With law firms and corporates almost always hiring from among a select group of NLUs, holders of a three-year degree find themselves in a disadvantageous position.

But is this enough to justify the exorbitant fees? Statistically speaking, law firms hire less than 10% of all students who graduate from an NLU every year. Thus, the allure of high-paying jobs that NLUs seem to propagate deserves a far more critical examination. If ever there was a time when the high fees associated with legal education ought to be questioned, now would be it.