Sky-rocketing law school fees: A trend towards exclusion?

Sky-rocketing law school fees: A trend towards exclusion?

An overview of fees charged and scholarships offered across NLUs and other law schools admitting students based on CLAT and other competitive exams.

With National Law University, Delhi (NLU Delhi) recently making headlines for nearly doubling its fees for incoming students, many voiced their concerns about the affordability of an education at a premier law school in India.

The latest IDIA survey report studying the composition of students admitted to National Law Universities (NLUs) revealed that 80% of those who made it to NLUs enrolled for Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) coaching at centres whose fees are over ₹50,000.

And that is just the beginning of the outlay required to obtain a law degree, with the fees at NLUs an average of ₹2 lakh per annum for the five-year courses.

As a result, students from families who cannot afford such ever-increasing fees have to take loans, which they can pay off only by working in corporate jobs after graduation. For the less privileged, even that is not an option. The cascading effect of charging such high fees begs the question: do the top law schools in India breed a culture of elitism, to the exclusion of those who are not well-off?

Fee structure for CLAT law schools

Bar & Bench undertook a study to analyse the fee structures and scholarships offered at law schools whose admissions take place on the basis of CLAT and other competitive exams.

About 45 other universities admit students on the basis of CLAT scores. Other non-NLUs like OP Jindal Global Law School induct students via the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Recently, the Bar Council of India introduced a new university in Goa by the name of India International University of Legal Education & Research (IIULER) with the aim of giving a new face to legal education in India.

The table below represents the fee structure (excluding hostel and mess fees) at NLUs for first year students in the general (unreserved) category.

Law School Fees Per Annum
Law School Fees Per Annum

As can be seen from this table, the average fees charged by NLUs is ₹1,86,392. The highest fee is charged by National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore at ₹2,73,000 per annum, followed by West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata at ₹2,42,400. The lowest fee is charged by Tamil Nadu National Law University Tiruchirappalli (TNNLU) at ₹1,17,000.

The table below captures an overview of the fees charged across some non-NLUs for the general category.

The average fee charged by non-NLUs is ₹1,92,321. The highest fee charged is by the newly instituted IIULER in Goa charging ₹8,01,000 per annum followed by Jindal Global Law School charging ₹6,76,000 per annum.

Inadequate scholarships and cumbersome processes

It is pertinent at this point to delve into scholarships on offer at law schools, either provided by the governments or by the universities themselves. NLUs like NLSIU, NLU Odisha, WBNUJS, NLIU Bhopal, MNLU Nagpur, NUSRL Ranchi, NLU Jodhpur, HPNLU, TNNLU, NLUJAA, NUALS, RGNUL, RMLNLU and HNLU claim to provide merit-cum-need-based or only need-based scholarships ranging from ₹30,000 per annum up to ₹1,00,000 per annum.

However, these come with a host of varying eligibility criteria and are offered to only a handful students. The amounts that are provided by these scholarships are wholly inadequate, covering only about 25%-50% of the tuition fees at these universities.

Students of NALSAR facing extreme economic hardship can make a request to the Vice-Chancellor to waive off their fees. Some universities offer purely merit-based scholarships. For example, CNLU rewards the top 5 rank holders from each batch with an amount of ₹40,000. GNLU accepts requests for tuition fee waiver only for students who have provided research assistance in international projects or assignments. Only 3 students each from the third, fourth and fifth year are eligible to apply for the same.

Universities like DNLU Jabalpur and DBRANLU Sonepat make a mention of scholarships on their website, but do not provide details on the same. On the other hand, some universities like DSNLU Visakhapatnam make no mention of any scholarships whatsoever.

Central government scholarships such as the Post-Matric Scholarship for students belonging to minority communities and the Post-Matric Scholarship for students with disabilities provide for meagre allowances ranging from ₹3,000 to ₹10,000. The more generous ones like the Top Class Scholarship for students with disabilities and the Top Class Scholarship for SC and ST students provide allowances to the tune of upto ₹1,50,000 to ₹2,50,000. However, it is to be noted that these are not limited only for students wanting to pursue law, but are open to students in other streams as well.

Further, post the 2023 Union Budget, with the 38% reduction in funds allocated to Ministry of Minority Affairs, these scholarship amounts are expected to witness an inevitable decline. The schemes have been allotted funds of ₹44 crore this year, while the budget for the same was ₹365 crore last year.

Some States like Kerala and Madhya Pradesh provide scholarships for students to study in top institutions across streams. For example, in MP, the Medhavi Scholarship funds few students across states to study at top institutions. Details of the scholarship schemes mentioned above can be found here.

Although the websites of some non-NLU universities mention details about scholarships on offer, it remains to be seen how functional they are. The scholarships offered by non-NLU universities can be accessed here.

Sabah Mistry, Chief Operating Officer at IDIA, gave Bar & Bench some insights into the dire state of functioning of such scholarships.

“Scholarships firstly get awarded long after admission happens. They mostly come in late into their first year or in time for the second year. So, first year fees etc have to be paid. Also, there is no guarantee a scholar may get the scholarship, it depends on merit, college list and reservation category. For General Category students and OBCs, there are fewer scholarships. Once awarded, renewal is easier for subsequent years. There is also no transparency on what basis the scholarship gets awarded. Another challenge is that the Central government website for applying for scholarship tends to crash quite a bit, making the process tedious.”

Commenting on the criterion laid down by law schools for institution-funded scholarships, Mistry said,

“Hardly any college other than the top three have proper funding. Scholarships in all other places are restricted mostly to tuition fee waiver or reduction while the rest of the fees is still payable. Also, there is no transparency on what basis the scholarships are awarded as the amount differs for students if it is based on merit cum means.

At Nirma Institute of Law, they need a GPA of 7 post the first year. If the student fails to get it even by a few decimal points, the scholarship is no longer renewed. Also, this is subjective from case to case.

So, each institution has a set of guidelines and renewals may not happen, which makes it difficult for students who are dependent on the scholarship to continue studying.”

Speaking about the reforms required in the scholarship system, Mistry said,

“The biggest change needed would be to call for and award scholarships before the start of the academic year like how it is done by top universities around the world. This would enable many more children from low and middle class income families to take admission. As things stand, many families can’t pay the first year’s fees as they may have not been able to borrow or get a loan in time.

With the change of CLAT dates, the hope is that universities can put the call for scholarships out earlier so students can pay the fees for the first year easily.

Also, for general category students, the amount of scholarships for people from low or middle class income categories is low, sometimes it may be only 20,000 rupees.

If the marking and assessment systems are made transparent, then students can plan to study at law schools accordingly.”

Highlighting the root cause of inadequate funding offered by institutions and governments, 2018 NUALS graduate and former IDIA scholar Shinto Mathew said,

“Scholarships are limited to few top NLUs. The reason being insufficient funding. Other NLUs don’t have good sources, nor do they try to find good sources. Each NLU is instituted under the respective state government. Since there is no uniform funding mechanism, each state gives money to NLUs according to that State's capacity. Most NLUs are in debt to state governments, so whatever money comes in via tuition fees goes to government.

Central government scholarships are not transparent. The website hardly works. The process takes easily a year or two. General, EWS, and OBC candidates don't have a proper scholarship that can cover law school fees. Only SC, ST and PwD get them. So, only few sections of the socially disadvantaged can avail the few benefits on offer.

Law school fees shoot up every year. My fees were ₹1.5 lakh per annum when I graduated in 2018. Now it's ₹3 lakh per annum or more - a 100% increase in 5 years. So as CJI Chandrachud pointed out, only the elite come to the best law schools, majorly. Shamnad sir's dream of IDIA still has relevance.”

The late Prof Shamnad Basheer, who championed the cause of accessibility to Indian law schools
The late Prof Shamnad Basheer, who championed the cause of accessibility to Indian law schools

Students forced to resort to corporate jobs to pay back loans: First person accounts

Bar & Bench spoke to a handful law students who have had to take loans to pay their fees.

For a fifth year student of Symbiosis Law School, Noida, the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges in paying fees since the sixth semester. Having crowdfunded resources ever since with the promise to repay benefactors, the student had to freelance vigorously to do so. The student admitted that they wished to test the waters of litigation, but currently intends to grow their freelance practice and their newly instituted company.

A few other students were supported by their relatives to take loans with the promise to repay the money once they graduated. This was a significant factor for them to steer their legal career in the direction of corporate internships and jobs as against litigation or attempting to join the judiciary.

A small minority of law graduates who joined law school to enter litigation are stuck in the endless cycle of piling interest on loans taken years ago towards law school fees. A lawyer who graduated during the pandemic with partial phases of fixed income said that they had to direct a majority of their income towards repayment of the loan. However, with the meagre salaries offered by lawyers in Delhi, they said that the interest amount exceeded ₹2 lakh over and above the principal amount of ₹7 lakh in the past 7 months.

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With the fees charged by law universities increasing each year and inadequate scholarships for students from low and middle-income backgrounds, entry into the legal profession can seem like a unviable dream to pursue.

Given that the CLAT and similar competitive exam scores determine admission to the best law schools, the exorbitant application fees and coaching classes required to excel in these exams become the starting point of inaccessibility for prospective law students.

Enabling all sections of the society to access the legal profession is crucial for a more diverse body of future lawyers and judges that are truly representative of the country's social structure.

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