Inclusivity and diversity at NLSIU: Findings of a study conducted by law students

How diverse is the student population at India’s premier legal education institution? Four students of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore recently came up with an exhaustive study on student demographics, accessibility and inclusivity at the university to answer this very question.

Titled The Elusive Island of Excellence, the study was compiled after profiling the regional, social, economic backgrounds of 397 undergraduate students of NLSIU. The study also looks into how these factors affect the performance of students over a period of five years.

And the study throws up some interesting figures.

In this interview, Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK discusses the findings of the study with Chirayu Jain, Spadika Jayaraj, Sanjana Muraleedharan and Harjas Singh. Excerpts below:

Aditya AK: What was the objective behind the study?

Chirayu: Originally, I wanted to have a look at how caste impacts socialization and performance in law school.

Spadika: Then we decided to expand the scope and talk about the demographic change at NLSIU. I have been here for five years and every year, there is a shift in the profile of the students. My batch has more people from big cities, and there are more female students than male. But if you look at the pre sent first-year batch, there is a complete turnaround.

So we figured that NLSIU is really changing; most of the students are not from a very elite background. We also wanted to look at how the institution should change to reflect the change in the student profile.

AK: One of the figures the study contains is that only 1% of the students from NLSIU are Muslim. What are the reasons for this?

Harjas: The problem stretches back to primary education. Muslims do not have the access to schools that people from other religions have. Due to the lack of a foundation, they are excluded from certain opportunities, including CLAT. Most of the NLU’s charge around 2 lakhs per annum. Muslims, according to census data generally don’t have the income to afford this. So that impacts their performance in CLAT, and whether or not they even write CLAT.

Around 1,000 Muslims wrote last year’s CLAT, out of 40,000-odd applicants, even they represent 14.2% of India’s population. There is a huge disparity in terms of opportunity. It is a sad reality, and we hope this data can be used to take steps in order to improve the situation.

Sanjana: It needs to be seen whether this is true only for CLAT or for the legal profession as a whole. To crack exams like IIT-JEE, one needs to spend money on coaching. In these entrance exams, the representation of Muslims is much better. So why is it so poor when it comes to legal education?

Chirayu: That could be attributed to the high application fees of Rs. 4,000. The JEE application costs less than half of that.

NLSIU students
(L-R): Sanjana Muraleedharan, Spadika Jayaraj, Harjas Singh and Chirayu Jain

The study points out that the gender ratio has dropped over the last five years.

Spadika: The number of women attempting CLAT has more or less stayed the same over the last few years. We were thinking about whether the change in pattern of CLAT has anything to do with it. Maybe it has to do with negative marking, we’re not sure.

Chirayu: We found that women in law school are from a better economic strata than men. There might be problems with this assumption, but since the law course has become more popular, more males from smaller towns are applying for CLAT. They are now perhaps edging out the women candidates, who used to be a dominant group.

AK: Did any of the SC/ST students you interviewed face any sort of discrimination?

Sanjana: What they face is not active discrimination, in the sense that the fact that you have come in through a reserved quota makes people see you differently. Some SC/ST students feel the need to prove themselves more than others.

The average income of SC/ST students is much lower than the upper caste students. The kind of education they had would also determine their law school experience.

Spadika: The data shows that SC/ST representation in activity-based committees at NLSIU is lower than the proportion they form. We asked students if they had been rejected entry to a committee, and we found the SC/ST students were more likely to be rejected. To remove income as a factor in this respect, we looked at SC/ST students versus general students from the same income bracket

They obviously aren’t being rejected just for the fact that they belong to a lower caste, but structurally, there is something which is excluding them.

Chirayu: In law school, we have an obsession with our CLAT ranks. When a teacher address the classroom for the first time, we are called the best students in the country, whereas a student from a reserved category will not feel the same. So this constant discussion of CLAT ranks causes discrimination in a way.

Harjas: When it starts in the beginning, it goes on for the rest of law school. In the sense that students from reserved categories tend to get separated from the rest. With a few exceptions, SC/ST students do not mingle with the general category. Students talk about caste and reservation, but stop talking when someone from a reserved category comes near.

The fact that we don’t openly talk about caste in law school is a problem, because without discussion, we end up sticking to the stereotypical notions we gain from general society, rather than challenging those notions.

The fact that we don’t openly talk about caste in law school is a problem, because without discussion, we end up sticking to the stereotypical notions we gain from general society, rather than challenging those notions.

NLS acad
“The fact that we don’t openly talk about caste in law school is a problem.”

Sanjana: This place is so liberal about gender rights and queer rights, but nobody wants to really talk about caste discrimination.

AK: The study describes the Queer Movement as one of the most successful movements on campus. How did that take flight and what has the administration’s reaction been?

Chirayu: The ones who came out as queer were earlier from a specific background, but our data shows that this has changed, and that they belong to varied backgrounds. This shows that there is an inclusive culture here for people to come out.

The administration mostly turns a blind eye to it, but doesn’t prohibit them from anything.

Spadika: When the Bangalore queer pride march happened, the college provided a bus to transport students.

Sanjana: There are also some faculty members that we have now, who are quite open about these issues. One of my friends from the queer community was saying that it is a lot easier for people from big cities and well-off families to come out. It is so much harder for those who already have another stigma attached to them. I don’t if that is what happens only in law school or everywhere else.

AK: Does having English as a subject in CLAT excludes those students from non-English medium schools?

Sanjana: I think you have to look at the nature of the institution itself. During our interview with the Vice-Chancellor, he expressed that graduates of NLSIU are expected to be dealing with things like Mergers & Acquisitions. If you remove English from CLAT, you will have students who don’t have good English coming in.

If the institution sees itself as catering to these kind of professions, then English teach within the institution itself would become important.

Spadika: At NLSIU, in the first year itself, we have high level readings. Even people who came from good schools find it difficult.

Chirayu: One has to look at what constitutes the English component of the CLAT paper. Prof Shamnad Basheer pointed out that the reading comprehensions in CLAT are on very specific topics. They appeal to specific cultures, which excludes a lot of people. If they were made on more general topics, that would make it more democratic.

AK: What is the co-relation between financial/social background and performance?

Chirayu: Though there are no conclusive findings on this, we analysed the average annual income of the students with the highest CGPA and those who had the lowest. We found that the ones with the highest CGPA had an income of upwards of Rs. 30 lakh.

So financial background does play a role.

Also, when it comes to funding for international moots and conferences, there is a financial assistance policy in place.

They have included the need-based element only this year. But the problem is that they give out the funds only when the activity is concluded. So, only if you have resources can you go for these competitions. Our study also shows that the performance and participation of persons from backward classes is much lower.

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“Our study also shows that the performance and participation of persons from backward classes is much lower.”

Harjas: The general conclusion that we drew was that inclusivity in the Indian education system exists only at point of admission.

The assumption of the government is that everyone who works hard can succeed. However, our data proves that a person’s socio-economic background plays a role throughout his law school life. People from the lower strata need to be encouraged throughout their stay in college.

AK: What suggestions have you made to improve diversity and inclusiveness at NLSIU?

Chirayu: One of them was having Persons with Disabilities on the hostel committees. Other suggestions are revising the medal rule, where students who have written a repeat exam are barred from getting academic medals.

We also did some research on our academic support programme and found that the ones with higher CGPA are benefitting more from it than the ones with lower CGPA who actually need it.

Sanjana: The programme was designed to help those students on the verge of losing a year.

Spadika: We have also recommended the introduction of a compulsory English course for first-year students.

Sanjana: I think this study is important because it looks at inclusivity within the university. Most discussions on this topic talk about access to universities and reservation. It would be really helpful if students across law schools and other universities do something on these lines, because Indian universities are really exclusive places, especially after you get in.

Read the study:

SSRN-id2788311