25% Fee Hike at NLSIU: A Burgeoning Crisis of Exclusion in Legal Education

Higher education in India has remained inadequately funded for a very long time.

The last budget allocated only Rs 37,461 crore for the entire higher education sector along with severe fund cuts for technical education institutions as well as the University Grants Commission.

In addition, the fact that most state governments also fail to adequately support educational institutions with finances or other resources makes it difficult for these universities (especially national law universities, that are strictly state universities) to survive on their own. In such a scenario, a large chunk of the burden towards maintenance of these institutions is thrust upon the students. 

No prior intimation

A starkly undemocratic manifestation of this phenomenon is being experienced by students of the premier National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, as a 25% fee hike upon an already exorbitant fee has been imposed on students without any consultation with them or their parents.

This is the most drastic among the fee hikes seen over the last year in other NLUs like West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad, National Law University Odisha, Cuttack, and Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur.

On May 5, 2019, a notification was put up on the official website of NLSIU, hiking the fee for the B.A. LL.B. (Hons.), LL.M. and M.P.P. programmes by more than 25% (between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60, 000) only to be discovered by the students a few days later.

Interestingly, all hitherto communication by the financial officer of the university had been circulated to all students via mail. More so, the deadline for submission of the fee was merely a month from such notification beyond which a penalty was to be imposed on the students.

However, after the Student Bar Association (SBA) – elected body of law students – raised serious concerns, the deadline was extended by a week.

Such an exercise, with no prior intimation or consultation with the stakeholders, is not only highly inappropriate and arbitrary but also leaves many families in a spot of distress. 

A large number of students at national law schools are able to pay the exorbitant fees only with student loans, aid from different scholarships under ministries and institutions like Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) or grants by groups and individuals as well.

Such an abrupt increase impacts all students on different scales, with a severe impact on those already in an economically-vulnerable position.

Alok Prasanna Kumar, noted legal academic and senior research fellow at Vidhi Centre of Legal Policy, Bengaluru, says, “Given the absence of diversity in the NLUs thanks to the existing admissions systems and costs of legal education, a further hike in fees only makes it even harder for deserving students from hitherto excluded and oppressed communities to access legal education. While the need to implement the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations is understandable and necessary to attract quality faculty, the additional amounts being collected need rationalising after a serious audit of the expenses.

NLSIU alumnus and former SBA vice president, Sidharth Chauhan, who teaches at NALSAR Hyderabad, said that while the stated administrative reasons like lack of government support, compliance with Seventh Pay Commission, increase in expenditure and inflation are compelling, it is important to note that these factors were foreseeable and that the institution could have taken far-sighted measures.

Such measures include a gradual increase in student intake, diversification and expansion of post graduate and distance education programmes, along with other fund raising initiatives by leveraging the vast alumni network.

It could have taken cue from institutions like NALSAR, which anticipated the problem and conducted elaborate consultations on the same to come up with gradual seat expansion to efficaciously fill the revenue gap.

‘Jeopardising inclusivity’

National law universities heralded a revolution in the Indian legal education setup and came to be labelled as “islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity”.

Socio-economic diversity and inclusion are critical to the creation of a holistic environment for legal education. This is especially relevant in the case of NLSIU which, as per its founding statute, was created to provide socially relevant legal education.

Such decisions not only hamper the fulfilment of this objective but also jeopardise the stated goal of the NLSIU Scholarship Policy which is to find ways to reach out to hitherto marginalised and under-represented groups, sensitise them towards law as a potential career option and help those interested to acquire admission to these law schools as well.

A statement issued by the SBA at NLSIU on July 1, 2019 said,

“It is important to recognise the compound effect of the fee hike on the students hailing from socially disadvantaged groups as well. The fee hike will obviously disproportionately affect students from socially vulnerable groups including students from scheduled castes/tribes who more than often come from economically disadvantaged sections of society. Given that NLSIU is a public institution created in furtherance of promotion of legal education, such a fee hike is antithetical to the very purpose of establishing this institution and has an adverse impact on the student body as well as the very spirit of inclusivity which permeates throughout the NLSIU fraternity.”

In 2015, a socio-economic census covering about 97.9% of NLSIU’s student body, found that over five years (2011-2015), there had been considerable change in the financial background of batches with the number of students from lowest-income levels steadily increasing. It observed that the average income levels among STs and SCs were nearly 55% and 70% respectively of what the average income level of an upper caste student was.

Therefore, the steady increase in numbers making our legal institutions more diverse requires constant effort and aid from the administration while a sudden fee hike adversely impacts and vitiates a number of welfare measures that have been taken in the last few years by the administration.

Unfortunately, the current student composition in most NLUs leaves much to be desired, lacking in any serious diversity and mainly comprised of students educated in English-medium schools from middle class or upper-middle class families.

The numbers from rural areas, small towns or non-English medium schools are deplorably low. The composition clearly suffers from under-representation of the economically and socially backward classes, minority religious groups, minority ethnicities, disabled students and so on.

While the stated reason for most of these hikes seen at different law schools (including the recent one at NLSIU) is to implement the Seventh Pay Commission’s recommendations, the hike has been observed in almost all areas that are unrelated to the tuition fees that could be increased for the same.

In NLSIU’s case, the fee hike has been observed under the heads of infrastructural fee, gym and sports fee, library fee, medical fee, internet fee, SBA and moot court fee, hostel amenities fee, room rent and the mess fee, along with the introduction of the separate expense of electricity charges that students would now be required to pay.

Even while some hikes are justified as adjusting to the inflation figures, an abrupt increase of 25% on the existing fee after merely a couple of years after such an inflation adjustment had last taken place has rightly angered students at different national law universities.

At the same time, the SBA has assured students that it would make a representation to its executive council on July 6, 2019. They also proposed a way to solve the crisis:

“….we do understand the legitimate concerns of the administration that have led to this fee hike. If these concerns cannot be addressed through any other means, then we would like to propose an alternative where the revised fee structure is prospectively applicable only for the incoming students, and not for the current students. This will potentially alleviate the situation for the lot of current students who are only left with choosing between paying the increased fee, or dropping out of college – neither of which may be desirable, acceptable or realistic choices for a many of the students at NLSIU.”

When contacted, the finance officer of NLSIU assured that while the beneficiaries of central and state government scholarships would be assisted to get a 100% waiver of the hiked fee, the finance committee is yet to discuss and decide the safety net for those who are getting scholarships from the university or those who are studying on the basis of a student loan.

It is important that the administration provides for safety net mechanisms and adequate extensions to those students and their families who are disproportionately affected by this fee hike.

While the NLSIU Scholarship Policy keeps at its core the idea that no one who has secured admission to the university shall discontinue studies on account of financial constraints, the absence of other support mechanisms subverts that idea itself.

While ad hoc mechanisms, waivers and extensions to relieve the stress on the incumbent student’s parents may seem to be the immediate solution, it leaves some primary questions and linked issues unanswered.

Is it justified for an administration of a law school to impose a 25% fee hike or a regular 1% fee hike seen at other law universities, without consulting its stakeholders?

Is it justified for state governments to expect quality education to be delivered at these universities without adequately supporting the administration with financial resources?

Shouldn’t it be a concern that a mere 2% of the GDP is allocated to the higher education sector in toto?

Kumar Ritwik is a fourth-year student at National Law University, Delhi and Prannv Dhawan is a third-year student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore

Featured image credit: official site, NLSIU Bangalore