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Entrance exams for professional courses 'are impeding' ideas of justice, fairness, equality

By Gangavath Ekitha, Ayush Bajpai* 

Common Law Admission Test and All India Law Entrance Test (CLAT) was introduced in 2008 as a Common Entrance to the so-called Islands of Excellence -- the National Law Universities in India -- or the Law Schools as the students prefer to say. The admission test used to have five different sections, including English, Logical Reasoning, Quantitative Aptitude, General Knowledge Current Affairs and Legal Reasoning.
Learning synonyms-antonyms, grammatical rules, phrases, idioms, vast amounts of static general knowledge, and a section dedicated entirely to legal reasoning added a burden and instilled a practice of rote learning amongst the test-takers who have just passed their Class 12th.
In 2019, the Consortium of National Law Universities decided to revamp the existing CLAT structure and introduce a new pattern under the chairpersonship of Prof Dr Faizan Mustafa, the former Vice Chancellor of the NALSAR University of Law.
He emphasised this new pattern in his much acclaimed YouTube channel -- Legal Awareness Web Series -- that this new pattern is not to test the knowledge of the test-taker but their skills to comprehend what is given.
The new pattern consists of the same five different sections but only in passage form. As per the statements made by Prof Faizan Mustafa in his YouTube videos, he was in for having to conduct the examination not just in English but also at least in Hindi -- but there was no consensus in the Consortium for this -- as the argument stands still that the medium of instruction in National Law Universities is English, hence English is essential.
This notion and view taken by the Consortium are defeating the principles of justice, fairness and equality. The new pattern has removed the sections of analytical reasoning and quantitative aptitude that required little understanding of the English language and introduced Critical Reasoning and Data Interpretation in their places, respectively. The critical reasoning section requires an in depth knowledge of the English language.
The English section has been reduced to merely reading comprehension -- 5 to 6 passages of about 450 words are given to read, and about 30 questions are asked based on them. The CLAT 2023 paper consisted of 50 pages. The legal reasoning section has also taken a new shape, now the test-taker is required to read long passages and derive the legal principle out of it and apply them to the factual scenarios provided -- this requires not just the understanding of the English language but also to some degree of the Legalese.
This raises a question of justice, fairness and equality because such an examination pattern to no one’s surprise or lack of information puts students from vernacular mediums, and students coming from underprivileged sections of society, at such a disadvantage which is hard to overcome. On the other hand, a student who has studied in an English medium school is most likely to clear this examination out of mere status.
The argument about assessing the skills takes a back seat when such an ‘English-biased’ examination is conducted. It judges the degree of understanding and comprehension of the English language.
Though there is an insistence upon comprehension, logical deduction, and understanding basic legal texts -- but what about the question of language? In which language the comprehension is to be made? In which language the logical deduction should be there? In which language understanding basic legal texts should come about? The answer by the Consortium is the English language because that is the medium of instruction in the National Law Universities.
The question of discrimination is pertinent too -- whether the discrimination that is being done through the CLAT is justified only on the argument that the medium of instruction in NLUs is English. Why cannot equal opportunities be given to the students coming from the vernacular mediums?
Shreya Atrey, Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law, University of Oxford, had written:
...the case of law schools which emphasise only the logical-mathematical and linguistic type intelligence in entrance examinations. In such a multiple-choice format, we end up penalising creative or unorthodox thinking, not necessarily traits to be discouraged in aspiring lawyers.”
This paper was written in 2010 when the CLAT pattern used to be not just passage-based, therefore, now, the elements of logical and mathematical type intelligence have become secondary, and the linguistic intelligence of English has taken precedence.
She also examines the concept of merit from two operative levels:
  1. “The conceptualisation of individual merit by the privileged classes precludes the consideration of group identities in admission processes of higher education institutions” and
  2. “The standardisation of merit excludes from its purview of the ‘multiple intelligences’ which are as ‘meritorious’ as the traditional notions of merit.”
She points out that the lack of practical opportunities in higher education because of the standardization of merit gives rise to ‘savage inequalities’ that create a separation between vast sectors of the population from the rest. The emphasis on the English language creates a privileged perception of merit which is created by an elite class.
Thus this criteria of merit, which is of assessing linguistic knowledge of English, is fulfilled exclusively by the privileged classes. This gives rise to an elite environment in institutions of Higher Education. The merit that has emerged to this date in society “is not something inherent in individuals but is the consequence of environmental privileges enjoyed by the members of certain classes.”
The scores of CLAT or other entrance tests such as JEE or NEET are based on the traditionally conceived ideas of intelligence and singular criterion of merit. One solution that is also discussed in the paper itself is that the admission test can incorporate which assesses a wide range of intelligence -- “can test other intelligences like bodily-kinesthetic intelligences by organizing pre-moots or stand-up presentations during interviews, to test skills which will undeniably be relevant in performing lawyering tasks.”
She adds further, “...examinations could narrow down their emphasis on questions which test acquired knowledge but include open-ended questions which test the thinking patterns of students and compare those to approaches needed in the professions.” 
Though there are concerns of subjectivity, a more open method will initiate a more appropriate selection of candidates, she argues, “rather than clinging to incorrect methods of selection due to their logistical ease.”
When the CJI Dr DY Chandrachud talks about the missing ethos from the students clearing CLAT, why is the question of elitism absent? He also stated once that the entrance tests are not the sole determiner of the merit of the students CLAT determines the English acumen alone. Outrightly the contention that the reasoning and logical deduction skills are being judged through this test cannot be countered, but for reaching that stage, English is a must.
It is almost ironic that the CJI stated that CLAT might not select students with the right ethos but his expectation was that India International University of Legal Education and Research (IIULER) in Goa should become more inclusive. This University has a fee structure of around Rs 12 lakh/ annum. Any single student from an underprivileged section of society pursuing their legal education in that institute is a wild imagination.
The skills that the CLAT expects its candidates to have makes them fall for subscribing to coaching classes, and the legal coaching centres have become a great business. The Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education [IDIA] has conducted a diversity survey.
Its report of 2020-21 (IDIA Diversity Survey Report, 2020-21) conducted over the first-year students of NLS, NALSAR, NLUD, NUJS, and NLU Jodhpur showed that most of the students admitted are coming from urban and high-income families; over 50 per cent of the students reported their family income to be above ten lakhs per annum.
Such examination puts students from vernacular mediums underprivileged sections at a disadvantage 
It also reported that students’ parents were also good at speaking English. Students from cities or towns are astonishingly 94.45 per cent, and those from vernacular mediums less than 3 per cent. More than 80 per cent of the students subscribed to coaching classes either online or offline, and they charged over Rs. 50,000, which the underprivileged section of society simply cannot afford. Even the representation from minority communities is drastically low; just 3.10 per cent of students are Muslims.
Just like NEET, the Supreme Court has imposed CLAT upon the NLUs from 2008 (CWP 68 of 2006 decided on Nov 23, 2007-Varun Bhagat v. Union of India), prior to which all the existing NLUs used to conduct their own entrance tests. In 2022, 53,574 students appeared for the CLAT-UG examination. There are over 1,700 law colleges in India imparting legal education. These also include non-English medium law colleges. Most of them are private.
Union law minister Kiren Rijiju, while responding to a question in Lok Sabha in March 2022, provided this information. Along with it, he also stated that there is no centrally maintained data about the vacancies in law colleges and universities (though there is data available for the vacant seats in engineering and medical colleges), adding to that he also mentioned that the Government of India is not thinking of establishing any new law college or university.
The number of seats in the engineering colleges in India taken all together is roughly the same as there are aspirants for engineering education. Cut-throat competition in JEE is because there are very few prestigious institutions like the IITs.
Ideally, if the quality of all engineering institutions can be brought up to a certain minimum level and the education can be subsidised by the government then all students wanting to study engineering can do so without the need to clear any entrance examination.
A system could be worked out so that the student can be allotted a seat in the nearest college to his/her home provided s(he) has not indicated preference for any other state. Assuming that this is true for law as well, all students desiring to study law should be able to get admission to some law college close to their place of residence.
Of course, it assumes that all the institutes are at the same level of education, an ideal scenario- but that could be possible if the government is ready to infuse sufficient capital into higher education.
India spends only 2.9 % of its GDP on education, and this year’s budget (2023-24) has allocated Rs 1.12 lakh crore for education. If this is made to contrast with the spending done for the military, the allocation is Rs 5.94 lakh crore.
If the budget for education is increased to the same level as the military spending, then there would be a visible improvement in higher educational institutes also, which are public in nature. Moreover, problem of unemployment would be mitigated as these colleges would have to employ more full time faculty and other staff.
The privatisation of higher education as well as primary, middle and secondary education, has left millions of poor and underprivileged children deprived of quality education. The same sort of argument can be made in the context of medical, engineering and law colleges. 
Apart from radical reform in the entrance examinations, there has to be a discourse and necessary required steps to be taken in realising the goal of equal opportunities in education for all.
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*Third Year students of BA LLB (Hons) at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Click here and here for their LinkedIn profiles

Comments

SHANTANU VYAS said…
The debate surrounding the CLAT exam and its emphasis on English language skills raises valid concerns about fairness and equality. While the new pattern aims to assess comprehension and reasoning abilities, it inadvertently puts students from vernacular backgrounds and underprivileged sections at a disadvantage. The reliance on English proficiency as a measure of merit creates an elitist environment in higher education institutions. To promote equal opportunities, it is important to consider alternative assessment methods that encompass a wider range of intelligences and prioritize practical skills relevant to the legal profession. Additionally, increasing investment in education and reducing the privatization of institutions can contribute to improving access and quality in the field of law and other disciplines.

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