When the controversy around the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle broke at IIT-Madras, one of the reports that caught Chirayu Jain’s eye was a study of the caste composition of research scholars at the premiere institute. This got him thinking about the social backgrounds of students at his own campus, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru.
From this initial curiosity, Chirayu and three other students, Spadika Jayaraj, Sanjana Muraleedharan and Harjas Singh, went on to put together NLS’s first comprehensive demographic report.
It surveyed 389 out of 397 students across five batches, and found that social backgrounds of students play a significant role both in terms of initial admission and further performance and participation in academic and extra-curricular activities in the law school.
Thus, while the majority of student population is constituted by Hindus, startlingly, the university has only three Muslim students across all the batches. In comparison, Jains form the second-highest percentage of students at 5.04%, although they form only about 0.4% of the country’s population.
In terms of caste distributions in admitting students, NLS meets the constitutionally-mandated requirement of seats set aside for SCs and STs. The study finds that SCs constitute 14.9% of the student population, and STs 7.1%. However, while at least 58.9% of students come from upper castes (with 10.7% declaring no caste and 6% saying they don’t know their caste), OBCs constitute a miniscule 2.3% of the student population.
Additionally, between the earliest (batch of 2016) and most recent (batch of 2020) batches surveyed, the percentage of female students has fallen from 52% to 39%.
However, the study also finds that the number of students coming from smaller cities and towns has increased, with the number doubling from about 13% in the earliest batch to 23.1% in the most recent batch.
The survey also found that a whopping 376 of 389 students come from English medium of schooling, and just six students are first-generation college-goers.
Also, most students come from well-to-do, if not affluent backgrounds. Over half the students (54%) come from families with an annual income over Rs 12 lakhs, and only 7% come from families earning less than Rs 3 lakh annually.
While there could be many structural factors at work in the patterns of students being admitted, many of which are perhaps outside the control of a single institution like NLS, a clear result emerging from the study is that social backgrounds continue to play a role in performance in the law school.
As Chirayu observes, while the study does not say that any individuals or groups are actively discriminating against others, the ways in which the law school function fail to adequately compensate for the different backgrounds that students come from.
Thus, in academic performance, the study finds that while 80% of upper-caste Hindu students have cumulative grade point averages (CGPAs) over 4.00, just half of SC students and 35% of ST students fall in this bracket. Comparably, less than 10% of SCs figure among students scoring over 5.00 CGPA, while nearly half of upper caste Hindus come in this category.
Bolstering the patterns seen in academic performance, the study finds that participation in co-curricular activities such as debates and moots is skewed towards upper-castes, men, and students from higher-than-average financial backgrounds and Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities. Activities such as debates and moots carry a high social value in the law school and are crucial fora of development of soft skills.
A significant number of the 389 students surveyed, have never participated in one or both, while about 66 students (21.5%) have represented the institution at national and international levels in both. Among these 66 students, only four belonged to SC backgrounds, and only one to the ST category.
Similarly, when it comes to activity-based groups and the various journals brought out at the law school, almost all of them are headed by upper caste students. While only three out of the 60 convenors or joint convenors of activity-based groups are from SC/ST backgrounds, no student from these backgrounds has ever headed a journal at NLS.
Chirayu points out, “Perhaps had we just looked at CGPA and caste, it might have appeared as a random correlation. But if you look at trends across other activities like participation in debates, moots, or committee participation, all that shows skewed participation. It correlates with how it is very difficult for people from different backgrounds to participate, perhaps because of socialisation processes.”
Further, while NLS has taken efforts to create compensatory mechanisms and peer-to-peer support groups like the mentorship programme and the student-run Academic Support Programme, students with lower CGPAs, those most in need of such support, found these systems to be ineffective or varyingly effective.
In its recommendations, the study notes that while problems of access across demographic backgrounds is a larger problem affecting universities and law schools across the country, there’s a lot NLS could do to help students get past the challenges they come into the law school with. From better financial assistance to courses in the English language to better student representation to more effective student support programmes, the study identifies a number of factors, that NLS should improve on if it is to overcome elitist tendencies within the institution.