A second student suicide within two years at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU, estb.1987) — routinely ranked the country’s #1 law school by all media publications — has provoked much anguish and a day-long protest vigil on this premier law school’s green 23-acre campus in suburban Bangalore.
On March 16, Kanish K. Bharati (22), a student at NLSIU, was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his hostel room. This second year student was reportedly afflicted with mental health problems which has adversely affected his academic performance and was repeating his second year. Next month, on April 27 the NLSIU Students Bar Association (SBA) presented a six-page petition to the then vice chancellor Prof. R. Venkat Rao accusing the administration of having devised an unwarrantedly punitive curriculum and being indifferent to students’ mental and physical well-being.
The report details harsh compulsory attendance and detention norms in NLSIU. According to this premier law school’s rules, a student is detained, i.e, loses a year, if she fails three or more of 12 subjects or papers annually. At no point in the five-year course can a student ‘carry over’ more than three failed subjects to the next year. Additionally, students are required to maintain a minimal 75 percent class/lecture attendance record in all study programmes with additional marks for higher attendance, leaving no time for self-study or leisure.
The toll that NLSIU’s punitive curriculum, detention and archaic class attendance rules takes of students is evidenced by the high percentage of students who don’t complete its flagship five year B.A. LLB programme. This year’s graduating batch of students, who topped the rigorous Common Law Entrance Test (CLAT) conducted by a consortium of 21 law schools nationwide, has been reduced from 80 five years ago to 58 after it lost two students to suicide, five dropped out of the course within two years, and another 14 were denied promotion to next year’s class.
The SBA report attributes this high rate of attrition to the wide span of the curriculum — 12 subjects per year — the unsparing detention system, a packed lectures schedule and compulsory attendance regime even as food, hygiene and mental health receive scant attention. “The mental health of students is the most neglected crisis on the campus,” says the SBA report. “…The system of promotions at law school is like quicksand. It drags its victims into a never-ending abyss of repeated year-losses.”
In its detailed introspective report the SBA cites two unnamed college counsellors, who testify to the punitive curriculum imposed on NLSIU students. “The hectic pace of the course schedule, the need to participate in extra-curricular activities to ensure that they have a good CV, competitive nature of the institute, along with immense expectation from parents and friends and their own fear of failure in the residential campus, creates conflicting emotions and self-doubts… Students who come to NLSIU are from various cities, big and small, but one thing that is common to most of them is that they have been toppers in academics in their respective fields. However, once they come to NLSIU, the entire picture changes as they are now competing with peers. Which means that they may not be toppers anymore, which takes a huge hit on their self-worth and self-esteem,” says one counsellor.
Another anonymous college counsellor, cited in the report, says that students who fail find it very difficult to bounce back because “the prospect of losing a year can be pain inducing”. “They go through a lot of shame, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, self-confidence etc… the prospect of sitting with juniors, losing friends who were batch mates doesn’t help either,” he testifies.
In April, SBA called several general meetings of its 400 undergraduate and 150 postgraduate members and proposed changes in the promotion and compulsory attendance policies of the university. Among the association’s suggestions: students should be allowed to carry over more than three failed subjects without detention and clear them the next year. In the longer run the SBA suggests that the attendance marks be scrapped in toto leaving students to attend lectures/classes of their choice. Moreover, it calls upon the administration to appoint a full-time doctor on the campus to attend to mental and other health problems of NLSIU’s 550 students.
Perceptive academics shocked by the brutal regimen at NLSIU, concede that the SBA report’s reform proposals have merit. They agree that compulsory attendance of 75 percent in lectures is reminiscent of K-12 schools rather than a higher education institution. In this connection it’s pertinent to note that in universities abroad, particularly in the West, lecture/classroom attendance rules are very liberal allowing time for discretionary self study. Undoubtedly, NLSIU students are trapped in a whirlpool of assignments, projects, exams and classes mandated by the school’s management. It’s surprising the administration of this premier law school is unaware that university education has to be an enjoyable experience, not a vale of tears.
Sruthy Susan Ullas (Bangalore)