Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

CLAT: A filter that needs replacing

This year's entrance exam has landed in controversy and faces at least one writ petition in court

The Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), key for entry into 16 national law schools, attracted a record 37,358 applicants this year—a 20% increase over 2014.

The exam began promisingly, with convenor Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow, introducing electronic testing and running a transparent CLAT, communicating with candidates and the media about plans and progress.

It ended up as one of the most controversial CLATs in recent years, rivalling the 2009 exam conducted by Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, which had to be postponed after a suspected leak of question papers.

CLAT 2015 now faces at least one writ petition in the Rajasthan high court, filed by one applicant who appears to have the support of thousands of candidates and their parents.

The biggest problem alleged by the writ petition, corroborated by common sense, a myriad candidates and professional CLAT coaches, is that several official answers to the CLAT questions are obviously incorrect; several other questions are simply unanswerable.

The writ petition claims that 15 questions are still incorrect despite RMLNLU having grudgingly agreed to correct two wrong questions after evaluation by an expert committee.

For instance, one question vaguely asks candidates to pick the “world’s largest e-commerce company" from between Amazon and Alibaba, which respectively hold the record for the largest revenue and market value.

Four questions rely on complex logic and a mathematical puzzle contains a typo, making it unsolvable. Another question that requires solving a secret letter-substitution code is also unsolvable because one letter is missing.

Worse, these and many other questions were all copied from various websites, which all bizarrely provided the correct answers although somehow the CLAT committee managed to introduce its glaring typos during the copy-paste process.

It is easy to understand the exasperation of law school aspirants, who often spend a year or longer preparing for the test.

Consider the stress inherent in making 18- and 19-year-olds take a 120-minute exam of 200 questions (leaving exactly 36 seconds per question), which penalizes wrong answers with negative marks and where you know that a single wrong answer can make the difference between getting into your preferred college and missing out on it.

Candidates this year competed against each other for only 1,069 seats at the 16 national law schools, excluding reservations.

In 2014, a difference of only 3-4 points would result in a 100 place drop in the all-India rank (AIR) list after the 200th rank, with each college on average being able to admit 100 or fewer new students per year.

This year the margins were even smaller, and a difference of only 8.5 points separated the 500th rank from the 1,000th.

Due to the severe time constraints, candidates are never really able to attempt all questions in CLAT, but if a candidate was unlucky enough this year to get stuck on a question that did not have a single or any correct answer, each minute wasted on such a question would easily equal a lost point (and with it a drop of 25-60 ranks outside the top 200).

Even more hard-done-by will be those students who managed to figure out the correct answer to a question, which does not correspond to the ‘official’ answer that is blatantly wrong. That’s if they managed not to get distracted by the numerous typographical errors.

Further, 135 out of 200 questions were allegedly copied from websites or previous exams, and 27 questions were copy-pasted from a single website with mock questions, which means candidates who happened to have studied model questions on that website had a massive and unfair advantage over their peers.

None of the above can be reasonably prepared for and that, in turn, dents CLAT’s credibility to act as a filter for the brightest and most capable students to enter the national law schools.

“The admissions test is one of the key reasons behind the success of the NLU model. The fact that you’ve had this rigorous exam filter for picking bright school kids. All other deficiencies, such as the lack of a serious research culture, top-notch faculty, barring a few; and lack of good infrastructure and other resources were by and large forgiven because you had this relatively fine bunch of students who were offered some freedom to engage in peer learning and strut their stuff," said Shamnad Basheer, who formerly taught at National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, and founded the Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access initiative.

“Now if you’re hitting at the very filter that made the NLUs what they are, you have a serious problem that you need to address ASAP."

One way of addressing the perception of unfairness could be fairly easily achieved by CLAT convenors by correcting obviously wrong official answers , awarding the proper points and cancelling questions that are obviously unanswerable.

RMLNLU, other than correcting two questions after a review by the expert committee, which delayed the first set of results, has so far resisted any further adjustments to its model answers.

Joint registrar J.D. Gangwar, who has been overseeing the CLAT this year, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Structurally unsound

The malaise that besets CLAT is actually more systemic than just this year’s paper.

The exam was launched in 2008 after a legal challenge in 2006 against each national law school running its own admissions test, which put an unreasonable burden on applicants who would have to pay for and take a separate entrance exam for each national law school they wanted to apply for.

The CLAT system that was hammered out by the seven NLU vice-chancellors under the supervision of then chief justice of India (CJI) K.G. Balakrishnan, resulted in a rotating system, where every year the test would be conducted by a different law school in the order of the year of its establishment.

This year was the first time that the CLAT went to a law school that was not part of the original seven, which required an amendment to the original CLAT memorandum of understanding (MoU) last year.

“Whether it (the CLAT) should go around to different universities without any experience, that is questionable," says N.R. Madhava Menon, who in 1980 started the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru—India’s first and continuing flagship national law university—followed by NUJS Kolkata and the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal.

What happens under CLAT at the moment is that each year the convening college has to re-invent the wheel anew and figure out how to hold a national competitive exam, from handling the flood of applications, dealing with candidates’ questions and collecting fees to setting question papers—they have to do all this on top of running a law school.

“Once you give it to another university, they start it all over again and nobody else take much interest in it," agrees Menon.

And while NLUs that have held CLATs previously do guide and provide advice to a first-timer, and they all have vested interests in a successful CLAT brand, their support is limited.

“The universities do not take interest when it is not their responsibility," says Menon. “When somebody else is organizing, all the blame goes to that law school."

But with the potential for blame also comes the potential for glory.

Under the CLAT MoU, the convening university gets rewarded for its efforts with 50% of whatever money is left over after deducting the costs for convening the CLAT. The other CLAT colleges equally share the other 50%.

At 3,500-4,000 per examinee, CLAT revenue this year could come to 16.2 crore from fees alone, and that excludes the money made by selling the CLAT rank-list to some or all of nine non-national law schools that use CLAT scores for admitting students, too.

According to a variety of financial accounts proactively disclosed by colleges or obtained by Legally India under the Right to Information Act, each non-convening college received the following amounts: 17.4 lakh in 2008 (in NLSIU Bengaluru’s CLAT); 25 lakh in 2009 (from Nalsar); 21.9 lakh in 2010 (from National Law Institute University, Bhopal); and 22 lakh in 2011 (from NUJS, Kolkata).

The convening college in those years could have then earned 1-2 crore or more.

The need for a college to cover its costs, therefore, almost certainly takes some options off the table, such as holding a new exam, which would prove prohibitively expensive.

And possibly that’s also a reason for why RMLNLU is not revisiting more questions: a 200-question exam where nearly 10% of answers are allegedly wrong, runs the risk of delay and interference from the courts, with judges potentially deciding that fairness would best be served by a re-test.

RMLNLU’s Gangwar did not respond to a message seeking to confirm the current CLAT’s financials and about whether the model answers to the question paper would be re-evaluated.

Menon and Basheer both recommend that future CLATs should be held by a permanent common secretariat, set up by all the NLUs, which can act as a repository of experience and lessons learnt from previous CLATs.

To be sure, if such a proposal were implemented, it would be no guarantee that every future CLAT will be smooth.

But at least accountability and experience would be centralized, which reformers and many students argue would be a welcome change.

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