After the success of the first National Law School in Bangalore, various state governments replicated the idea, thereby paving the way for National Law Universities in Hyderabad, Bhopal, Kolkata, Jodhpur and so on, to a total of 23 such universities at present, whereas the quality of legal education has not progressed at the same rate.
RECENTLY, the Supreme Court flagged concerns regarding the deteriorating situation of the quality of the legal profession. The court remarked that “the problem starts at law schools” and the “quality of education imparted therein”. Such a comment on the quality of legal education in law schools must be seriously considered.
The inception of the National Law Universities
While there are several law colleges in the country, among them, the National Law Universities (NLUs) have become one of the prominent crusaders of legal education in India. This can be credited to Professor N.R. Madhava Menon, the father of modern legal education in India, who pushed for establishing National Law Schools.
He imagined National Law Schools to impart legal education within the social context by teaching various law-related subjects in social science. The aim was to make the law degree a post-higher secondary course for a longer duration of 5 years with an expansive curriculum.
In this context, the Bar Council of India envisaged a “model law school with university status to act as a pace-setter for legal education reforms.” Hence, came into existence the first NLU of India, National Law School of India University [NLSIU], Bangalore in 1987.
Admission to NLUs has to be secured through their entrance test named CLAT with a high registration fee of ₹ 4000 followed by a counseling process with a fee of ₹ 30,000, creating entry barriers for many socially and economically backward classes.
It marked the start of the 5-year law degree in Indian legal education. Soon after its establishment, NLSIU graduates achieved accolades and instant recognition in the legal field, not only in India but internationally. After the Bangalore success, various state governments replicated the idea of National Law Schools, which paved the way for NLUs like the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad, the National Law Institute University [NLIU], Bhopal, the National University of Juridical Sciences [NUJS], Kolkata, NLU, Jodhpur, and so on.
The objective behind establishing National Law Universities
The NLUs were established to evolve high standards of legal education, aligned with the world’s growing needs. Universities used to have law departments that restricted law to a secondary or a backup subject. However, NLUs were established to make a shift from a casual approach to a formal study of law.
Prof. Menon precisely articulated the main objective of establishing NLUs: “The original objectives of setting up National Law Schools were to supply well-trained lawyers to the trial and appellate bar as well as for judicial service so that access to justice is enlarged and the quality of justice for the common man is improved and strengthened.”
NLUs were established with the aim to facilitate an environment where students can achieve academic excellence, social relevance and professional competence. They promote the students’ interest in legal research and legal advocacy to secure social justice for all. They are meant to be a place of inclusion where every bright mind from the various socio-economic class of society could make a career in law.
Ensuring autonomy is of paramount significance for these universities to work efficiently. Therefore, there was a consensus that the chancellors of NLUs were not to be a member of the executive but the Chief Justice of India or the Chief Justices of the respective High courts. Consequently, NLUs in Banglore, Kolkata, Aurangabad, Nagpur and Gujarat have the Chief Justice of India designated as the chancellor of these universities. Apart from these, almost all NLUs have the Chief Justices of the respective High Courts designated as chancellors.
The quality of the teaching faculties is one of the most important considerations in rankings, witnessing a growing trend of competition between NLUs and private universities.
After three decades of establishing the first National Law School in Bangalore, we currently have 23 such NLUs spread across the country. Maharashtra, one state which entered late into the league of NLUs, has compensated for this delay by establishing three NLUs back-to-back. Similarly, Madhya Pradesh has two NLUs, of which the recent one is at Jabalpur.
Uttar Pradesh has one more NLU in the offing, which, established in Prayagraj, will be the second NLU in Uttar Pradesh. At the time the authors pen this, many NLUs are in the pipeline in various states like Tripura, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, much to our delight.
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However, in this race of establishing more NLUs, quantity seems to be coming at the cost of quality. While one now frequently sees new plans being announced by different states to set up NLUs , this is done without an adequate focus on retaining capable faculty or ensuring state grants to an optimal level. Announcing new NLUs without thinking of these operational factors may come at the cost of the quality of legal education at these institutions, taking them further away from the original objectives as outlined above. Some of these concerns are discussed in the succeeding sections.
Pondering over the issues plaguing the NLUs
Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh termed these universities as “islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity”. While these words seem appealing, the reality may be slightly different. NLUs are often side-lined by their respective states when it comes to the allocation of funds. Such allocation, when made, is grossly insufficient for a large university to sustain. This insufficiency manifests itself in myriad ways.
At the outset, admission to NLUs has to be secured through their entrance test, namely the Common Law Admission Test [CLAT], with a high registration fee of ₹ 4000 for general category students. After the announcement of results, a counseling process is conducted where up to 5 lists are published, and candidates are allotted the NLUs. The counselling fee is as high as ₹ 30,000 (a reduction of ₹ 20,000 from the previous years when it was ₹50,000), which creates entry barriers for many socially and economically backward classes.
Further, the fee structure of these universities is too high compared with other institutions. On an average, all NLUs charge more than 2 lakhs per annum as their fee, whereas some charge even above 2.5 lakhs a year. Consider the fees of one of the oldest NLU (National Law Institute University, Bhopal), which charges as high as ₹ 2,60,000 per annum (refundable fee excluded) from its new joinees.
Despite the high fees, the universities have dilapidated structures with cramped spaces or no space of their own at all. Take, for example, the Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur. Even after five years of its establishment, it runs on a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited-rented campus as students await the sanctioned funds to be released by the government of Madhya Pradesh.
There are replete instances of protest by students demanding very basic facilities. NLU Odisha saw protests over a girls’ hostel with proper amenities, a “world-class” library that was promised to them, and an affordable fee structure. Pertinent to consider the six-day protest in Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law [RGNUL], Patiala, where students banged their plates to mark their protest against the unhygienic food. Furthermore, the students of Himachal Pradesh NLU, Shimla, also staged a protest asking for clean water and food, more hostel space, and Wi-Fi, among other demands.
Allegations of rampant corruption and lack of transparency is another concern confronting these NLUs. Students of National University of Study and Research in Law [NUSRL], Ranchi, have once staged a protest alleging corruption, lack of transparency and the overall mal-administration at the university. The university was to be dragged into an arbitration with the Central Public Works Department for the non-payment of dues of 42 crores.
When the NLUs are ranked, one of the most important considerations is the quality of the teaching faculties in the university. On this front, there is a growing trend of competition between NLUs and private universities, as remarked in an opinion by Proff. G.S. Bajpai, Vice-Chancellor of RGNUL, in The Hindu. NLUs cannot pay salaries higher than private institutions to their faculties. Though these universities avail funds from the UGC, it is a meagre sum, primarily for mere developmental purposes and not for the teachers’ salaries, which constitutes a major part of their expenditure.
The skewed ratio of international faculties coupled with the lack of multidisciplinary courses and intersectional learning at NLUs divests these universities of the opportunity to compete in prestigious university ranking indices. NLSIU, Bangalore made a breakthrough by appearing in the top 200 universities (legal studies) subject-specific rankings (QS ranking 2020). However, it also fell out of the ranking the very next year.
Recently, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana remarked that, “National Law Universities are perceived as elitist institutions resulting in the production of corporate lawyers with detached understanding about social realities.” When we drill down to figure out the reason for such a trend, we find the inherent structure responsible for the same. Consider the NUJS diversity report 2019 which stated (at page no. 212) that 49% of the students feel that there was a high or very high influence of fees paid in NUJS for their inclination towards corporate jobs.
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This inclination is further aggravated by the meager funds and few provisions for scholarships in NLUs. Few NLUs maintain a corpus to provide financial aid to students, but that is subject to budget and donations available to the university. NLUs like NLSIU, NALSAR and NUJS have funding aid from their alumni batches which is absent in relatively new but equally expensive NLUs. The absence of financial support then manifests itself in the educational loan burden and later predisposes students toward corporate jobs.
The NLUs being state universities, makes it pertinent to contrast them with national institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology [IITs], the Indian Institutes of Management [IIMs], the National Institutes of Technology [NITs] (previously known as Regional Engineering Colleges). These national institutions are considered the epitome of higher education in India. What helped these universities to grow?
Inclination towards corporate jobs is further aggravated by the meagre funds and few provisions for scholarships in NLUs, which manifests itself in the educational loan burden and later predisposes students toward corporate jobs.
They are known for their higher standards of infrastructure, autonomy, transparency, diversity, interdisciplinarity, and international standing, which is ensured to them through the accreditation of the precious Institutions of National Importance [INI] tag by the Government of India via an act of the Parliament.
The nostrum: Institutions of National Importance
What is an INI? Any institution that “serves as a pivotal player in developing highly skilled personnel within the specified region of the country/state” can be termed an INI. However, there are no objective criteria defined in any statute to consider a university as an INI. It is the luxury of the Parliament to confer the status of an INI to any public-funded institution in the country.
Essentially, there could not be diverging opinions on the fact that legal education is a building block for the development of the bar and bench of the future and its impact penetrates the legislative and the executive branches of governance. Hence, the field of legal education and its development must not be overlooked.
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NLUs must be elevated to the levels of the country’s national institutions like IITs, NITs, AIIMS and IIMs, by declaring them as INIs and providing the benefits such accreditation entails. The INI tag comes with its benefits, in terms of regular funds, concessionary grants, autonomy, diversity, transparency, exposure and opportunities.
Conferring the INI status on NLUs will usher in radical reforms and fill in various lacunae in the system. The INI status mandates the accredited institution to publish an annual financial statement in the public domain, which is to be audited by Comptroller and Auditor General. This ensures accountability and lessens the chances of corruption.
The President is designated as the Visitor for the institute, with direct supervision power (the Chief Justices could hold such a supervisory position in NLUs as chancellors, at present). A general council is formed with all the Directors, joint secretaries of concerned ministries, a few nominated members based on their contributions, one state representative, etc. Furthermore, NLUs could be freed from the clutches of the state governments, that do not ensure proper funding, systematic accountability or exert pressure to increase the horizontal reservation through domicile provisions, which would lead to shackling these universities’ autonomy.
As the High court of Jharkhand observed in Bar Association vs. The State of Jharkhand & Ors. (2020):
“[NUSRL, Ranchi] like the other universities and various other National Law Universities in other States cannot thrive on the revenue collected through fees deposited by the students for its development and meeting the routine expenses. Like other universities, certain grants on a regular basis, monthly or yearly should be given by the state.”
The court, while conveying its sentiments, remarked that “being a prime institution of the State, NUSRL needs regular support of the State Government and it is high time that the State Government should think over it that for every small or big expenditure the Vice-Chancellor of the University should not be compelled to move door to door.”
The INI tag gives breathing space to NLUs in terms of regular funds by the governments. More funds could effectively subsidise the cost of education more, subject to will of the administrations. People from different quarters of the society aspiring to pursue law could potentially have greater opportunities and top-notch exposure to learn and grow in the fields of law, in such a situation.
As far as the question of faculties is concerned, NLUs, at the entry-level, attract assistant professors and thus, there is an evident shortage of highly trained associate professors and professors at these NLUs. The scarcity of qualified faculty members leads to poor research work and substandard education, especially at the level of postgraduate courses.
A study conducted by NALSAR in 2018 argued that in order to curb this shortage, donations from private sector players must be allowed. However, this idea is not sustainable since “private sector players are more likely to support research efforts that are tailored to the needs of the market or their respective institutional agendas”.
Given this, consistent monetary support should be ensured by the government for the best faculty recruitment in NLUs. Better salaries will attract the best pool of scholars and academicians to teach law and allied subjects at these NLUs. It will help increase the research output in law; students would not only have an affinity for corporate jobs, but such exposure will also help them expand their interest in legal research.
Basic infrastructure like spacious campuses, boarding houses, a better library could be ensured while quality food and clean water could also be served. Intersectional and interdisciplinary studies could be promoted. An INI status would allow NLUs the autonomy to collaborate with prestigious foreign universities without the state’s permission (the status quo is that NLUs are bound to take permission before signing any such collaboration), helping more students participate in programmes like exchange semesters in foreign universities.
Apart from student exchange programmes, NLUs could then also go for teacher’s exchange programmes wherein the collaborated universities could send their accomplished faculties for guest lectures, thus, creating opportunities, exposure, and diversity.
The nationalisation of NLUs is not a new topic but one which has been in discussion for a long time. In 2016, the historian Prof. Sugata Bose, the then Member of Parliament [MP] from Trinamool Congress, introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to provide a national status to NLUs. Since then, law students across NLUs, are clamouring for NLUs to be taken over by the centre.
In 2019, MP and advocate Meenakshi Lekhi (currently the Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture) made an effort to introduce a private member bill, namely the ‘National Law Universities Bill, 2019’, aimed at complete nationalisation of NLUs by granting them the status of INI.
Conferring the INI status on NLUs will usher in radical reforms. The INI status mandates the accredited institution to publish an annual financial statement in the public domain, which is to be audited by CAG, thereby ensuring accountability.
While both argued for the same thing, there was a fundamental difference between both these bills. The former aimed to grant solid national character to these institutions but mandated that effective control be in the hands of the state. In contrast, the latter bill proposed that complete control and administration be bequeathed to the central government.
NLUs have long been a hostage of the state governments, which have asphyxiated these universities of funds. The NALSAR study also claimed that the state governments “might not be too invested in them” and hence, the research argued in favour of granting the benefits of INI status to NLUs.
It is a long demand which is yet to get adequate acknowledgement from the government of the day. Legal education is one of the most important fields for the country’s development and preservation of democracy and the rule of law. With such a serious comment by the highest court of the country, the central government must acknowledge this demand and accredit these universities as Institutions of National Importance to salvage these “islands of excellence from the sea of mediocrity”.