Though National Law Universities exhibit a ‘national’ character, they are essentially state universities. There is a need to reconsider the current model of rapidly opening up new NLUs for providing quality legal education.
THE Chief Justice of India [CJI] N.V. Ramana, at the convocation ceremony of National Law University, Delhi, expressed his concerns about the concept of National Law Universities [NLUs]. He remarked – “Talking of National Law Universities, I thought it would be relevant to highlight something that I find a little troubling. The primary object behind the establishment of National Law Universities in the country was to improve the quality of legal education in the country to produce better trained legal professionals…”
The CJI raised a critical point for introspection. A discourse on NLUs must start by taking the fundamentals into account, including structuring, functioning, infrastructure, and facilities at these universities.
Of late, there seems to be some kind of race among state governments to establish NLUs. For instance, Tripura is all set to open its first NLU. At the same time, Uttar Pradesh has announced a second NLU in Prayagraj. Maharashtra has three in Mumbai, Nagpur, and Aurangabad. Moreover, Madhya Pradesh counts for two NLUs in Bhopal and Jabalpur.
Reliance on state governments and resources crunch
The NLUs are established by an Act of state legislatures. Though the name tries to exhibit a national character – these universities are solely state universities. Primarily, at the helm of these universities is the Chief Justices of either the respective State High Court or the CJI in exceptional cases, such as the National Law School Institute University, Bangalore, as Chancellors. The structure of having Chief Justices as Chancellor reduces the proximity of NLUs with political executives.
Though the name tries to exhibit a national character – these universities are solely state universities.
Now, this has both positive and negative ramifications. On a positive note – it helps to maintain the autonomous status of NLUs, giving them space for experimenting in their running without political influence. However, this explanation only looks good in theory as it may not be the case in practice always. The gulf between the NLUs and the state governments also shrinks the governments’ accountability – this means that the NLUs cannot readily count on their respective state governments for availability of funds and subsidies.
Also, NLUs have a minimal intake of students per year, with only a few courses in law, compared to other public universities that have numerous courses running. A comparison could be drawn between National Law Institute University [NLIU], Bhopal and Devi Ahilya Vishwavidayalaya [DAVV], Indore. Both the universities are state universities with a stark contrast in the number of students served. While NLIU inducts 120 students in its core course every year, with its total students roughly about 1,000, DAVV (as per its website) has a total of 10,500 students enrolled in its regular courses and another 1,000 enrolled through distance learning, with the tally going up to about three lakhs if affiliated colleges are counted. The contrast between the total numbers of students served by the universities is an impact factor for determining the political capital of such universities.
The low political capital of NLUs disinterest the governments in substantially funding or upgrading the quality of education. State governments have taken up the task of establishing multiple NLUs in states as a shining pipe dream of excellence in legal education. However, this illusion falls apart if the condition of these NLUs are scrutinised.
Newly established NLUs like Dharmashastra National Law University [DNLU], Jabalpur is a prime example – even after almost four years of its establishment, it has no permanent accommodation and is faced with a constant financial crunch – leading to an open letter written to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh by the students of DNLU in February last year. In another case, the Jharkhand High Court pulled up the state for not providing regular funds to the Ranchi-based National University of Study and Research in Law. The court observed that the “government should shut down the varsity if it doesn’t want to run it.”
Little or no financial support from the state governments leads to a higher fee structure which acts as a gatekeeper for students from financially well-off backgrounds, and keeps the NLU campuses from being culturally and socially diverse.
Little or no financial support from the state governments leads to a higher fee structure which acts as a gatekeeper for students from financially well-off backgrounds, and keeps the NLU campuses from being culturally and socially diverse. A 2020 study by the legal education non-profit organization IDIA suggests that an overwhelming majority of the surveyed NLU students’ parents (77.86 per cent) were graduates, and only a minority of 8.35 per cent were first-generation learners. Also, around 96.50 per cent of students came from English medium schools, and about 51.06 per cent belonged to a family with an annual income higher than 10 lakh INR, making NLUs a hub of elitism.
NLUs are governed by the General Council and Executive Council of the respective universities. These councils include the Chancellor (ordinarily the Chief Justice of the state’s high courts), secretaries of concerned ministries, and other stakeholders. However, given that these bodies do not meet frequently and even when they do, not for more than a few hours, this scarcity of time does not allow the bodies to look into the intricacies of the decisions taken at such meetings. Therefore, the Vice-Chancellors [VC] and Registrars at NLUs effectively become the sole decision-making authorities.
The detachment from the political executive and insufficiency of these universities to attract political interest from governments due to their small student strength, combined with such a lack of checks and balances on the decision-making of the VC and Registrar, causes a financial burden on students. The lack of proper financial capacity leaves no option but to compromise through an undesirable cuts in basic amenities. Many students of various NLUs have protested for basic amenities, including sanitation, water, and proper infrastructure. For instance, the students of NLU Odisha staged protests in 2019 following a lack of a decent hostel facility and the delayed construction of a library, among many grievances.
There have been demands in the past to grant the Institute of National Important [INI] status to NLUs. Members of Parliament [MP] Dr. Sugata Bose in 2017, and Meenakshi Lekhi in 2019, had introduced private member’s bills individually in the Lok Sabha to nationalise NLUs. Both of the bills aimed at repealing state laws, and awarding NLUs the status of INI and replenishing them with central funds.
However, there seems to be a lack of intent in supporting NLUs by the Centre. In reply to MP Maneka Gandhi’s question on the nationalisation of NLUs in 2019, the then Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad replied that there is no such proposal before the ministry.
The detachment from the political executive and insufficiency of these universities to attract political interest from governments due to their small student strength, combined with such a lack of checks and balances on the decision-making of the VC and Registrar, causes a financial burden on students.
It is time for state governments to realise that rapidly establishing new NLUs is not a feasible strategy. NLUs may work as a standard apparatus to enhance legal education, but they still need to be supported financially and through executive accountability.
Also, at the same time, it is essential to strengthen the law departments of various central and state universities, which offer multiple courses in varied fields at reasonable costs and are ordinarily known as traditional universities. Providing quality legal education at traditional universities would be financially and administratively efficient for the governments. Given the case of traditional universities – the governments would be required to provide comparatively smaller capital for adding on to the present infrastructure and facilities, compared to establishing a newer NLU.