NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITIES: ISLANDS OF EXCELLENCE OR DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE?
Written by: Bongurala Gangadhar And Sheba Rivy Simon, LLM Students, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad
The significance of legal education cannot be overemphasised for a country that is governed by the rule of law. In a welfare state like India, legal education is more than just imparting legal skills to law students; it seeks to transform the students to be catalysts for change in society. It does this by training them to shoulder the responsibility to ameliorate the socio-economic conditions of the people. In that sense, it would not be farfetched to say that the ultimate goal of legal education is to create social engineers who will use their knowledge of the law in myriad ways to improve society. Succinctly put, legal education and development are inextricably linked. However, despite its given significance, there is no exclusive provision in the Seventh Schedule that deals with universities for imparting legal education although Entry 25 of List III of the Seventh Schedule pertains to education and universities. In the absence of any central legislation regulating legal education in the country, different state governments took it upon itself to revamp the legal education sector. Quite interestingly, in an attempt to free the legal education from the shackles of its elitist tradition and transform it into a space open to all, state governments plunged into establishing law universities within their territorial domain. Alongside, there were law departments created within different central and state varsities and many privately run law colleges engaged in imparting legal education in the country. Despite all these universities and private law schools, the quality of legal education witnessed gradual deterioration. The pitiable state of affairs as regards the quality of legal education set the ground for legal education reforms in the Country.
As part of the first-generation legal educational reforms, the Parliament amended the Indian Advocates Act in 1961 to arm the Bar Council of India (BCI) with the power to regulate the standards of legal education in consultation with the concerned law universities. However, it has had only a limited impact on reforming legal education in the country. This called for the second-generation reforms in legal education in the country. As part of the reformatory measures, the BCI envisaged a strategy of setting up a model law school with university status implementing the 5-years integrated LL.B. curriculum. This initiative led to the establishment of the first national law university in the Country, National Law School of India University (NSLIU) at Bangaluru in 1987, under the legislation passed by the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. The main objective of the NLSIU was to work for the advancement of legal education, legal processes and methods for the development of the nation and equip the students with research skills and instil a sense of responsibility to serve the downtrodden through legal advocacy and facilitate legal reforms in the country. Under the able guidance of Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon, NSLIU became the façade of modern legal education; a beacon of hope to the deteriorating legal education in the Country. After the setting up of the NLSIU in Bangaluru, there was no turning back; we have seen other states following the suit establishing National Law Universities (NLUs) within their territories. The Country has witnessed a rapid mushrooming of the NLUs across the length and breadth of the country in the recent past; except for five national law universities, the remaining were established during the 2000s. Fortunately, the emergence of NLUs has changed the entire perception of legal education. Never since independence, the legal education received attention from the society, government, and corporate sector, and has become one of the most coveted fields of study for the students across the country.
The former Prime Minister, Shri. Manmohan Singhi hailed the NLUs as islands of excellence in the ocean of institutionalized mediocrity. However, in the same breath, he expressed fear of how long they would remain that way. Unfortunately, it appears that his fears have come true today. Once hailed as the island of excellence, the NLUs have now become islands of struggle, i.e. struggle for existence; protests erupted across different NLUs for issues that range from administration to basic infrastructural issues. Shockingly, only 14 of the 23 NLUs chose to participate in the Ministry of Human Resource Development Assessment for National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings for the law universities. In the light of these statistics, one can, without an iota of doubt, conclude that there some underlying maladies plaguing the NLUs that need to be unearthed lest the existences of NLUs are jeopardized. In such circumstances, this piece of work seeks to critically analyse the looming financial crisis plaguing the NLUs and the problems that it entails, and suggest strategies to revitalize the NLUs to achieve the very objects for which they have been created and earn a place for themselves in the global and national rankings.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the national law universities in the country are established under different state legislations and are largely state government-funded. However, even while the NLUs are solely dependent on the state funds for a large portion of their expenditure, some state governments have deliberately ignored the fiscal health of these universities. In some instances, state governments merely offered only one-time grants of funds, while others chose to provide the initial land and their infrastructure and nothing else. This has left the NLUs in a lurch. Unfortunately, even the funds from the University Grants Commission (UGC) are confined for developmental projects and not for the operation costs, which constitutes a major portion of the expenditure. Interestingly, even while NLUs are considered similar to the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) in the country, the treatment of the NLUs is way different from the treatment meted out to IITs and IIMs. Even while the IITs and IIMs are funded by the central government, the NLUs are left to the mercy of the state.
With the dwindling financial resources, most of the NLUs are forced to hike their fees to honour their financial commitments which make them relatively more expensive than the other central universities or state universities offering law courses. The high fee structure in the NLUs unintentionally excludes students from the weaker socio-economic background. This inevitably invited the criticism that the NLUs cater to the needs of the rich and top-class bureaucrats ignoring the social stratification to include the needs of the downtrodden. This way, legal education in the NLUs became a privilege reserved for some. This offers a plausible reason why some universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Symbiosis Law School, etc. fare better than all the NLUs on the 'outreach and inclusivity’ parameter in the NIRF ranking scheme. Additionally, even for those who are fortunate to avail of educational loans to pursue their studies in the NLUs, the high fee structure severely restricts their career options since most of the students will be ‘forced’ to take up the corporate jobs after graduation to repay their loans. However, it would naïve to deny the inherent strong bias towards corporate sector amongst the students in the NLUs. This essentially means that very few students will opt for a career in litigation and academia, which is contrary to the purpose of establishing NLUs in the first place.
Since the NLUs are predominantly full-time residential universities, the infrastructural and operation costs are high compared to other universities. The limited number of student intake each year in each of the NLUs limits their ability to recover their expenses solely from the fees paid by the students. Needless to say, the luxury to hike fees to meet all expenditure needs of the varsity is not an option available to all NLUs due to varied reasons. This leaves such varsities to rely on the pittances from the state government to meet their financial needs. Since the NLUs are required to implement the seventh pay commission, a major portion of the funds received is earmarked towards the same; consequently, the infrastructural needs of the varsity are overlooked. Unfortunately, the deplorable condition of infrastructural facilities has triggered protests in different NLUs across the country in the recent past.
The ancient law that he who pays the piper calls the tune is a reality when it comes to state funding.  Most often, the universities have to succumb to the political pressure to ensure they are not cash strapped. One of the important fallouts of relying on the states for the funds is the insistence on domicile reservations. Even the founder of the national law universities, Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon, was against the state domicile reservations for he feared that it would distort the national identity of these universities. Since the intake of students in the NLUs is limited compared to other law governments under the state governments, setting aside seats for domicile reservation purposes can have grave ramifications for the students across the country. The insistence of the high percentage of domicile reservations resulted in the low scores for most of the NLUs on the inclusivity parameter under the NIRF scheme, which adjudges varsities for the regional diversity amongst the students.
We are witnessing an exponential increase in the number of national law universities in the country. Sad but true, state governments across the country set up the national law schools in their respective states merely for political gains: vote bank politics. The proliferation of the NLUs across the length and breadth of the country made things only worse given the dearth of the quality faculty in the country. This is the harsh reality looming large over the legal education institutes in the country including the NLUs. A perusal of faculty roster of the national law school reveals a lack of experience and quality. Although the NLUs remains a major attraction for candidates seeking the post of the Assistant Professorship, it fails to attract candidates for the Professor, especially as permanent faculty. This explains why most of the NLUs perform much worse than some of the self- financed law schools like the Symbiosis Law School, Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, etc. on the Teaching, Learning & Resources parameter of which the faculty-student ratio with special emphasis on permanent faculty forms an integral part. Worse still, some NLUs opt for having faculties on an ad-hoc basis or visiting faculties rather than maintain a permanent pool of teaching faculty to overcome the financial crunch. Succinctly put, the shortage of funds has also reflected in the quality of faculty on the payrolls of the different NLUs. This has detrimentally affected the quality of research in the NLUs and hindered the development of the NLUs into premier research institutes in the Country. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly all NLUs have fared poorly in the graduation outcome parameter under the NIRF scheme, which is a reflection of the pitiable state of affairs in the NLUs.
For a long time, higher education including legal education was an exclusive preserve of the elites. With the expansion of the public and private institutions, higher education in the country evolved to cater to the hitherto excluded marginalised community. While private law schools are inherently exclusionary due to their high fee structure, we cannot choose to downplay the significance of public funding for universities. The government funding of the universities has been a thorny issue for very long, especially in our Country. Following the university student-led protests that erupted across various parts of the country in the past couple of months; India is witnessing a growing clamour against government subsidies. While it is true that funding of the universities does not necessarily guarantee desired outcomes, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Adequate public funding of NLUs will ensure affordable quality legal education, which will pave the way for upward social mobility, especially for the poor and marginalized who have been excluded from the system far too long. Additionally, high fee-structure ipso facto excludes the poor and downtrodden, thereby reducing the cultural diversity in the varsities. In such circumstances, public funding of NLUs is not an option but a necessity. Although the NLUs are state-funded by the respective state governments, we are witnessing a growing number of NLUs facing the threat of state cuts, which pose a grave threat to the quality and affordability to the NLUs in the country.
With rapid globalization, its effects are also being felt in the educational sector, especially at the higher education level. Universities are expected to cater to ever-evolving learning and research demands to match their international counterparts. As a result, law schools are expected to undertake different initiatives in tune with the changing time to enrol more students like diversifying the range of subjects, encourage the interdisciplinary study of law, revitalize their research facilities and centres, etc. In such circumstances, the universities need to have sufficient fiscal space to rise to the challenges. With rising cost of education and unprecedented rolling back of funds/grants, the public-funded universities, especially the state government-funded, are in a precarious situation. According to the Economic Survey, 2019-20 India spent 3.1% of its GDP on education, which is very abysmally low compared to countries like Norway, New Zealand, Columbia, etc. Shortage of funds is one of the pressing issues concerning not just the NLUs but the universities across the country. Fortunately, to fill the gap, the government launched the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) in 2013 to pave the way for strategic funding opportunities for higher educational institutions in the states on norm-based and outcome dependent, but NLUs in the country will not benefit from the same. Interestingly, the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) established with a joint venture of Government of India with Canara Bank for loan-based funding opportunities for higher education institutions such as AIIMS, IITs, IIMs, NITs, Central Universities, Kendriya and Navaodaya Vidyalayas while NLUs are kept out of the scheme.
It is an open secret that the NLUs once hailed as islands of excellence are severely cash strapped, this call for the need to examine better funding opportunities for sustainability for NLUs. While presenting the Union Budget 2020, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, unveiled plans to launch a full-fledged online education program by the top 100 universities as per the NIRF to cater to the educational aspirations of the poor and marginalised. While we agree the intentions are laudable, it is important to appreciate the fact that access to stable and unlimited internet is still a luxury in many parts of the country. Additionally, in a professional study like law, there is an active engagement of different combinations of learning models (like dialectical method) and pedagogy (like Socratic model) to ensure students are professionally trained and socially awoken. In a multidisciplinary study likes law, student-to-student engagement, especially amongst students from varied backgrounds, will play an instrumental role to break the preconceived notions and instil a sense of the social responsibility amongst the student community. Hence, it would be erroneous to assume that technology alone will help groom good lawyers.
Needless to say, the biggest impediment in the funding scheme of the NLUs is due to its establishment under various Acts of the state legislatures. Recognising this pitfall a private member Bill was introduced in the Parliament to provide national status to the NLUs; Section 32 of the NLU Bill 2016 states for provision of certain funds for its functioning without further details. However, the said Bill never saw the light of the day. On another occasion, another Bill on similar lines was introduced by Adv. Meenakshi Lekhi, MP. The NLU Bill, 2019 envisaged granting the status of Institute of National Importance (INI) and the transfer of administration and management of NLUs to the central government. No doubt, granting INI status to the NLUs will facilitate greater financial stability and sustainability to the cash-strapped NLUs. While it is important to assure a steady source of state funding for the NLUs, it is also important to encourage the diversification of revenue generation to meet the growing expenses of the NLUs. Apart from the tuition fee and the research funding, NLUs can explore auxiliary sources of revenue generation like online education, distance education for working professional and/or adult education, etc. In addition, there is also a greater need to explore different avenues like a collaboration with philanthropic wings of major industries around the world for research purposes. For instance, the collaboration of Ford Foundation with Indian Law Institute (ILI) and NLSIU Bengaluru provided for special projects and the establishment of special chairs for the development of research opportunities. A successful model like above may be replicated in other NLUs to augment their financial capabilities.
The state governments along with NLUs collaborate for funding opportunities under Corporate Social Responsibility with industrial houses. Indian companies spent Rs.52,533 crores on activities related to CSR during the 2015-19 and the education sector forms lion’s share. The state governments while establishing NLUs need to set up endowment funds for the sustainable functioning of the institutions with complete autonomy in funding opportunities. There is a need for the government and university administration to prioritise the funding opportunities and provide scholarships for students from weaker sections. To provide accessibility for educational opportunities to students from weaker sections, the NLUs need to collaborate with banks and other financial systems for providing loans to the students before joining the institute rather than sanctioning loans for students after joining the course. To bring glory to NLUs, the Parliament should bring a bill to grant INI status along with financial stability, and ensure a greater level of accountability by providing for Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audits. A carefully drafted legislation on these lines can go a long way in ensuring excellence to the NLUs at par with the AIIMS, IITs and IIMs.
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