Law is an increasingly popular and competitive career option, and this new-found respectability of the law degree is largely credited to the National Law Universities (NLUs). These small, dedicated law universities mainly offer integrated five-year law courses, and are patronized to varying degrees by state governments and the University Grants Commission (UGC). Fifteen NLUs have started over the last two decades, and more are in the pipeline.
Most discussions on the future of Indian legal education veer towards a hagiographic account of NLUs. The success story of the NLU model has been spun mainly around two factors: the impressive employment statistics and enormous salaries offered to students from top NLUs and, to a lesser extent, the ability of few alumni to gain admission to the world’s top law schools and frequently win well-known scholarships like the Rhodes or the Inlaks. NLUs attract many bright and articulate students and are, therefore, working with raw material that is already quite marketable.
These parameters are flawed and mask the serious institutional flaws NLUs face. Universities cannot be assessed purely by their capacity to attract the right kind of student, or by their ability to tap a lucrative job market in which there is high demand. Much of the conversation about the performance of NLUs avoids key questions concerning the actual process of education and research output, and focuses instead on the relative success of each university at moot court competitions, recruitment figures, and infrastructure development. Although these elements are undeniably important, the main parameters of assessment must revolve around the quality of legal education being provided at these universities, the quality of research output and the ability of these institutions to contribute meaningfully to policymaking and public debate in India.
If the quality of education being provided at the NLUs is to become a high priority, it would require a close consideration of the faculty composition, the contributions to curriculum and the governance structures of these institutions.
Within the student community, there exists a strong perception that the reputation enjoyed by some of NLUs is not matched by the quality of faculty. Very early on into their law degrees, students decide that time spent in the classroom is a waste, and self-learning through internships, moot court competitions and other extra-curricular activities make for a better education. This lowering of expectations is caused largely due to sub-standard classroom teaching, albeit with some very notable exceptions, across these universities. This failure of classroom education is often laid at the doors of the teachers. However, it may more accurately be attributed to institutional structures relating to faculty hiring, retention and incentives. At NLUs, faculty members find themselves in a system that hardly rewards research output, innovative courses/teaching methods or quality publications and are instead left to negotiate a system that mainly rewards the number of years clocked in the job with no appropriate mechanism for faculty evaluation. Little attempt is made at training new faculty or discussing teaching techniques, let alone acknowledging the importance of course development and structure.
The curriculum keeps both teachers and students in the classroom for too many hours a day for students to focus on. In most NLUs, the academic year is peppered with multiple rounds of tests and numerous research paper submissions. This weighing of the curriculum with excessive classroom time and many rounds of ineffective assessment leaves teachers with very little time to grow as scholars, to engage in their own research and to evolve as teachers. NLUs tend to prioritize the number of hours spent in the classroom over the quality of teaching; the timelines of evaluation over the quality of evaluation; and the number of courses taught per year over development of good courses. The processes adopted discourage teachers from putting sufficient thought into their teaching and assessment, and as a result the level of rigour informing teaching and assessment is far from satisfactory.
When trying to decide whether to teach at one of NLUs, a good scholar (inevitably a person with other job options) would be confronted with the fact that she will not be allowed enough time to prepare adequately for class and will probably end up teaching subjects in which she has no interest. She will be offered little, if any, time and resources that would help her engage with the larger universe of academics and researchers in her field, and which would allow her to do what any academically inclined person worth her salt wants and needs to do—read, think and write. It is not money that tempts lawyers to give up a lucrative career and enter universities. It is the freedom to read widely, think deeply, write independently and keep learning—the opportunity to live in the world of ideas. Any university that does not offer its faculty this freedom and opportunity will fail to attract promising teachers and researchers.
Since good education is impossible without good scholars, and since NLUs do very little to attract, retain and mentor good scholars, it is imperative that these institutions consider a major systemic reform. This reform will be meaningless without taking on board the experience and concerns of major stakeholders—the administrators, teachers and students of these universities. Research needs to become a higher priority, with incentives and time set aside for it. Attention needs to be paid to the quality of teaching and assessment, with a focus on course development, teaching techniques and useful feedback, none of which can be achieved without a comfortable faculty-student ratio.
NLUs need to resolve the identity crisis that plagues them and they are in danger of turning into mere brands that offer valuable networks. In order to be taken seriously as universities and justify the huge amounts of public investment, it is time for NLUs to focus inwards and consider how best their mandate of legal education can be served, and how best they can contribute to the policy and academic discourse in India through quality research.
Anup Surendranath is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford, and Chinmayi Arun is an assistant professor of law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.