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Prof Dr. Tabrez Ahmad is the Director of the College of Legal Studies at University of Petroleum Studies (UPES), Dehradun.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, he talks about the ‘specialisation law courses’ on offer at the law college, the unique recruitment process they follow, the high cost of legal education, and more.
Aditya AK: Tell us about the law school at UPES.
Prof Tabrez Ahmad: We have around 1700 students from 22 states in all courses, with 40 full-time faculty. We share 30 faculty members with the Schools of Management and Engineering. So, that makes our Student: Faculty ratio around 25. We also have a good gender ratio of 56:44 (boys to girls). Around one-third of the students come from lawyers’/judges’ families. Our campus is very peaceful; whatever happens in the city will not affect the students. So, classes run very smoothly.
AK: How has UPES dealt with the faculty crunch faced by most law schools?
TA: The faculty profile is young; they have previously studied at the top national law universities. Around 10 of them are gold medallists.
It is true that there is a lack of good faculty across the country. So, we pay a very good salary and have a good promotion policy. Generally, the UGC norms call for 3% increment, but if any faculty member is doing exceptionally well, we give them 5% increment. Also, faculty who do exceptionally well for two consecutive years get promoted faster. So instead of getting promoted in 3-4 years, they can get promoted in 2 years.
We also send our faculty members to gain experience from the industry. For an example, an IPR teacher will be sent to law firms and companies during the vacations to understand the practical nuances of the subject. They are fully funded for the same.
We are very careful about hiring faculty members. There is a requirement of having at least 55% marks from 10th standard to the highest degree. We prefer candidates who have a PhD and those who have passed NET.
AK: The college is known to have a unique recruitment process. Could you elaborate?
TA: To streamline the recruitment process, we follow an overall performance index (OPI). From third year onwards, we take into account all the achievements of the students. We have a formula for giving points, which are earned through internships, moot court participation, youth parliament, trial advocacy, client counselling etc. If you present a paper at a seminar, you get points. We also have leadership points.
We give the students six career options – law firms, LPOs, litigation, judiciary, industry legal division or higher education – and ask them for their top three priorities. Depending on their choice, we plan a strategy for them.
If someone has a low OPI score and wants to join a top law firm, we give them counselling, and ask them to review their preference. So, this helps the student know where he stands and accordingly try for placement he can actually get. We also give them tips on how they can raise their scores.
We also have something known as domain knowledge indicators. Students are tested in particular areas of law. For an example, a firm/company asks us for the ten best students in Contract Management, which is taught in the first year. The student who might have done well in the first year might not have retained the knowledge in his final year. So, we do testing in the basic areas of law in the final year.
The whole process starts in the first year. When we admit students, they are made to undergo a Personality Enhancement Programme (PEP). We invite trainers from all over India and the students are put through four days of rigorous training. The trainer will try to improve the students’ communication ability, presentation skills and soft skills. At the end of the programme, the trainer makes a chart for each student.
In the fourth year, we have a Placement Selection Interview (PSI) programme. We invite one domain expert from law and one HR person to undertake mock interviews.
Once we have all these scores – OPI, PEP and PSI – for each student, we plan a strategy for each student, according to the career preference they have chosen.
AK: How successful has this strategy been?
TA: This procedure is giving a lot of insight to us. In 2013, the placement was 65%, and last year, it has increased to 92%. We hope to cross 90% this year as well.
Back then, we used to have only LPOs coming to the campus to recruit. Now, we have top law firms, companies, banks, etc hiring from our law school. The first preference of students is generally law firms. The second choice is in-house legal team in companies, and the third is litigation. We have also placed students in foreign law firms.
Last year, the highest package was 17.5 lakh rupees. Currently, the law school’s placements are higher than those of the Engineering and Management schools.
AK: Is there a lack of autonomy that comes with being part of a larger University?
TA: We are part of a larger group called the Laureate group of universities. They have 80 universities in the world in around 40 countries. Everybody’s power is decided, so there is no conflict. As Director of the law school, I have full autonomy. I can hire any faculty as per University guidelines, the Vice-Chancellor of the University gives the final approval. The same goes for setting the course curriculum.
AK: One thing that sets UPES apart is its specialised five-year courses. What are the courses on offer?
TA: We currently have nine programmes with specialized honours We have B.A. LL.B. honours courses in Energy Laws, Labour Law, and Criminal Law. We have three BBA. LL.B. courses in Corporate Law, Banking and Finance, and International Trade and Investment Law. We have a B.Com. LL.B. course in Taxation Law, and two courses in B.Tech LL.B. – one in Computer Science with honours in Cyber Law and second in Energy Technology with honours in IPR.
AK: Don’t you think it is a big choice for a student to choose a specialisation in her first year?
TA: The current generation is very aware about the market. They have a better idea about the course, the subjects, and even the University. So, you can be very clear about your career preference from day one. Once that is done, you can start working hard and make your mark.
For courses like Energy Laws and Corporate Laws, students decide from day one. For honours courses in Labour Law and Criminal Law, they decide in the third year. The same applies for the Banking, Finance and Insurance course.
AK: Is there an option to switch specialisations?
TA: The students can switch to another course only after the first semester examination, if they have a CGPA of more than 9 out of 10, and if there is a vacant seat. We generally discourage switching courses.
During admission, there is a thorough counselling process, where we advise the students and their parents so that they can make an informed decision. So far, it has been working well, there are no issues.
AK: I’ve noticed that there is no elected student body here.
TA: We follow a different model. In each course, we have two class representatives – one girl and one boy. They manage the issues of the class and inform us of the problems they face. We also have around twenty committees, in which students and faculty collaborate. Since students are part of all committees, we ensure that they are heard. Students can also come and talk to me directly. If they feel that the authorities are not listening, they can still go to the department of student affairs. For personal issues, they can go to the counsellor or the professional psychiatrist on campus.
We also do a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey every year. Students are given the opportunity to disclose their issues about the curriculum, faculty, administration, infrastructure etc. That gives us a lot of insights and helps us to address concerns. Twice a semester, the students also give faculty feedback. If a faculty member is not up to the mark, we can send him for training.
So, we make sure that they are heard. They do not feel the need for a student-elected body.
AK: The Bar Council of India recently proposed that one of their members should be on the faculty selection committees at law schools. What is your take on their role in legal education?
TA: I think Bar Council of India is not helping to improve the quality of legal education. They are not able to understand the advanced models of legal education that exist today. From personal experience, when they come for inspection, they are not able to understand our advanced courses. The members are not aware of the market.
The BCI members who are very active are not doing very well in practice. What I feel is that it is a body which tries to serve personal interests, rather than the interests of legal education in India. If they are allowed to be on the faculty selection committee, they will politicize the selection process. That is not a good solution.
AK: Don’t you think the fees charged at law schools deters students from underprivileged backgrounds?
TA: It is about the return on investment. The future lies in the private universities. They were started because the government colleges were not doing very well. That is also why the national law school model was implemented. Even though the NLUs get government funds, their fees are comparable to private universities, which have to generate their own funds.
I am paying 15 lakh for online journals every year. If you want to establish a very good library, the books are very expensive. Also, if I want to retain good faculty, I have to pay good salary. We also have to maintain our infrastructure.
We charge fees at par with the NLUs, and three times lower than what is charged at a certain private law school. I have rejected faculty from there, because they only go by foreign degrees.
Our average salary is 4.5 lakh, with the highest going up to 17.5 lakh. So, the return on investment is great. We also give scholarships to students; the first two rankers get 50% scholarship. If a student does well, he can get the degree at half the fees.