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by Prabhash Ranjan
The alumni of the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) recently petitioned the Chief Justice of India, the Chancellor of NUJS, to urgently intervene ‘against the rapid decline in educational standards at NUJS’. This petition is significant because it comes in wake of several media reports demonstrating unrest at NUJS.
The current state of affairs at this premier law school, according to its alumni, is ‘sordid’. The alumni ‘doubt the efficacy of the current leadership in retaining the academic edge that NUJS had built over the last several years’. At the heart of the petition is the falling standard of faculty at NUJS mainly due to the high attrition of faculty members. The alumni believe that the current University administration has failed to attract and retain bright and committed faculty members either due to its indifferent attitude or due to its ‘old school’ thinking like not holding interviews through Skype.
In fact, holding interviews through Skype is a common practice followed by IITs, IIMs and other national institutions for foreign-based candidates who find it difficult to travel to India for the interview, often at a short notice.
The indifferent attitude of the University administration and ‘old school’ thinking, not in sync with contemporary world’s realities, is responsible for high faculty attrition in all national law schools, not just NUJS alone. Thus, while, the NUJS alumni needs to be applauded for drawing attention to this issue at NUJS, this is as much true for many other national law schools.
The brazen reality is that most national law schools function as teaching shops with very little focus on ‘research based learning’. The faculty members are overburdened with teaching and administrative responsibilities, which leave them with very little time for research. As a result, most national law schools have become centres for recycling knowledge produced elsewhere and are not at the forefront of cutting-edge research.
A major factor for high faculty attrition at national law schools is the abysmally poor service conditions. Despite taking pride in calling themselves as institutions of national eminence, the service conditions at most national law schools are far inferior in comparison with other comparable national level institutions like the IITs, IIMs and Central universities.
For instance, some national law schools offer faculty members contractual positions with no prospect of permanent employment notwithstanding their performance. Further, this contractual employment can be terminated at a month’s notice, often on arbitrary grounds. Such policies create uncertainty and doubt in the mind of faculty members, which in turn hampers their academic productivity. Some national law schools follow an obnoxious policy of not recruiting full-time faculty. Instead, they prefer to recruit ‘research associates’, at low salaries, to undertake full-time and independent teaching activities, which are similar to the ones that an Assistant Professor or an Associate Professor performs. Ironically these ‘research associates’ are not involved in any research activity. Such policies deter individuals from applying to these Universities for a faculty position.
Many national law schools do not offer basic perks to their faculty that are enjoyed by their peers, having the same qualifications, at Central universities. These perks include – adequate medical insurance coverage, group life insurance protection, gratuity benefits, leave encashment benefits, leave travel concessions, adequate book allowance etc. In some law schools the infrastructure is poor with the faculty members not having computers, printers and sufficient office space to work.
Given the financial autonomy that most national law schools enjoy, one would have expected these law schools to offer service conditions far better than Central universities to attract and retain best talent. Similarly, most national law schools do not have a policy conducive for research through paid sabbaticals, have no policy of providing adequate funding to attend international research conferences and have no formal system of performance appraisal and performance based incentives. The non-existence of benchmarks to evaluate performance breeds a sense of indifference among the faculty.
Apart from bad service conditions, faculty members also feel alienated due to nepotism; academic feudalism; lack of academic independence; lack of a vibrant research culture; and the opaque decision making processes followed at law schools. With some honourable exceptions, leadership at most national law schools demonstrates an outdated, bureaucratic mindset that believes in mechanically applying the ‘rules’ even if such application results in a manifestly unjust outcome. New ideas for academic and institutional reforms are looked at with suspicion. The preference is to maintain the status quo even if that means following regressive academic practices and not adapting to changing times.
A combination of all these factors has resulted in many faculty members quitting their jobs at national law schools to work in Central Universities or private law schools that offer very good service conditions. These factors also deters talented faculty from even applying to national law schools. The clearest example of this is the alumni of national law schools who went abroad to study for higher degrees like an MPhil or a PhD, and who have preferred to pursue academic careers abroad and not return to their alma maters or to other national law schools, barring some honourable exceptions.
Of course, offering service conditions at par with IITs and other central universities is no guarantee for attracting and retaining bright faculty. Nevertheless, it would certainly be an important step towards that objective. National law schools need dynamic and visionary leadership that is willing to overhaul and reboot the entire system to attract, reward and retain talent. Unfortunately, instances of such dynamic leadership have so far been an exception.
National law schools attract the best students in the country to study law. These students deserve the best faculty – those who are excellent teachers and outstanding researchers. Those who run national law schools have an institutional and social responsibility to attract and retain bright faculty even if that means going beyond the traditional methods of faculty appointment and retention. This requires a massive change in the mindset of the leadership of national law schools, which, as of now and barring some exceptions, looks difficult.
The author, an Assistant Professor at the South Asian University, previously taught at NUJS and NLU Jodhpur. Views are personal.