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The NIRF Rankings, and what they mean for Indian legal education
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The NIRF Rankings, and what they mean for Indian legal education

Bar & Bench

By Aditya AK & Anuj A

In September last year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development announced its plans to develop and publish an objective ranking of the top educational institutions in the country.  It was a significant decision, more so for the country’s law schools. After all, the National Institutional Ranking Framework marked the government’s first foray into ranking the country’s legal institutions.

Private media outlets have attempted to initiate an effective ranking exercise, with varying levels of success. The India Today and Outlook rankings, for instance, do command significant readership but also have their fair share of detractors.

Early this week, the NIRF rankings were released, enumerating the top 100 institutes in four fields – universities, engineering, management, and pharmacy – based on a number of parameters. The usual suspects like the IITs and IISC found mention in the list.

When it came to legal education though, only two institutes – National Law University, Delhi (Rank 71) and Indian Law Institute (Rank 99) – found mention in this list.
When it came to legal education though, only two institutes – National Law University, Delhi (Rank 71) and Indian Law Institute (Rank 99) – found mention in this list.

When it came to legal education though, only two institutes – National Law University, Delhi (Rank 71) and Indian Law Institute (Rank 99) – found mention in this list.

So why haven’t other law schools, particularly the NLUs, been featured on the list? Is there any sense in clubbing law colleges in the same bracket as universities with multiple departments? And most importantly, can the parameters under NIRF be used to accurately determine the quality of a law school?

Lack of participation

Several institutes have chosen to stay away from the NIRF, citing reasons from lack of clarity in the application process to not having enough time to do so. Moreover, the need for NIRF given that the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) already grades institutions, has been called into question.

This could be why many of the top law schools in the country chose not to participate in the HRD Ministry’s exercise.

In fact, the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) Chairman, Surendra Prasad, notes that since the responses when it came to general and architecture colleges “fell short of being truly representative”, these two categories were eventually left out altogether.

Apples and oranges?

By virtue of being defined as a “university” under the UGC Act of 1956, a law university would be clubbed under the University category in the NIRF. And that is all a law school has in common with the other traditional universities in the list.

This is something Prof GS Bajpai, Registrar of NLU Delhi, acknowledges.

“It is unfair for a law university to be compared with traditional universities as [law] universities comprise a single discipline and are unique in structure and most of them have a history of less than one decade. Further in case of traditional universities, the number of teachers, faculties and other parameters tend to bring them a high score.”

What works against law schools

The parameters used for the ranking system include faculty-student ratio, faculty experience, facilities for sports and extra-curricular activities, publications, facilities for disabled persons, percentage of students from backward sections, among others.

Some of these parameters are not really effective in determining the quality of a law school.

Bias towards science

A total of 20 marks are reserved for “laboratory facilities”, and a further 10 for patents granted and filed by the university. Here again, the lack of foresight in throwing law schools in the University category is exposed.

Regional Diversity

One of the criteria for ranking under NIRF is Regional Diversity, i.e. the percentage of students from other states/countries. Law colleges, the NLUs in particular, will surely lose out on the 25 marks given under this head, given the fact that most of them have a state domicile reservation policy. Some NLUs have as many as 50% of their seats reserved for students from the same state.

Further, some universities have a reservation policy for faculty as well.

Prof Sukh Pal Singh, Vice-Chancellor of HNLU Raipur
Prof Sukh Pal Singh, Vice-Chancellor of HNLU Raipur

As Prof Sukh Pal Singh, Vice-Chancellor of HNLU Raipur points out in this interview,

“…in my University, the problem is as per the government policy, 58% faculty is to be recruited from the state of Chhattisgarh.

In this state, unfortunately we don’t have a single candidate to be eligible for the post of assistant professor and associate professor.”

Faculty experience

Another problem is using “faculty experience” as a parameter. Traditional universities, established decades ago, will not find this to be an issue. But it is certainly a problem for the relatively young NLUs, where there is a dearth of experienced faculty.

While the intentions behind introducing NIRF  might have been noble, accuracy of these rankings are questionable, especially with respect to law schools. Perhaps it would make more sense to carve out a separate category for law universities.

However, it is not all bad news.

What works for law schools

There are a number of positives to take from the assessment criteria under NIRF, especially since most other surveys do not exhaustively disclose their parameters.

For one, the parameters are by and large, objective. One of these parameters is the number of women faculty and students at an institute, for which 20 marks are reserved.

Importance is also given to economic and social diversity, at a time when the top law schools in the country are charging exclusionary fees.

Why is it important for law universities to participate?

As mentioned earlier, previous attempts at ranking law schools have been met with more than a fair share of criticism; a model based on objective criteria is very much the need of the hour. This becomes more relevant given the fact that the interest in legal education has increased exponentially over the past few years.

NLSIU, widely cited as the country’s top law school, is absent from the NIRF rankings
NLSIU, widely cited as the country’s top law school, is absent from the NIRF rankings

Prospective law students are often found relying on less scientific surveys and word of mouth before making a choice as to which law school to join. And that is a huge choice to make, seeing as how the student could be paying upwards of two lakhs a year for a five-year course at one of the NLUs.

So what is the way forward?

The NIRF would certainly gain more credibility if institutions of the same discipline are compared under a separate vertical rather than being clubbed together. Once a separate category for law universities is in place, the onus would lie on the universities to participate in the exercise.

Secondly, multiple rankings and accreditations disincentives universities from participating in the ranking exercise. Furthermore, multiple findings (often contradictory in nature) only end up confusing the prospective student and do little to ameliorate her condition.

Lastly, it is high time that law universities also start sharing more information online, be it on faculty or journals. The fact of the matter remains that publicly available information on these institutes is a scarce resource.