Smoke and Mirrors: Has the NLU model proven to be no more than a pipe dream?

Smoke and Mirrors: Has the NLU model proven to be no more than a pipe dream?

What had been initially dismissed as teething issues for institutes touted as the best law schools in the country have come back to bite hard. The events of the past few weeks have thrown up some serious questions about the NLU model, a project heralded as a gamechanger in the field of legal education in India.

Recently, students at Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow protested the state of affairs at the law school for over a week. And now, students of National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), Ranchi have resumed their protest, five months after they agreed to a truce with the authorities.

The common threads running through both protests (and many before them) are state government apathy, and maladministration in its many ways, shapes and forms. These are issues that have been plaguing the relatively newer NLUs, and will in all likelihood continue to do so in the future.

So, has the NLU model failed to meet its objectives?

A Sorry ‘State’ of Affairs

To begin with, the very term ‘National Law University’ is a misnomer, as all of them are run under the aegis of their respective state governments. And more often than not, the state governments leave NLUs to fend for themselves after a one-time grant of funds. This initial burst of funding, as former NUSRL Vice-Chancellor BC Nirmal says, is inadequate.

Dr. BC Nirmal, former Vice-Chancellor, NUSRL Ranchi
Dr. BC Nirmal, former Vice-Chancellor, NUSRL Ranchi

“When NUSRL was first launched, the Chief Minister promised to give huge funds to make it a global standard University. We were provided about 63 acres of land by the government. We received 50 crore rupees in three instalments – 1 crore in 2010, 2 crore in 2011, and 47 crore in 2012.

The construction costs alone amounted to 85 crore rupees. We have already paid 50 crore, but 35 crore and additional 7 crore in interest is due to the CPWD. They are now insisting that if we don’t pay, they will go for arbitration.”

As a result, NLUs are forced to charge exorbitant annual fees to make ends meet. Given this fact, it comes as no surprise that students expect the very best of facilities. And the sad truth is that these expectations are very seldom met. What ensues is a Sisyphean cycle of students launching protests, followed by assurances by the administration, ending in non-fulfilment of promises, and so on.

Moreover, in exchange for funding, state governments expect the NLUs to reserve a percentage of their seats for those domiciled in the state. This, one may argue, dilutes the “national” nature of NLUs and does little in the way of promoting diversity in these universities. Some NLUs have as many as half their seats reserved for state domicile.

Tamil Nadu National Law School, located 12 km from Tiruchirappalli
Tamil Nadu National Law School, located 12 km from Tiruchirappalli

In light of these facts, the argument that state governments open up NLUs merely to satisfy their vote bank, gains ground. The most glaring example is Tamil Nadu National Law School, Tiruchirappalli, located in Navalurkattapattu, which happens to be near erstwhile Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s constituency of Srirangam. There is simply no other reason for having an NLU situated in such a remote area.

And in cases where the state government does supply funds, like in the case of RMLNLU, it does not play a proactive role in ensuring that the funds are sufficiently utilised. The recent protest at the University speaks for itself.

The Cost of Autonomy

Dr. Poonam Saxena, VC of NLU Jodhpur
Dr. Poonam Saxena, VC of NLU Jodhpur

Some NLUs, particularly the more established ones, have learned to function with little or no government aid. While they have been forced to hike their fees, as NLU Jodhpur Vice-Chancellor Dr. Poonam Saxena puts it, it gives them more autonomy. For this reason, NLU Jodhpur remains one of the only NLUs which does not have a domicile reservation quota.

On the negative side, the high fees will serve as a deterrent for students from less privileged sections of society. There is only so much that an organisation like IDIA can do to increase access to the elite law schools.

Moreover, recent events dictate that “autonomy” is an illusion that can be shattered at the whim of the state government. Though NLSIU Bangalore – the archetype of the NLU model – has not benefitted from much state government funding for a long time, the Karnataka government sought to introduce a 50% domicile reservation at the University. This was a move that Prof Madhava Menon – whose brainchild the NLU model was – criticised himself.

The Butterfly Effect

The charging of high fees causes a chain reaction, starting with students having to take loans for their five-year course; an education at an NLU can end up costing upwards of Rs. 10 lakh. This serves as a sword hanging over a student’s head, forcing her to opt for employment that pays well, and hence the scramble for a corporate job. This, HNLU Raipur Vice-Chancellor Prof Sukh Pal Singh opines, is contrary to the object for which the NLU model was put in place.

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

“The very purpose behind establishing them was to produce good lawyers, judges, teachers and researchers from different sections of society. But, by and large, this objective is getting frustrated because students are not willing to go for judicial services, teaching, or even litigation.”

With the best talent opting for employment at firms, NLUs therefore, do little in the way of enriching the Bar. While it is a little premature to gauge their role in strengthening the judiciary, judging by present trends, one can safely assume that a law graduate from a National Law University has plenty of reasons not to opt to become a judge.

NLU, Everywhere

Time and again, concerns have been raised of the proliferation of NLUs across the country. An argument put forth to allay this fear is that the demand for legal education has increased exponentially over the past few years. But this argument fails to take into account some of the other drawbacks of the so-called “mushrooming” of NLUs.

Every legal academician will attest to the fact that there is a dearth of quality faculty in even the best NLUs in the country. And with the increase in the number of these universities, this scarce resource gets spread thinner still. Look at the faculty roster of any national law school and you will find an apparent lack of experience and quality. And for reasons mentioned earlier, the graduates of NLUs are not likely to buck this trend.

Moreover, the illusion that graduating from an NLU increases your chances of employment is simply not true, as is evidenced by the hiring trends of law firms and corporates over a period of time.

All this begs the question: What is it that really sets an NLU (barring the established ones) apart from a private law school or a law department of a University?

Light at the End of the Tunnel

A solution to this predicament, as NALSAR Vice-Chancellor Prof Faizan Mustafa elaborated back in 2012, is to bring these NLUs under the ambit of the central government.

Prof Faizan Mustafa, VC of NALSAR
Prof Faizan Mustafa, VC of NALSAR

“There should be a central statute for all law schools, just like all IITs and IIMs. We should come under the central government. Every year, some of the recurring expenses should be taken care by the government.

If you want us to run as a self-financing institution and you want us to pay UGC pay scale and have the best of the infrastructure then these law schools will have to have this kind of fees because the money is not coming from the government.

The government should start giving a recurring grant of around 5-6 crores (which would mean less than 100 crores for all law schools put together). This investment will give rich dividends; law schools will be able to attract people from lower strata of society, there will no burden of taking an educational loan.”

To achieve this end, a legislation titled The National Law Universities of India Bill, 2016 has been tabled in the Lok Sabha by Prof Sugata Bose. The Bill aims to aims to harmonise the functioning of NLUs by consolidating all concerned state law into a single central legislation. Most significantly, it proposes that such universities be accorded the status of ‘Institutes of National Importance’ and be centrally funded for effective discharge of functions.

The National Law Universities of India Bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha
The National Law Universities of India Bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha

The Bill mandates that the Registrar should not be below the rank of a Professor and that there shall be a Head for each department in the University. Further, it provides for a National Council, to be headed by the Union Law Minister. This Council will have the responsibility of, among other things, conducting CLAT, annual budget allocation, inter-university disputes and student grievances preferred before it.

An annual prescribed statement of accounts is to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and thereafter laid down before Parliament. These provisions place emphasis on greater transparency and supervision on a national scale.

In a nutshell, bringing NLUs under the scope of the Centre would solve funding crises, thereby dealing with the fees quandary; bring about greater transparency, thus holding the administration to higher standards; and limit unwarranted state government interference in the policies of the NLUs.

It is high time that a permanent solution be sought in order to realize the dream that once was. In the absence of the same, student protests at NLUs, particularly at the fledgling ones, will only become more widespread.

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