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Dr. Ranbir Singh, founding Vice Chancellor of NALSAR, Hyderabad is certainly no stranger to the field of legal education. Currently heading the National Law University Delhi, Dr. Singh took some time off to tell Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal about the four year old institution, the changing dimensions of legal education and why he believes that his University is competing with the best in the world.
Bar & Bench: First of all, thank you for taking the time out to speak to Bar& Bench. Could you tell us a bit more about your journey thus far in the field of legal education?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: For me the experience has been wonderful. I had been a part of National Law School Bangalore and in the year 1996-97 I got the offer to be a professor there for another three years. However I came back [to Haryana] since I was constructing my house. Then in 1998 the opportunity came to head the second law school, known as NALSAR in Hyderabad. And I stayed there for 10 years. It was a wonderful experience. From 1988 to 1998 I was in NLS and there was no other law school. Then in 1998, NALSAR was founded and in 2008, we actually overtook Bangalore in the sense that we were the best law school.
Bar & Bench: And is this when you decided to shift to NLU Delhi?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: I actually had no plans at that time and I [was not sure] whether I had to move to another place. I am from Haryana and there were some offers from the state to come to a traditional state university as Vice Chancellor. Some people knew me and my work but I was not very keen on going to a traditional university because I thought I would not be able to contribute much.
In the meanwhile, a kind of a discussion about NLU Delhi took place. Justice Bhandari (then judge of the Supreme Court) happened to visit Hyderabad. We spoke about NALSAR, about legal education etc. I had no idea what his real purpose for visiting NALSAR was. And then he casually asked me whether I was shifting back to Haryana and I told him that I had no immediate plans since I had just gotten my fourth extension for another five years.
So, I said I was not really sure whether I want to leave NALSAR. That is when he told me that there was another purpose to meeting me. He said that he was the Chairman of the Search Committee and Justice Sikri and Justice Jain are also there. He said that if I decided to come back, they would seriously consider my name for being the first Vice Chancellor of NLU Delhi.
I said I need some time. Jokingly he said that the best time to leave any place is when it is at the top and since I had done my job here and made NALSAR the best law school, I could perhaps use my expertise and vision elsewhere.
Bar & Bench: In what way did you use your experience at NLSIU while you were building NALSAR?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: I did make certain changes. One was, Bangalore had a trimester system and the first thing I did [at NALSAR] was to switch to the semester system. I found that in the trimester system, there was very little time for the students to participate in extracurricular activities. You need to give them some space for debates, moot courts, sports etc. There are a lot of activities that a law student can participate in.
I found that they were so hard pressed and strained for time; the moment one examination’s result would come out, another [round of examinations] would begin. Even the faculty would be busy all the time in the setting of papers, exams, revaluating papers etc.
I thought a semester system would give me more space in terms of organising conferences, seminars, workshops and that proved very beneficial.
Another thing was that Bangalore was not really 100% residential. And since NALSAR campus was about 30 kms from the city, I thought that I must have accommodation for each and every student. So we started creating hostels where everyone could stay.
In law schools, like IITs and IIMs, you learn more from your peer group. When you are staying with them, twenty four hours. I saw a lot of teaching taking place between seniors and juniors. And life is very different.
I tried to create a beautiful campus away from the city. The idea was that when I sat with the architects and was discussing the planning of the university, I said I want a building which is smart, elegant, environmental friendly, easy to maintain and I don’t want to spend much money on that. I want a place which has an academic ambience.
I wanted to create an environment which is similar to that of a home away from home. I was happy that I could create that. We created a lot of facilties in terms of video conferencing halls, conference centres, the classrooms. The only thing which I could not do, due to paucity of funds, was the auditorium. The auditorium is only coming up now. The plans were already there but sometimes the State does not have that much of money. That was the only big project that was left unfinished [by me].
Bar & Bench: What was the government support in each of the Law Schools?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: It was about 4 crore ($185,000) a year in Hyderabad. But in Delhi, things are certainly very comfortable. The Delhi government is very liberal. And I found that once you prove that you are on a mission to create a good law school and that message is gone, money is not really a problem. Everyone in the government is very supportive.
Bar & Bench: But do you find that if you take greater government support, then there is higher potential for interference?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: No, there is absolutely no interference. That is the best part. And the government support that I am taking is for making the buildings, for creating infrastructure etc. I have made it very clear to the government that once the infrastructure and other facilities are ready, the dependency on the government will be very less. Ultimately a time will come when I will expect very little money from the Delhi government.
Bar & Bench: So you want to be self sufficient?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: As far as possible.
And this will be possible through the entrance test that I conduct, through the admission fees and the training programs that we conduct for different stakeholders.
Bar & Bench: Speaking of the entrance exam, why have you chosen to have your own separate exam?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Let me frankly admit that CLAT became a reality because I took a very active part during my time at NALSAR. I had a series of meetings with Justice Khare and other judges and I was one person who had no apprehensions that this would be good system. This would be beneficial to both students and parents since there would be one entrance system.
So then you might ask why [NLU Delhi] did not become part of CLAT?
One of the reasons was that [NLU Delhi] would be the 13th law school [in CLAT]. So when students filled in their preferences, I would be the 13th choice.
I did not want that to happen, I wanted to be the first choice. So I said, come what may, it may take some time for me to grow but I don’t want to be the 13th choice at all. I would like to have students who are really interested in coming to NLU Delhi.
Bar & Bench: But now that you have established a certain brand name with NLUD, do you see yourself as joining CLAT in the future?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: No. Then there are other reasons for this. The second reason is that I was not very sure how the test would be actually handled. When I shifted to Delhi and NALSAR was organising the paper, you may remember that the paper leaked. The assignment which was supposed to go to Lucknow was found tampered. And that proved my point. I was not very sure about the quality of the test which would be conducted.
Initially one of the apprehensions in everyone’s mind was that if we had a common test we would be losing a substantial part of the revenue. So it was designed that the law school conducting the test would take 50% of the money, after deducting expenses, and the rest of the money would be shared by all the law schools. And the UGC nominee said that they would try their best to see that the UGC would compensate all the other law schools for their loss of revenue.
So with that understanding the law schools agreed [to hold CLAT] but that money never came through. That was another area where I found that my turn would come after 13 years and in that process, I would lose a lot of money.
Bar & Bench: And how has the response to the separate examination been?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: To my surprise, in the very first year I had 4,000 applications, the next year I had 6,000 applications, third year I had 8,000 applications. This year, I have crossed 11,000 applications.
Bar & Bench: So what are the factors that have made NLU D attractive to students in such a short span of time?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: One is infrastructure. We have beautiful facilities for students in terms of hostels, classrooms, auditoriums or the library. We have already invested 5 crore in the library. And the way we motivate students for participating in moots, debates or sports activities is unique. I believe in governance, to a great extent, by students.
Bar & Bench: When you say you encourage students to take part in extracurricular activities, in what form is this encouragement provided?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Attendance is one part. If any student will go to represent NLU Delhi for any program, academic leave is one part. They do not lose attendance.
Second would be that if they are going for national or international moots, the entire funding is done by the law school. The only law school that is doing this.
Bar & Bench: -Including air fare?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Everything. Whatever number of days, to whatever place; the entire bill would be paid by the law school. No other law school does this.
The reason why I started this was because of a conversation I had with a very learned Senior Advocate. He told me that he was facing a particular problem. Since a lot of law students were going for moot court competitions, they often come to him seeking financial assistance. If 20 students come to him, and even if he paid one thousand to each of them, he would end up spending 20,000 but each student would only get 1,000, which was nothing.
So he asked me whether I could devise a system where the students need not approach him. Then I decided to create a system whereby students are helped by the University.
Bar & Bench: So you get external funding for this?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Let me tell you what I did. When the students are admitted, they deposit some security for mess, library etc. I called the Student Bar Council, and I told them that I wanted to support them. I did not want them to go to lawyers and ask for money or, if I can put it in some tough words, beg for money.
I asked them whether they could part with 50% of the security amount which we would have to refund once they graduate. Ultimately the money would go their parents and not them. And this [parting of half the security amount] would be completely voluntary.
I told them that this money will be kept in a separate account and assured them that it would be used for the benefit of the students. And believe me almost 80% of the students did not ask for the refund. So that money accumulated over the years, then we also started getting endowments from other people.
Here, money is not a problem.
Let me also share this with you. The success of a law school depends on how the Vice Chancellor motivates the law students in all their activities, what kind of research facilities you provide, what kind of library you provide them, and what kind of opportunities you provide for them to grow.
Bar & Bench: But don’t you think that there is a concentration of power in the VC?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: No. There is no such concentration. Right from day one we have student committees, moot court committees, mess committees. They are elected. And all activities of the students are carried out by the students. They prepare a proposal, they go the Registrar, it gets examined and then they come to me for money. My job is to say “yes”. So the entire arrangement is done by the students. So there is complete decentralisation.
My job is to facilitate the events of the students, whatever they want to organise. To send them whenever they are selected for any program and also provide the best of facilities to the teachers.
This is a completely wi-fi campus, all teachers have their workstations, the classrooms are air-conditioned and fitted with multimedia teaching podiums. All facilities which any law school in the world can boast of, we have here.
I believe that my competition is not within the country. Let me frankly tell you, I believe that there is no competition at all [in the country]. In India, we have to learn that we must compete with the best in the world.
So whatever special courses I introduce, whatever seminar [courses] I introduce, I have to keep in mind that I am competing with the best outside India.
Bar & Bench: But then how do you get the same faculty as that in international law schools?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Delhi is slightly fortunate in that sense because people like to come [to Delhi]. Another thing I have done is that I am going to give IIT pay scales to the faculty. One objection could be that how could I do this despite being a State University. I said “no”, the extra money would be paid by the University and not by the government. This will be paid out of the funds that I generate.
So what is the problem?
Because ultimately if I didn’t do this, my faculty would go to DU or IP [University] or Jamia. In other words, academic poaching would happen. This way I would be able to retain the best of faculty because the teachers here have to work in a different environment.
Bar & Bench: But surely faculty is not attracted by money alone?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: No.The work environment matters. See teaching at IIT is a matter of prestige, teaching at IIM is a matter of prestige. Being with a national law school is also prestige issue. And fortunately we can offer that to them.
Bar & Bench: One of the criticisms of most national law schools is that they are expensive. Do you think that is a valid criticism?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: This is not at all a valid criticism. If you see my library, I have invested 5 crore in that. How many universities would invest 5 crore in a library in three years? This is a wi-fi enabled campus, you have the best software. If any software is available in Harvard Law School or Yale Law School or Oxford or Cambridge, I already have it.
Bar & Bench: But the criticism is more of access than actual costs-
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Another thing I want to ask you is what is the fee structure for IITs? 8 lakh for a five year course? IIMs?
You know my fee structure? 1.5 lakh. 1.5 lakh with everything included except the Mess Bill.
Bar & Bench: But isn’t 1.5 lakhs a large amount by itself?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: In comparison to the 7-8 lakhs charged by the IITs? If you think that 1.5 lakh is still a lot when compared to 8 lakh of an IIT, then I have no argument with you. Then I cannot convince you.
Bar & Bench: In terms of scholarships, do you think that is something that needs to be there?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: You read the newspapers?
Bar & Bench: Yes.
Dr. Ranbir Singh: How often?
Bar & Bench: On a daily basis.
Ranbir Singh: Day before. Three Fellowships were provided by the Bill Gates Foundation.
Bar & Bench: Yes. One of them is a NALSAR graduate, Suhasini Sen.
Dr. Ranbir Singh: What else do I need to say?
Every year a Rhodes Scholar is going from law. There are two Rhodes Fellowships, either one from Bangalore or one from Hyderabad or two from Bangalore or two from Hyderabad. There are only five Rhodes Scholar in all of India; two of them are taken either by Bangalore or Hyderabad. No IIT produces a Rhodes Scholar (smiles). No IIM produces a Rhodes Scholar.
Bar & Bench: Do you think that there should be greater integration of national law schools?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: We have that. We regularly meet each other, invite students for moot courts and sports festivals etc.
Bar & Bench: I meant more institutional integration such as student exchange programs-
Dr. Ranbir Singh: [Student] exchange within the country is not happening. I agree that there should be more exchange of students and of faculty. But now we are still in the process of consolidating. Student and faculty exchange would happen after some time. Everybody is still in the process of setting up things. After all ten-twenty years is not a long time in the lifetime of a university.
Bar & Bench: How do you see NLU Delhi developing in the next 5 years?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: I am sure it will be the best in the country and competing with the best outside the country as well. Otherwise why would students come to NLU Delhi?
Last year, this student from Chennai qualified for IIT Madras, Stephens, and also was the 5th rank in CLAT. She should have joined Bangalore. She cleared my test as well and she asked me where she should go. I said I don’t know, you have to go to all the places and meet the faculty, the students etc. Ultimately she ended up joining NLU Delhi.
My brand is my student. If they feel I am good then I am good, if they feel that I am not good then I am not. My responsibility is to meet their expectations. If they come with huge expectations then I have to give them the best that I can. And I do.
Bar & Bench: What I meant was that is there a scholarship system within NLU Delhi? Is there any form of financial assistance that you provide?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Oh okay (smiles).
That is very simple. Most of the students come from [financially secure] families. The mandate here is that if any student is unable to support him or herself, the student should file an application to me saying that due to the financial constraints, the student is not able to pay the fee and requires this amount of financial assistance.
There is a Committee for this. The request of the Vice Chancellor will go that Committee, the Committee will look into the application, make their recommendations to the Vice Chancellor and it will immediately be approved and sanctioned.
Even if the student is not able to pay for 5 years, there will be a total fee waiver. And if by chance, there is an incident of death in the family and there is no one to support the family, then there are occasions where I call the child and ask, “Will you be able to carry out your studies without financial assistance? If you ever face any difficulties, just write to me.”
There are instances, both in NALSAR and here where the fees for the rest of the period have been waived. Because I seriously believe that when a student has to face the stress of financial difficulties, that student will not be able to put in his/her best. Once they join us, they are part of a family.
Bar & Bench: You have obviously been in this profession for a long time. When you look back what is the best thing about this profession?
Dr. Ranbir Singh: Just seeing the young people grow every day. We just plant a sapling, and when you see a leaf, a branch, a fruit or a flower emerge, that is when I am happiest. I remember that quote from Michelangelo who said that “I do nothing, the statues already have beautiful figures inside. My job is to chisel it and bring it out”. So I think that inside all my students are the best lawyers, my job is to chisel it and bring it out. You could call me a statue maker.
What would you tell students who want to join NLU Delhi? What can they expect from this institution? What is the academic schedule like?
Expect the best of education, best of research facilities, the best library and the best opportunities to grow. I don’t think the academic schedule is that tough, certainly not as tough as the IITs since we don’t have practicals. But still it is difficult because you are expected to research every semester and for every paper. So that agenda has to be there. If you want to excel in life, you have to learn to work hard. There is no short cut to hard work.