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Dr. Gurdip Singh is the current Vice Chancellor at the Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University in Lucknow. In this interview, the former Dean of Faculty of Law at Delhi University, talks about his decision to head to Lucknow, the challenges of academia and the common law admission test that RMLNLU will be conducting next year.
Bar & Bench: What brought you to RMLNLU?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: Firstly, I wanted to do something for the cause of legal education. I wanted the institution that I head to be par excellence in imparting legal education and in legal research. A national law university was the best place I could go to build an institution to my liking. A head of the institution can mould it the way he wants, he can mould the teachers and the students and shape their careers accordingly.
Bar & Bench: What made you shift from an established institution such as Delhi University to a new one such as RMLNLU?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: My belief is that younger institutions are the places where one can do more things. It’s not that I didn’t do anything at DU. As Dean of Faculty of Law [at DU], I made courses innovative and developed research enormously. But if you head a younger institution, you have more freedom, more leverage to take it towards excellence with a faster pace.
Bar & Bench: One of the first things you did at RMLNLU was to bring in permanent faculty
Dr. Gurdip Singh: Getting permanent faculty sanctioned in a place like Lucknow was not an easy job. I had to struggle to convince politicians, people from higher education, people from finance, governmental circles, bureaucrats, etc. But the [Uttar Pradesh] Chief Minister supported me in this endeavour. As a matter of principle, he agreed that we must have permanent positions. My belief has always been that teachers hired on a contract basis will leave if they get regular jobs elsewhere. Anyway, once I got the positions sanctioned, I filled up all the vacancies. You will be surprised to note that this is the only national law university where there is not even one teacher on contract, all are permanent. They are all ambitious, they have all been selected on merit.
Bar & Bench: In your experience, what attracts good faculty?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: One is permanence. Second, we want to attract meritorious people who are willing to contribute not only to teaching but also to research as well. If teachers feel that they have the opportunity to develop their personality and research skills, they will certainly join the institution. Although we are young, we have the best infrastructure, and our library is very well equipped. There are a lot of opportunities for doing research.
Bar & Bench: But don’t the teachers at NLUs have less time for research because of the number of classes and the academic pressure?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: I feel that a teacher has to continuously do research, it is part of his duty. When I was a young teacher in DU, I used to take as many as 23 classes a week. I used to teach in all three centres. I was initially a teacher and researcher, and later I got into administration. I completed two innings as professor-in-charge, then I was Dean of Faculty of Law, and now I am here as Vice-Chancellor. I have completed almost a decade in educational administration. At the same time, I have never divorced teaching and research. I always look for opportunities to teach in the classroom. If I can do so, why can’t my younger teachers? Without research, they can never be good teachers.
Bar & Bench: What are the incentives the faculty members have for research?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: If they are good researchers, they will have very good avenues in teaching, because they will have better chances of being promoted to the next post. Career advancement will not happen without performance. They can be appointed directly, before the end of the stipulated period, if they are good researchers. I became a reader much before time, not by way of career advancement, but by way of selection. At that time, there was no Assistant Professor, Associate Professor. It was lecturer, then reader, and then Professor.
Bar & Bench: What do you think of the five-year law program?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: When I was at DU, I was against the five-year program. When I visited national law universities, I found that the students there were very immature as compared to the students at DU. They could not digest or pick up things as quickly as my students at DU. Quite frankly, I never relished teaching students at national law universities. But later on, when I understood the structure of NLUs, I found that one can mould school students in any way. Unfortunately, the culture in NLUs was that the students wanted to join law firms, because of the quick money. In the process, they remain law clerks throughout their life.
Then, my mindset began to gradually change. At that time, I was probably not mature enough to understand the mindset of the students at NLUs. I wanted to mould more students to join the litigation side and that is possible in NLUs because you change their mindset. We are the first NLU where students share the dais with the Judges. After I became VC, my former student Dhananjay Chandrachud became Chief Justice of Allahabad. He was my student from LLB 1st year and remembers my discourses even now. Another one of my students, Sanjay Kaul was also a Chief Justice in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Bar & Bench: How were they as students?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: Chandrachud was very sharp, sincere and intelligent. Comparatively, I wouldn’t say Sanjay Kaul was naughty [but] he did all the things that students indulged in. He never sat in the front bench.
Bar & Bench: At RMLNLU, the Chief Minister is the Chancellor –
Dr. Gurdip Singh: That is incorrect. The CM is the Chairman of the General Council, RML does not have a provision for Chancellor in the statute. That is the reason why this post is different from those in other NLUs. The VC is not answerable to any higher authority. The University is completely autonomous.
Bar & Bench: What is your opinion on domicile-based reservation?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: As an academician, I would say I’m not for it. If there are reservations, we are compromising with merit. When it comes to reserved category, I can compromise on the merits, depending on the ability and calibre of the persons in that category. If you look at the Constitution, you will see that we have to assimilate various sectors in the mainstream. With that in mind, reservations become necessary. In UP, we have more reservations because there are more categories, but we are getting the best available from those categories.
Bar & Bench: Don’t you think the fees charged by NLUs really high?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: You are right, because at DU, the fees are very nominal. In NLUs, the fee structure is much higher, although at RML, we charge the lowest fees among the NLUs. This is despite the revision of fees during my tenure. It is good, in a way, for academics because only those students join NLUs who have made up their minds to enter into the legal field. If their minds are made up, they are easier to mould. Those who pursue law from traditional universities may do it if their minds aren’t made up yet.
Bar & Bench: But there could be some students who can’t afford the course
Dr. Gurdip Singh: Every NLU has some provision for financial assistance, although RML doesn’t have such a provision. But for SC/ST category students from UP, tuition fees is not charged as per government rules. I have been trying very hard to introduce a provision to help needy students. I try to help them in some or the other way. I have exempted the mess fee for needy students. I try to help them to get assignments where they can get paid while studying. It is my moral duty to help these students. If a VC wants to find a way, he will.
I myself did not have a sound financial background when I began my studies; all through my education, I got scholarships. I got selected in IIT, but unfortunately could not get a scholarship. After that I joined law in order to write the IAS exam. After I joined law, I became very involved in the subject. I topped in one semester and did not look back since. That is how life went on.
Bar & Bench: What is your opinion of the CLAT?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: There have been problems in the past with conducting the exam, therefore we have done our best to try and make CLAT fully online, from the giving out of applications to declaring of results. We have had presentations from IT people such as HCL and Pearson etc. In fact, ICICI Bank has suggested ways to make the fees payment process online.
Bar & Bench: Don’t you think that there should be a more efficient and permanent way of conducting the exam?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: The idea is that the process should be democratic and everyone should be given a chance. What happened [in 2014] has never happened before. There have been other problems, but not to this extent. I plan for even the test will be taken online, that is my perception and I am going to push for making the whole process 100% online. There should not be any possibility of any leakages.
Bar & Bench: Why do you think students should do law?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: In law, there are many avenues. It’s not that they have to go into practice. They have the private sector, public sector and also academics open to them. Youngsters must appreciate that law is useful in all walks of life. I come from a science background and still I pursued law. Back in the 1990’s I would work day and night with Dr. Abdul Kalam who was the director of DRDO. Prof. Kalam wanted to give legal infrastructure to the Indian missile technology when the US threatened to impose sanctions. Once he was convinced that I would be able to justify the development of the missile, he sanctioned the project on Indian missile technology and International Law to me. The scientists there had no concept of free time, they were all constantly working.
Bar & Bench: Last question, what drew you to academia?
Dr. Gurdip Singh: I have always relished and cherished academics. I realised that this would give me an opportunity to do inter-disciplinary research. The research that I do as a professor of law has scientific and technological dimensions.
And if I don’t teach, I feel there is a vacuum inside me. Teaching is a passion and at whatever stage you may be, passion is a unique thing. You cannot find the reasons why. It’s very strange.