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In the second part of this interview, newly appointed Vice-Chancellor of National Law School of India University Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy talks about the recent fee hike, the move to introduce state domicile reservation at NLSIU, and the Institution of Eminence tag.
Aditya AK: What is the status of the fee hike that was recently introduced at NLSIU? What are the options for students who will find it difficult to pay the fees?
Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy: The fee hike is a decision of 2018, and was finally implemented this year. Now, there was an Executive Council sub-committee that met the students, who have given us their report recently. What we are doing now is bringing together the many ingredients of that solution. Students should pay the old fee, no matter what; we are setting a timeframe for that.
Simultaneously, students who need scholarships can apply for the same. That timeline needs to be synchronized.
AK: Is there any cap on the number of scholarships?
SK: NLSIU does not have a large endowment fund for scholarships. Some of the general funds we receive are set aside for scholarships, but it is not open-handed. My understanding is that the budgetary set aside for scholarships is adequate to the number of applicants. But we are also allowing students who cannot pay the increased fees to present their cases to the Registrar. We will resolve those issues within a fortnight.
Hopefully, students will find this acceptable and we can move ahead.
AK: On the larger question of fees at NLUs, do you think they are justified?
SK: The NLUs must either receive grants from the state government or rely on fee-based revenue. On the third front, you might have some endowments, alumni contributions, or contract and consultancy projects. Too much is made of the contract and consultancy model; many people think it is sufficient to run universities, but given the data I’ve seen here, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Barring one or two, NLUs have reasonable state endowments. But the others have had to rely on fees. This is not a financial model exclusively of their creation, they are the creatures of their times. It’s not like universities are turning down government funds and saying ‘we want to charge higher fees’. We don’t have that kind of patronage anymore, so we have to do our best in this environment.
If you ask me what the optimal fee level should be, if you look at a number around the world, around 60% (of a university’s funding) should be covered by student fees. That’s what data around the world suggests, but maybe we have to find what that means in India.
AK: Would you agree that high fees influences the career choice of students, especially the ones who have taken education loans?
SK: Yes. We have to find ways to support students who choose careers that do not pay high salaries. I have had discussions with the fourth and fifth-year batches on this, and I am very open to exploring how to institutionalise a system that can make this happen.
Maybe we cannot do it for the current graduating batch, but for the current fourth years onwards, we should be able to at least offer some fellowships for students who choose litigation or other careers that might not raise high revenue upfront.
AK: What sort of role does the alumni play?
SK: NLSIU has had a strong alumni network. Ironically, it is not very well institutionalised; some of that work is ongoing. In my appointment process, I suppose they made their voice heard, and I hope that the galvanisation that has happened can continue onward. I want to engage them in meaningful ways.
I think it’s a mistake to think of alumni only as a resource of funds. My interest is to have a more thorough engagement with the alumni, and have them feel like they have a stake in this University. Contributions will naturally grow when that happens. But I am thinking of ways in which the alumni can contribute in non-monetary terms first.
AK: Is NLSIU facing a faculty crunch like other law schools? If so, what is the plan to address it?
SK: The good news is that the Executive Council has green-lighted the faculty recruitment process. We have to see what faculty we need, prioritise recruitment, and then begin the process. We have just begun that process.
But you must remember that faculty recruitment takes some time; 3-6 months at the very least. I am excited about the process. New recruits will bring new energy and life into the institution. The effects of this will only be seen close to a year from now if we begin today.
AK: What attracts quality faculty? Is it just the pay package?
SK: In public institutions, the pay package is relatively known and fixed. I think what attracts faculty is the clarity of the vision of the university. They need to have the confidence that their intellectual lives will be enriched. If we get bright people and get them to do only administrative work or training programmes, they may not be that excited.
We want them to come here to read and write. We have a reputation and opportunities that are global in scope. Today, a young faculty member coming here can have the opportunity a faculty member anywhere in the world would be envious of.
So, it’s not just driven by wages; the idea of what a good academic life plays a big role.
SK: We have formed a committee to look into all of the reservation criteria and try to work out an arrangement where we try to satisfy our stakeholders and the general public law. We will get some more clarity in 4-5 months. We will discuss this internally first, then go to our governing boards, which will take a view.
AK: Will introducing a domicile reservation dilute the “national” character of the University?
SK: NLSIU was certainly seen as a national pioneer and not a Karnataka law school. Having said that, my graduating batch (1998) had almost fifty per cent students who were domiciled in Karnataka. It is a state that has a very strong educational base; it has some of the best schools in the country. Our students are well placed to get in anyway.
There are contrasting demands to being a national law school. But also if we get significant state resources, we can pay due respect to those considerations. I am not sure how the issue will settle, but first I want to gather all the information. Do we have an adequate number of students from the state? What should that number be?
If you look at our 30-year history, we have contributed to significant transformations in the state. Karnataka is probably the heart of legal education both in the public and private sphere. Except for the Jindal Global Law School, most of the vibrant private institutions are here. NLSIU has a significant part to play in that. I feel that we have already delivered to this city and this state.
AK: There have been calls from different quarters for a rethink on the five-year programme. What do you think is lacking?
SK: The new National Education Policy that came out a few months ago calls for the need of multidisciplinary universities and strong undergraduate liberal education. Clearly, the national law school model compromises on both those ideas in the broader sense. We are mostly single-discipline universities and tend to scrimp on the BA part. So, the Policy makes us think a bit about our model.
Sometimes we play on the binary between the five-year and the three-year programme, as if there are only two choices. Three-year programmes have their own qualities.
When Prof Madhava Menon set up NLSIU, he was not suggesting that all three-year programmes were not worth sustaining. He thought the five-year programme would bring in fresh energy, which it has. But we ought to look at the parts of the five-year that we ought to sustain, and what parts we might want to change.
For NLSIU, at this point, my priority is to restore and sort out the immediate crises. These questions will be opened up in the medium term.
AK: Are you in favour of having NLSIU and other NLUs declared as ‘Institutions of Eminence’? Is there some sort of a joint effort towards that goal in the works?
SK: I am not sure if any of the other NLUs have applied, I know that we have not applied. I am so new here that I cannot say if there is a group of NLUs working in that direction.
It is a viable direction, at least for some of us. We’ve brought great energy to the education system in the country. The alumni of this law school are testament to its success. We have a track record of delivering. If the Institution of Eminence tag is a recognition of success, then we should be right up there for consideration.
AK: What are some of the benefits that will come with recognition?
SK: The first advantage, of course, would be resources. There are some regulatory freedoms which are relevant. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to widen our student base and re-formulate our programmes in a way that will serve out academic and intellectual purposes the best. The Institution of Eminence tag will give us the freedom to do that.
Thirdly, it will be a huge reputational boost. If we get it, we can plan our next steps in terms of where we want this law school to be.