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In Part II of this interview with Bar & Bench, NLIU Bhopal Vice-Chancellor Prof V Vijayakumar talks about the fake degree scandal at the University, recent initiatives of the CLAT Consortium, how NLUs can contribute to society, and more.
The first issue Prof Vijayakumar had to address was that pertaining to the Examination Section’s manipulation of exam results. The Justice Gohil Committee, formed to look into these allegations, had found that NLIU staffers manipulated marks and helped students get fake degrees from 1998 to 2013. The committee found that a total of 188 students were given degrees under these circumstances.
Speaking about his plan to address the “fake degree” scandal the new VC says,
“Having had the experience of being Registrar of NLSIU for three years, I had the opportunity to manage things at a law school. I have fixed many loopholes at NLIU, whether they pertain to accounting or management of people. As I had done a lot of examination-related work earlier, I sorted out those issues as well. Now, no one can question our independence and ability to maintain confidentiality.
"When I came to Bhopal, I found that the mode employed by the examination committee was unpardonable. For example, if a student secures 49.5 in a subject, it is for the examination section to modify it to 50. Neither the teachers nor the people working in the examination section understood the implications of the grading system. So, people who got 45 and 49 marks were all graded together. You are not going to lose anything by giving 4 grace marks, but the method they followed was not good."
"The people working in the examination section saw this and got the courage to do anything they wanted to. Therefore, there were about 35-36 candidates who did not deserve the result they got. That is when the Justice Gohil Committee came into the picture.
We have gone through the details and put together as much material as possible. Finally, the General Council gave some orders which we followed. The next General Council has to announce the result. Some people who wrote the special exam have failed; we need to find a solution for them.”
The whole episode called for a change in the functioning of the examination section. Prof Vijayakumar says,
“I have now constituted an Examination Committee; the individual teachers are in charge of each batch. I am trying to urge the teachers here to be more transparent and open so that an issue like this doesn’t happen again."
Having sorted out the initial issues, what is his long term vision for NLIU Bhopal? Research seems to be the priority for Prof Vijayakumar.
“I believe it requires at least ten years to mould a law school. It has been eighteen months [since I took charge], and I am happy about the progress so far. Now, the speed has to pick up. By the end of my tenure, I want to see NLIU Bhopal as one of the top law schools in the country.”
On the research initiatives, he says,
“We had a wonderful asset in the Rajiv Gandhi National Cyber Law Centre, which offers a two-year Master’s programme in Cyber Law and Information Security (MCLIS). Somehow, it has become a rudderless ship. Once I saw the potential, I gave lots of liberties to the teachers working there. By the time I came, the Diploma courses had stopped. So I had to write to the UGC to revive the courses. I am very happy to say that now, there is 100% placement for the MCLIS course and the demand is very high.”
Prof Vijayakumar strongly believes that NLUs must do their best to contribute to society, as opposed to merely imparting education. He speaks of an inter-NLU initiative to help train police officers in understanding the law.
“We have signed an MoU with the National E-Governance division of the Government of India. We plan to train police officers in Cyber Crimes and Cyber Forensics. It is a collaborative initiative with NLSIU Bangalore and NLU Delhi where we will train police officers online and through face-to-face interactions.
The aim is to create a foundation of understanding of law in general, and then teach them about the interface between law and technology. It is a good example of how a law school can interact with society in a meaningful way. I have been creating the groundwork for the past one year and we now need to apply to NAAC for accreditation.”
The conversation moves on to Prof Vijayakumar’s role as head of the CLAT Consortium of NLUs, which recently made announcements regarding next year’s exam as well as initiatives aimed at bettering legal education.
In November last year, the Consortium had announced a change in the pattern of the CLAT exam, eliciting concerns from potential candidates. One of the changes was to do away with the Legal Reasoning section of the paper. It was also later announced that the exam would be for 150 marks (as opposed to 200 in the previous years). Justifying the changes, Prof Vijayakumar says,
“I have been involved with the CLAT right from the beginning. The feeling was that it was becoming a routine, in terms of the types of questions and answers. I was totally against having Legal Reasoning as a subject in CLAT, because it does not make sense to test the candidates’ knowledge of law. Is it possible for anyone to complete 200 questions in two hours?”
Candidates, especially those who had been training for the exam for the last two years with the old pattern in mind, had expressed concerns that the announcement was made at short notice, just six months from the exam in May 2020. In response to these concerns, Prof Vijayakumar says,
“The violation of anyone’s right or liberty is out of the question; it is a test. There have been complaints that some students have been trained in this pattern for the last two years. The original pattern served the initial purpose, but we need to revamp it for the future.
We plan to upload some test papers on the website, so the students can train themselves for the next 4-5 months. There will be sufficient time; nobody’s interest will be affected. We decided to streamline it in such a way for the larger interest. It is nothing but part of a constant effort to improve the quality of the exam.”
The CLAT Consortium had also announced that it would put in place training programmes for teachers. Elaborating on this, he says,
“Up until now, there was nobody to train the law teachers. The UGC has these Academic Staff College programmes, but law schools are not doing enough to contribute. Nobody gives 21 days’ leave to teachers, because they are all contract-based employees. So it is only the private college people who go for this. Besides, there is very little training that actually happens at these programmes.
Therefore, we thought we would make a training module and schedule it in such a way that it coincides with the vacation of all schools. We plan to make it mandatory for all teachers to attend.
As I mentioned NET is not an adequate qualifying exam for law teachers. There are those who get selected and don’t know anything about curriculum planning. So we need to educate them and tell them the importance of having a teaching plan and how to take the help of technology in doing this.
This is yet to be decided on by the Consortium, but I made this proposal. The moment the NET results are out, we will ask them for a list of successful candidates. These candidates will undergo a three-month training exercise before joining. They will also be given an honorarium for this period. At the end of this, we hope they will be better law teachers."
Another initiative floated by the Consortium was the introduction of need-based scholarships for law school students.
“In many places, we see that students are not able to pay the fees. There are a number of scholarships given by the state governments and the Centre. For SC/ST students, the Ministry of Social Welfare compensates the full amount of fees."
"But there are occasions when people do not belong to any of these categories, and cannot pay the fees. There are examples of students whose parents earn 5-7 lakh a year, but have three or four children to educate. So, they will not be covered by scholarships. We are looking into the possibility to assist such students. It will not be open for students to apply and get it; it will be purely need-based and will depend on academic performance. There will also be a requirement of at least 80% attendance."
"We are also looking at Fellowships for faculty members. There are a number of opportunities for them to go to foreign countries for exposure, but some of them are not in a position to fly abroad out of their own pocket. It will also be an opportunity for the Consortium to work with faculty abroad, who will also be invited here. We are in the process of framing rules for these initiatives and getting them approved by each Vice-Chancellor.”
On the larger vision of the CLAT Consortium, he says,
“We also need to graduate from a being a body that just conducts CLAT to a centre that will contribute to the meaningful upgradation of legal education in the country. That is the motto of the Consortium of CLAT law schools.”
The Consortium now consists of 22 NLUs spread across the country, with even more in the pipeline. Does this “mushrooming” of NLUs have a tendency to dilute the brand?
“Now we feel that there is nothing wrong with starting a National Law University in every state. There is a mandate given by the Chief Justice of India during the Chief Justices’ Conference in 2016 that there should be an NLU in every state.
But the NLSIU model should not be a standalone model. There a number of other law colleges in each state. To what extent can NLUs help them so that they benefit from their status, needs to be looked into."
"National law schools need to reorient themselves to think what they can do for the community. We need to contribute to research and literature that may not be available to other law colleges. That is one of the aims of the CLAT Consortium. Each NLU that is established could also extend a helping hand to other law colleges in the state."
"For example, if am a teacher at an NLU who is working on reading material on Constitutional Law, I can make it available for other teachers in the state.”
The NLU model has been followed ever since the inception of NLSIU in 1986. Yet, to this day, most NLUs face a financial crunch, with state governments loath to release funds after having promised to do so.
There has been a conscious effort to try to get funding from the Central government, which funds premier institutes like IITs and IIMs. On the campaign to get NLUs recognised as Institutes of Eminence, Prof Vijayakumar says,
“We have been trying for this; we had submitted a petition to the Government of India. Once Parliament declares NLUs as an Institute of Eminence, allocation of funds will come from the Centre. There was a school of thought saying that political interference will come in once Parliament gets involved. I don’t think so. IITs and IIMs are also Institutions of Eminence and do not face that problem. We have been trying, but nothing has come through.
In the recent CLAT Consortium meeting at Patiala, we gave a written memorandum to the Chief Justice of India, who promised to look into it. There have been a plethora of bills drafted for granting this status to NLUs.
There was a Legal Education Report submitted by Sudarshan Nachiappan as the Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Reforms. Their intention is to earmark some NLUs - the leading law schools region-wise - to be recognised as Institutions of Eminence. The others will gradually get it, over a period.
The basic intention is to be recognised on par with IITs and IIMs. When we have law graduates in important positions in India and around the world, why should we not get that recognition?”
Speaking about the benefits of such recognition, Prof Vijayakumar says that once funding is taken care of, the administrators of NLUs can focus more on how to improve the other aspects of the University.
“Now, the primary job of a Vice-Chancellor is to look for money. Once that is taken care of, more attention can be given to education, training, publication etc."
For now, the fact remains that NLUs - especially the more recently opened ones - are unable to meet the demands of the students, who pay upwards of Rs 2 lakh per annum in fees. This is evident from the demands raised during recent protests at RGNUL Patiala, HNLU Raipur, and even NLIU itself.
On the topic of these student protests, Prof Vijayakumar says that all the stakeholders need to play a role in ensuring the smooth functioning of the University. Going public with protests dents a law school’s public perception, he says.
“An academic environment at a law school has three legs - the administration, the teachers, and the student body. For any law school to excel, all three must work together. If the administration is irresponsible and not sensitive to the needs of the people, then things will go bad. When one folds, the tripod cannot stand on two legs.
Ultimately, it is the faculty that is most responsible for creating an academic environment. If they can keep the students’ attention for 45 minutes a class, it will go a long way."
"Today, in the ranking of law schools, public perception plays a major role. If you see in the news that the students of a university are protesting, the image of the law school in the minds of the people goes down. The students also need to understand their role. Their demands might be genuine, but an in-house solution must be found, rather than going public. Of course, there is a right to strike, but the impact of strikes needs to be understood. But, if something has to come out, it will come out in the public. Beyond a point, we cannot keep it within the university.”
He is in favour of having an organised student body at NLUs, much like the system in place at NLSIU.
“We need to promote responsible students consciously. They need to be part of a Student Bar Association. If at all there are any concerns, the SBA will come and represent the matter to us. If there is no platform for the students, they will go the way they want to.”
Having been promised the moon when they joined these “premier institutions”, it is understandable that students will take to the streets if basic facilities are not provided. However, Prof Vijayakumar says that there is only so much the law school administrations can do, given their dependency on state government funding.
“To what extent a law school can respond to the needs of the students depends on the finances. Not all law schools have the financial support they were initially promised. The state governments promise great things at the start, but absolutely no funds come through.”
He believes that the external administration needs to play a bigger role in ensuring the success of NLUs.
“The external administration - the Chief Justice of India, the Chancellors, the state governments and the Bar Council of India - need to take a relook the status of legal education.”
On the topic of perception of an NLU, what does he think about the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) ratings, which annually list the top law schools in the country?
“I do not know, but it certainly enhances public perception. We were ranked 11th by NIRF inspire of all the negative news. Whether someone will choose a law school based on these rankings, I don’t know. But it certainly contributes to the decision making process.”