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It has been a little over three years since Dr. Poonam Saxena took over as Vice-Chancellor of National Law University, Jodhpur. In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, she discusses why she thinks the NLU experiment has worked, the autonomy of NLUs, and much more.
Aditya AK: Could you take us through your academic career?
Dr. Poonam Saxena: I completed LL.B. from Campus Law Centre in 1979, LL.M. from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi in 1981, my PhD Fellowship in the following year, and was selected as an Assistant Professor in July 1982 at Campus Law Centre.
I taught at the University of Delhi till 2013, with stints at all three Law Centres. I became Professor-in-charge of Law Centre-II first in 2007 for a period of three years and for a second term in 2013. Thereupon, I was selected as Vice-Chancellor of the National Law University, Jodhpur.
AK: Which do you prefer, the Socratic teaching method or the lecture method?
PS: I don’t think we can compartmentalise it. As a teacher, you have to sustain the interest of the students, communicate the substantive law and at the same time encourage them to be interactive, clear their doubts and relevant queries.
They have to be made aware of the importance of the subject and how it is going to benefit them in the future. So when we take classes, we use every possible method we can conceive of. Interaction with the students is very, very important.
If there is some gap in communication, by inviting questions, the whole class can be encouraged to participate. Everyday life examples of what they are studying can be very helpful.
Despite our age and the kind of learning we were imparted when we were students, we must constantly update ourselves with not only the substantive law but new teaching methods as also with latest technology. In the teaching profession, one cannot afford to be static. Just as we learn new developments in substantive law, you have to learn new methods in teaching as well.
AK: What challenges did you face when you joined NLU Jodhpur?
PS: When I first joined, I realised that the University does not run on government support. We do not accept money from the state government or the UGC for our day-to-day expenses.
We only received money for infrastructural development. This creates challenges to raise finances, but on the other hand, ensures autonomy.
I found that the University offered three programmes at the undergraduate level but certain programmes were not productive at all. There were no takers for the B.Sc. LLB course, for example, and we were running them just as a part of our legacy. In 2014, only four students opted for this.
It was a very expensive course, because we needed to have different laboratories and a number of faculty members.
Secondly, there were also some challenges with respect to placements of students. I do not want to go into the reasons, but we did make a few changes, and the results were remarkable.
The other challenge was the huge staff. Most NLUs have been allotted 50 acres of land, and have around 50 support staff. We had 160; I had to figure out how to use them in an efficient manner.
AK: How have the career trends of students changed over the years?
PS: Out of a batch of say, 100 students, only 50-60 want placement in law firms. There are still those 40-50 students who explore other options. The trend now is that students are attracted to civil services, judicial services and litigation as well.
There is a large section of students who have taken loans for their education, because the fees is high, they need to repay the loans, so for them, joining litigation is not a preferred option. For the initial three or four years, they work in law firms, after this, they attain some financial stability. Then they take a pause and think about what they actually want to do with their life. That is when they join litigation, enter academics or do something else. At this point, they either become used to the corporate culture or do what they really want to do.
If you are given a platform where you can take chances and decide what to do with your life after three or four years, it is a very positive achievement.
AK: What is the way around the fees problem?
PS: At NLU Jodhpur, we don’t charge very high fees, but at the same time, it is not subsidised. That helps the University to maintain its autonomy; we are not dependent on any outside source. We have an IPR Chair funded by the MHRD, but apart from that, we are dependent only on the students’ fees for day-to-day expenses. Subsidising the fees would impact the overall growth and impact of NLUs.
Through planned financial management, we are able to create funds for scholarships for students. This time, we have created a corpus of Rs. 10 lakh for establishing two scholarships on a merit-cum-need basis.
This starts in the second year onwards, so that students who are really meritorious can have their fees waived. We also have eight Aditya Birla Scholars. The entire fee of these students is taken care of by the Aditya Birla Group.
In our state, the government also provides [financial] support, where they provide full tuition fee for students coming from socially sensitive categories. So, there are many avenues through which the meritorious students’ fees can be taken care of.
AK: How has NLU Jodhpur dealt with the dearth of quality faculty?
PS: We have recruited faculty at different levels. The recruitment is through interviews and presentations and also through sample classroom teaching. For grooming young faculty, we watch the performance of LL.M. students. Those who are good are taken as teaching assistants through regular process.
They are full of energy, dedicated and work very hard. Around six or seven teachers at NLU Jodhpur are graduates from various other national law schools and have had exposure at the post-graduate level from universities abroad. Many people working in law firms also want to teach on and off. For example, we have a very strong alumni lecture programme, where lectures are given by our alumni. We are fortunate that we do not have a faculty crunch at all.
AK: What is your opinion of the students?
PS: The quality of students is very promising. We want them to learn and enjoy their time here and evolve as competent lawyers and good human beings. On their own, they are taking up projects, filing PILs on behalf of people who cannot help themselves.
Our Legal Aid and Awareness Centre is doing some remarkable work. They have undertaken a project to implement the Right to Education Act at the village level schools in Jodhpur. The students also train underprivileged children in nearby schools. On their own they visited 110 schools, and interacted with the students. They presented their study to the government and the judiciary, and now they want to undertake the study for the whole of Rajasthan.
They have written articles in newspapers and performed skits to make people aware of their rights. As a consequence of these activities, we get letters from the community asking for solutions to their problems. They trust the students and faculty of NLU Jodhpur for redressal of their legal grievances.
AK: Do you think there should be a CLAT permanent body?
PS: We are definitely encouraged with the way CLAT was conducted this year and have full confidence in the NLUs conducting it. We have regular meetings of the CLAT body where all the Vice-Chancellors participate to effectively conduct the exam through rotation. So I don’t think there should be a permanent body, and every NLU should get the opportunity to do it.
AK: Do you think the NLU model has been successful?
PS: Yes. One of the measures of success of a particular field of education is whether you are able to make it attractive and job-oriented for majority of the students.
Students want to take CLAT because they see that they have a future if they study law. That, I think, is the biggest achievement.
Of course, we have to improve it further, but you cannot say that there is one particular thing that is lacking and needs to be targeted. There are lots of small things that need to be aimed at.
AK: Professor Madhava Menon suggested a 4+1 programme, where the law subjects are taught in four years and one year is reserved for teaching the practical aspects of law.
PS: There is an impression that if you go to law school, you have to go only for litigation. But people study law not only to practice in courts, but for several other activities that are short of court room lawyering. This suggestion is very necessary for those who want to join litigation. There are a number of students who want to pursue litigation but do not have any lawyer or judge in the family, so they have to experiment on their own.
But at the same time, the Bar Council previously had also come up with that one-year apprenticeship rule before enrolment and practicing law, but that was not successful. One feasible option is that for the procedural papers, we should have practicing lawyers coming and teaching that subject and court visits of students should be made more frequent.
That will be better than reserving a whole year only for practical papers. Apart from that, I think the system is okay. There should be flexibility while designing course curriculum.