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Prof Sukh Pal Singh is the Vice-Chancellor of Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur. A seasoned academician, Prof Singh was previously at Banaras Hindu University before moving to Raipur.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, he talks about how students of traditional law colleges compare with those from NLUs, the challenges faced by a VC of an NLU, what it takes to set a controversy-free CLAT paper, and much more.
Aditya AK: How would you compare traditional law colleges with NLUs?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: In national law universities, we emphasise more on higher things like case law, articles and moot courts. But in traditional universities, we emphasise more on the fundamentals. We used to bank upon the bare acts and explain the bare act with the help of illustrations and leading cases. So this was the basic difference.
In traditional law universities the students’ knowledge is sounder as compared to students of national law universities, because if you ask the students of NLUs about the fundamentals of law, they are not very sound.
Until and unless you understand the basics of law, you cannot understand the law in all its dimensions, because whatever case is decided, whatever article is written, whatever higher things are being created in the field of law, they are all based on fundamentals.
This trend might be because of the weakness of teachers also. They may fail to understand or make the students understand the dimensions of the bare act. A good teacher must be clear about all the aspects of the provisions of the bare act, only then can he satisfy the students.
Students of the traditional universities qualify for judicial services, civil services, but in national law universities there are very few who dare to attempt these exams because they do not know the fundamentals to the extent to which they are supposed to.
Aditya AK: Which course do you prefer, the 3-year course or the 5-year course?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: There are plus and minus points in both the courses. Even in the 5-year course, we cannot teach all the laws. For example, take environmental law, in which there are 400 pieces of legislation. It is not possible to teach all the laws. So whether you keep it for 5 years or you keep it for 3 years, it hardly makes any substantial difference. People may differ with me on this point, but if you understand the fundamentals of law you can learn any law. And the fundamentals can be taught in three years itself.
Aditya AK: Don’t you think the fees charged at NLUs is exclusionary?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: Only a particular section of the society comes to the NLUs, the section which can afford to pay fees of NLUs. This is one of the weaknesses of NLUs. The very purpose behind establishing them was to produce good lawyers, judges, teachers and researchers from different sections of society. But, by and large, this objective is getting frustrated because students are not willing to go for judicial services, teaching, or even litigation.
They are trying to go for corporate sector because they have paid huge amount as fees, and therefore want proportionate return through placement. And it is not possible to repay the fees by going to judicial service examination or teaching or litigation.
Aditya AK: Do you think the central or state governments should provide additional funding to alleviate this situation?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: Of course, the state government, the central government and the UGC can do all these things. If they are funding so many central and state universities, why not the national law universities? Judging by the name of ‘national law university’, people think they are central universities, but they are actually state universities. The state too is not providing sufficient funds to maintain the universities.
Almost all the universities are self-financed except for [RMLNLU] Lucknow. There, the state is giving funds to meet the salaries of the teachers. Today I have got 59 positions and if I fill up all the positions, at least 15 crore will be required as salaries. But my whole income is 13-14 crore. Then how can I run this university in the way I wish? It is not possible.
So for that reason, I have got only 40 teachers. This is sufficient as per the UGC norms, but in order to open up more optional, honours, diploma, and certificate courses, we need more teachers. The same teachers cannot be deployed to teach in the classroom, to perform administrative work, to arrange seminars, conferences and do quality research. So until you lessen the burden of the teacher as a teacher, you cannot think of doing quality research.
If they are funding so many central and state universities, why not the national law universities?
Aditya AK: What can be done to attract more teachers?
SS: First of all, money has become the biggest factor. If, like the IITs and IIMs, we can have some different grades for teachers, then the law graduates or post-graduates may think of coming to this stream. But money is not the only criteria. Unless you have a passion for learning and teaching, you can never be a good teacher. Apart from salaries, there should be other facilities to attract faculty.
My university is thirty kilometres away from the city; we don’t have a school for the children of the faculty members. So, some of the teachers who have got small kids are not willing to reside inside the campus. Similarly, if you want to appoint teachers from distant places, they will spend huge amount on their travel to and fro their home or their native place. There is also a need for medical facilities and other things for post-retirement life. They must not feel that they are in and inferior position to that of the government servants or any other service sector.
Aditya AK: What were the challenges you faced as VC of HNLU?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: I had challenges and challenges only, nothing else! (laughs). When I joined this university as a VC, there was nothing in terms of facilities or infrastructure.
There was no boundary, roads, plants, drains, sports facilities and a few hundred books in the library and a handful of teachers. There was no work culture, and no rules and regulations to run the University. So I started not at zero but at negative!
When students came to me with so many genuine problems, I asked them to give me some time. I am perfectionist by nature; if I do something, I try to do it in the best possible manner. Keeping in view the financial limitations, I tried to do my best and within 5 years, this university has got everything. It has got a very good library with books of international standards. Every year, we purchase books worth 1.5 crore.
The whole of the academic block is air-conditioned we have chambers for the teachers. We created the cricket ground, the basketball court and a synthetic court of badminton for both girls and boys. The football ground and volleyball court will be ready within a month and a lawn tennis court will be ready shortly.
Aditya AK: You are now into your second term as VC. What is your vision for HNLU?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: In the coming years, I would like to have certain specialised departments of higher learning in the field of law, and for that I need good teachers. The problem is the unavailability of senior teachers. I have advertised for the post of associate professor and professor many times, but I am unable to get good teachers.
I have a locational disadvantage; this place is extremely far from Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Bombay. So even if I request retired teachers, they will not come. If they join here as associate professors, they need to go their native places. If they go by train, all the leaves will be consumed and if they go by air then the whole of the salary will be consumed! I am running this university with the help of young teachers only. Of course, they are very good, but it would be good to have senior teachers to guide the juniors in a better way.
Aditya AK: The HRD Ministry is undertaking the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). Do you think this will be an accurate gauge of the quality of law schools?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: I have seen the format on the basis of which they will be ranking, but that is very technical. I don’t think that on the basis of that format you can understand everything about the University. For example, they say that only those teachers who are permanent will be counted for the purpose of that, but in my University, the problem is as per the government policy, 58% faculty is to be recruited from the state of Chhattisgarh.
In this state, unfortunately we don’t have a single candidate to be eligible for the post of assistant professor and associate professor. So 58% of my posts are lying vacant, but I have to run the University.
We are compelled to appoint ad hoc teachers, and NIRF does not recognise ad hoc teachers. So my ranking will automatically come down, despite running the university in the best possible manner.
NLUs are like companies being run by the VC through his wisdom. If the VC has got some wisdom, if he has got some guts to arrange funds for the University, only then it can run properly, otherwise not. We have to work with whatever funds we have.
Aditya AK: How cooperative has the state government been?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: The state government is quite cooperative. Though we don’t get sufficient funds from them, they try to help whenever I ask. We fully finance students for attending international moot court competitions, international conferences, and seminars. Those funds are being given by the government of Chhattisgarh. The government gives us 1 crore per annum for this purpose.
Aditya AK: What do you think should be done to ensure that CLAT is conducted in an error-free manner?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: I conducted CLAT in 2013 and there have been reports from various corners, including yours, that CLAT 2013 was the best so far. Nobody knows why. I used to sit in this office till 2 in the morning every day. I was supervising each and everything, because I don’t have senior faculty. I used to have lunch, dinner and breakfast in this office only, continuously for 8 months.
It requires a lot of labour and application of mind. And it is not possible for every VC to give this much time for such a long period. As a result of that, problems are bound to occur. It involves variety of things, it is not an easy job.
Aditya AK: Would outsourcing the exam address the issues?
Dr. Sukh Pal Singh: Outsourcing was done by [RMLNLU] Lucknow last year, and even then problems were there. There should be outsourcing with application of mind.
The biggest problem with CLAT is to set the question paper, because whatever is written in the brochure is not well understood by the paper setters.
For example, in legal aptitude, paper setters think that we have to set some questions from different laws, whereas the students who are appearing for CLAT don’t have any legal background, they are not supposed to tax their brains on legal issues.
So, except for paper setting, other things should be handed over to some agency who is permanent in nature. One problem with all CLAT exams is that every VC starts with his own vision, with his own experience, and he does not have the benefit of the experience of his predecessors in conducting the CLAT. Experience of one person is not being carried forward to another.