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Prof V Vijayakumar was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of National Law Institute University (NLIU Bhopal) in 2018, amidst chronic student protests against maladministration at the law school.
A seasoned academician, Prof Vijayakumar has over 40 years of teaching experience, and has served as the Registrar of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) and Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Dr. BR Ambedkar Law University, Chennai.
In the first of this two-part series, Prof Vijayakumar talks about his role in building the first National Law University at Bangalore, working with Dr. Madhava Menon, and the decline in the quality of faculty in law schools.
Having completed his Bachelor's in Law in 1978, Prof Vijayakumar's first foray into legal education was at the University of Madras and at the Madras Law College, where he taught LL.M. students. After nine years of doing that, he felt that it was time for a change.
"When I completed around 9 years there, the National Law School at Bangalore was launched. I applied and went to Delhi for the interview, at my own cost. Dr Menon was looking for someone who could teach Constitutional Law and Political Science. I was among the eight faculty members selected."
Prof V Vijayakumar
Apart from teaching, Prof Vijayakumar was also part of the Examination Section at the University. When asked what it was like working with Prof Menon, widely regarded as the father of the NLU model, he says,
"He was in essence a drillmaster. I was given the responsibility to co-ordinate with Prof LN Mitra and streamline the examination section. The three of us - Professors Mallar, Mitra and I used to sit everyday, without looking at our watches, enjoying the work though it was clerical in nature. In almost 11 years, not once did Dr. Menon interfere with any of the results."
He goes on to give an example of the faith Dr Menon reposed in his colleagues.
"On a couple of occasions, we had foreign faculty come and teach at the law school. They used to give everyone 90-95 and above. Whereas at NLS, we had established a culture wherein very few people would get ‘O’. Some would get ‘A’ and ‘A+’, and a lot of students would get ‘B’ and even fail. But here, the foreign teacher was passing everyone with 90-95%.
As Chairman of the Executive Council, I sat with the Committee members and decided to scale the marks down, especially for those who failed in other subjects. The foreign teacher was very upset with this, and complained to Dr. Menon. After hearing both sides, Dr. Menon dismissed the issue with a single statement,
'What the Examination Section has done is correct.'
That gave us a lot of confidence to work. We were not worried about any interference, and at the same time, we did not play with anybody’s result."
This also facilitated the growth on NLSIU as a force to be reckoned with, Prof Vijayakumar said.
"We even worked on Saturdays and Sundays; every Sunday we had a conference or a seminar. Everyone back then worked to the best of their abilities, and that is how the law school grew."
Back then, did they ever imagine the heights to which NLSIU would reach?
"Certainly not. We never thought that NLS Bangalore would be cited as the precedent in the statutes passed by other states (to set up National Law Universities). That gave credibility to the institution that we built.
But that came with its own set of problems. It is very easy to reach the peak, but is very difficult to stay there. After the next two law schools were established - NALSAR and NLIU - it created a new challenge. Faculty members started moving away from NLS. So we had a new brand of youngsters coming in. Some of them fit in, and some didn’t."
From the perspective of the other law schools, Prof Vijayakumar says,
"Whenever legal education comes up, NLS Bangalore is the first name that comes to mind. So much so that the work done by other law schools goes. unnoticed. So there is a competition that is healthy."
The faculty crunch he mentioned with the advent of the new NLUs still continues to linger, he says. He lays particular emphasis on the availability of senior teachers.
"Today, it is very, very difficult for law schools to get senior-level academics.
If I advertise for the post of Assistant Professor, I might get 200-odd applications. For Associate Professor, it will come down to 15-16, and for Professor, may be 3-4, which will come from traditional law colleges. The same thing is happening for the Vice-Chancellor’s position as well.
I myself studied the three-year course, but people who have been teaching in the three-year stream from the beginning fail to understand the nitty-gritties of the five-year course. It is supposed to be an integrated course, but that is seldom implemented in any of the law schools.
It is the challenge of every law school to create an academic environment and to sustain it systematically year after year."
So where lies the solution to this issue of faculty, which nearly every law school faces today?
He goes on to say that the five-year BA. LL.B (Hons.) course is hardly an integrated course in practice. That again stems from the faculty shortage, he says.
"Another aspect is the implementation of the integrated course. The foundations of non-law subjects ought to remain in the minds of the students even when they pass out of law school, but this is not happening. These subjects are very important. For example, if one has a strong foundation in Economics, he can became a good practitioner in the area of GST or Income Tax.
We are not able to get the kind of people who can facilitate this integrated learning."
He looks back at a time when law teaching (and consequentially learning) was at its peak. He sheds some light on the co-operative model of teaching that was employed at NLSIU Bangalore in its initial years.
"We had the concept of co-operative teaching, where two or three teachers would go to a class together. We would say what we know, and the other faculty would put forth their points of view. We would fight over issues and give legal arguments based on the text of statutes, judgments, etc. We would also have people from social science backgrounds who would contribute to the discussions. It was a wonderful learning experience even for the teachers themselves."
He recalls a time when former Chief Justice of India ES Venkataramaiah would come to NLSIU to take lectures.
"After his retirement in 1989 till his death in 1998, Justice Venkataramaiah was teaching Constitutional Law at NLS, and I would accompany him.
When students would argue that a particular judgment was wrong, he would say,
'Please write to the Supreme Court so that they can review it!'"
He was also inspired by legendary Senior Advocate Ram Jethmalani, who would often deliver lectures at NLSIU.
"Ram Jethmalani used to come to NLS every year to teach Law of Evidence. He would sit in the library for almost four hours a day to teach for two hours the next day. These are things we need to understand and emulate so that we are able to meet the expectations of the students."
Prof Vijayakumar also credits the students for the level of discourse in the classroom.
"The students were trained to question everything. Our understanding of Constitutional Law is based not just on the books, but also on what the students contributed. We appreciated the efforts taken by the student body, batch after batch.
All the top lawyers today - Sajan Poovayya, Menaka Guruswamy, Vikramjit Bannerjee, were all devils in their own right. They would never allow us to leave the class without having their doubts clarified. They would sometimes even follow us to our rooms and discuss till dinner!
That type of environment is very difficult to create and sustain today. The co-operative style of teaching has gone, because the teachers are gone."
Technology, Prof Vijayakumar says, has played a huge role in the paradigm shift.
"Searching for cases etc has been become much easier and more focussed, so it saves a lot of time for students and faculty.
But unfortunately, we have become slaves of technology. Our ability to remember things like provisions is a thing of the past. Some teachers resort to just reading from slides, and this makes things boring for the students.
Over-dependence on technology comes at the cost of analytical powers, which are essential for any lawyer."