NUJS Review Commission acknowledges fork in the road; SJA demands ouster of VC Ishwara Bhat

The report of the first ever Review Commission for the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) dated October 31, 2017 was finally made public recently, following demands by the Student Juridical Association (SJA).

While navigating various issues within the University, the Commission admits that there are systemic issues of maladministration that require urgent redressal in National Law Universities (NLUs) across the country.

The students are right. This is a wake-up call to each of use involved with legal education.

The report records this acknowledgement with reference to the following statement submitted by student stakeholders.

Administration of NLUs have subjected students to increasingly stringent rules and regulations while simultaneously reducing facilities available to them…the continuous fights for basic survival and a right to decent education may leave us too drained and disillusioned to be of any use to society.

The Commission admits that there are systemic issues of maladministration that require urgent redressal in National Law Universities (NLUs) across the country
The Commission admits that there are systemic issues of maladministration that require urgent redressal in National Law Universities (NLUs) across the country

Following a detailed analysis against defined benchmarks, the Commission has proposed a lengthy list of recommendations to revamp the functioning of NUJS.

Certain broad observations made in the process are worth noting, particularly given their relevance for NLUs in general.

Quality over Quantity

A large part of the report focuses on the need to improve the quality of legal education. To this end, the Commission has recommended decreasing student intake, increasing faculty appointments and reorienting pedagogical approaches.

The skewed ratio of the student to teacher population in NUJS has been specifically noted.

NUJS’s student strength has increased 122% since 2002 whereas its faculty strength has increased only 6% in the same period. NUJS today has an unacceptably low faculty-student ratio of 1 faculty : 22 students.

On the other hand, the report also makes note of the declining quality of faculty in NLUs.

National law schools are today themselves struggling with a serious crisis of quality of teaching and research. They receive, happily a flood of brilliant students each year. However, there is acute shortage of quality teachers and administrators.

When it comes to faculty recruitment at NUJS, the Commission therefore recommends that the selection process be revised and strengthened.

To deal with the declining quality of teaching and research, the Commission has also suggested the appointment of a Dean (Teaching) monitor the quality of teaching for LL.B. and LL.M. students.

Meaningful Legal Education is the need of the hour

Notably, the Commission emphasises that in an age where knowledge is freely available on the internet, a conventional approach to teaching would mean little in terms of value addition.

The value added to a student in spending five (or three) years in basic legal education is not clear in an age in which legal knowledge is freely available on the internet. There is no systematic attempt to assess the quality of teaching, learning, or research and hold teachers and researchers accountable in a meaningful way.

“There is no systematic attempt to assess the quality of teaching, learning, or research and hold teachers and researchers accountable in a meaningful way.”
“There is no systematic attempt to assess the quality of teaching, learning, or research and hold teachers and researchers accountable in a meaningful way.”

Among other suggestions, the Committee recommends the establishment of a Permanent Curriculum Review Committee to push for innovative changes in the University curriculum.

Interestingly, the Commission has also proposed allowing students to opt for career specific curriculums in the fourth and fifth year of law school. Following the proposed model, students can opt for taking up any of the following streams towards the latter part of the legal education i.e. litigation and adjudication (for those who wish to join the Bar or the Bench); corporate and economic law; legal academics (for those who wish to teach or research); and public law (for those who wish to join the civil service or work in civil society).

The case for research-oriented academics

On a broader note, the report also emphasises the need to shift to a research-oriented academic environment.

The old distinction between research and teaching is disappearing because teaching can no longer be in the mere transmission of information available freely on the internet. Research has therefore become essential to teaching.

To promote a research-oriented university, the admission of doctoral students to the University also has to be guided by the research strategy and availability of supervisors. Given such priorities, the Commission recommends that the admission of PhD students be put on hold in NUJS for the time being.

In our view the current strength of 68 Ph.D. students is excessive in relation to the number of faculty guides qualified and available to supervise Ph.D. work. We would recommend that further Ph.D. admissions be out on hold until there is adequate faculty strength to supervise the Ph.D. programme.

Further, it has been suggested that a Dean (Research) position be created, with the responsibility to enhance the quality and programmes of research, including creating and implementing research partnerships.  

The anomaly of “student-run” institutions

The report makes note to repeatedly appreciate the working of the “exceptional” Student Juridical Association (SJA) in aiding the Commission’s analysis as well as in the general functioning of NUJS.

Nevertheless, the Commission has expressed reservations on the idea of the University being described as “student-run”. The report emphasises that the University must be run by its officers and its faculty under the law.

However, student representatives may be given a meaningful role to play.

Students may be given responsibility commensurate with their experience and knowledge, and to the extend it would be safe to impose on them the potential serious liability (including to imprisonment) that necessarily goes with administrative responsibility.

In line with this reasoning, we would suggest that the elected President of SJA be made a non-voting invitee to the General Council of the University so that student concerns may be directly raised in the GC.

This may avoid future situations such as the one in which the University finds itself, in which the students body reaches a point of completely losing trust in the administration.

Notably, it has also been recommended that a Dean (Student Welfare) be appointed to address student grievances, which an over-stretched administration is unable to address promptly.

Further, the report calls for the appointment of an Independent Ombudsman, reporting directly to the Executive Committee, to ensure that grievances are attended to promptly and fairly.

Other Issues

The report notes that 153% of the University’s expenditure is financed through the annual fees. While noting that fees at NUJS is on the higher side (“higher than NLSIU and NALSAR”), the Commission does not recommend a reduction of the same. Instead, it stipulates that not more than 60% of revenue should be raised through fees so as to encourage the administration to raise the remaining resources through research projects, consultancies and training.

Also noted is the need for attention to issues like women’s safety, programmes on gender and LGBT sensitization, enhancement of accessibility for the disable and an academic support programme for SC/ST/OBC students.

SJA calls for immediate ouster of VC Ishwara Bhat

Meanwhile, the SJA has stood firm in its stance that a large part of the blame for the decline of NUJS falls on Vice Chancellor Prof Ishwara Bhat. The students today undertook a silent protest in their classrooms against Prof Bhat. In a statement issued on Monday, the body refers to the numerous controversies stoked during Prof Bhat’s tenure.

Prof. Bhat’s tenure utterly betrays all of our shared values. The report shows he is corrupt, nepotistic, undemocratic and despotic, incapable, and incompetent. Our lived experiences show how several of us have been victims of his blatant casteism and continued inaction against sexual harassment.

The hallmarks of his tenure have been three no-confidence motions, stagnation and regression of academic culture, evasiveness and shirking responsibility, destruction of all meaningful engagement with stakeholders and deliberate repression of their voices.

His selfishness and indifference towards the institution is exhibited by his years of efforts to delay the constitution of the long-overdue review commission and his attempt to again evade responsibility by seeking appointment at CNLU (Patna) on receipt of the report from the Hon’ble Chancellor. Unsurprisingly, NUJS suffers from large scale mismanagement and administrative failure today.”

NUJS students today took part in a silent protest in their classrooms
NUJS students today took part in a silent protest in their classrooms

In this background, the SJA has given an ultimatum for Bhat’s resignation by 9 am on March 28, 2018.

A cautionary note has also been sounded, in the event that this demand is not complied with.

In the highly likely scenario that he does not resign by the stipulated deadline, our protest shall become more active and vigorous. However, under no circumstances, shall we be compromising on our academic integrity. To that end, we will be appearing for our mid-semester tests, submitting our project papers and requesting faculty to reschedule our classes so as to not jeopardise our constitutional and educational rights. In course of our protest, we shall not be obstructing the right to work of any faculty or staff member.

Currently, Prof Bhat’s appointment as Vice Chancellor of CNLU, Patna has been temporarily stalled following protests by CNLU students.

Although the Commission’s report does not expressly call for an overhaul of the administration, it has suggested that Executive Council (EC) of NUJS appoint a committee of one EC member and one outside expert based in Kolkata to review current management crisis.

Read full NUJS Review Commission Report here.

Read Statement released by SJA dated March 26, 2018 here.

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