The state of Indian legal education: An assessment of the NLS model and the importance of research

Harish’s previous post highlights an important topical issue for the legal profession in India. Yesterday’s issue of the Hindu carries an article by C. Rajkumar on the current state of legal education, which, while also relevant to the discussion initiated by Harish, deserves to be discussed separately. In his article, Rajkumar provides an assessment of the achievements and failures of the new, single-faculty law universities in India that have become the norm following the perceived success of the ‘National Law School’ model:

“There is no doubt that the establishment of the national law schools starting with the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore successfully challenged this institutionalised mediocrity and succeeded in attracting serious students to the study of law. In fact, the study of law has received better attention among high school leavers in the country with the introduction of five-year integrated programmes. This has brought up new issues relating to pedagogy and approach to undergraduate studies for imparting legal education for high school leavers. The national law schools that have been established in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bhopal, and Jodhpur have all contributed in their own ways toward promoting excellence in legal education and research, particularly by attracting some of the brightest students to consider law as a preferred career option. But where these schools face significant challenges is in attracting faculty members who are top researchers in the field of law and can combine sound teaching methods with established track records of research. The lack of researchers in law and absence of due emphasis on research and publications in the existing law schools have led to the absence of an intellectually vibrant environment.”

Rajkumar also sets out what he considers to be the biggest challenges for legal education in India, but it is his assessment of the NLS model which I found interesting and persuasive. Since several of us are products of that system, and we also have among our readers, current students in these new institutions, I wondered how others would react to Rajkumar’s views.

Today’s Indian Express has a column which complements Rajkumar’s analysis on a larger point. Rajkumar asserts:

“Research can contribute significantly toward improvement in teaching and, more importantly, addressing numerous challenges relating to law and justice. If one were to look at the faculty profile of the world’s top law schools, one will find that there is great emphasis on research and publications among academics. Besides teaching, they contribute in significant ways by initiating and developing research projects in cutting edge areas, by professional contributions to international organisations, law firms and corporations, and by playing an important role in government policy formulation and promoting civil society activism. Law schools and academics in India need to go a long way in developing an institutional culture that promotes and encourages research that has the capacity to foster many positive changes in society at large.”

The Express column, authored by C.P. Bhambri, is written as a reaction to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent speech announcing the policy decision to create 30 new Central universities. Bhambri argues that attention should instead be focused on disturbing practices in current institutions:

“The explanation for the prevalence of highly differential levels of academic performance among the universities, or within the same university, has to be found from within the university itself. First, the standards of a university depend on its teachers. None of the central universities has any evaluative criteria for the academic ranking of its faculty members or for identifying completely incompetent faculty members. Since universities do not have any internal mechanism of categorising faculty members as ‘performers’ and ‘non-performers, the net result is that every professor is treated as an equal, irrespective of performance and merit. Second, professional bodies can play a very significant role in identifying the ‘meritorious’ and differentiating them from those ‘below standard’. But this is also not acceptable to universities and faculty members who start championing their ‘autonomy’ to counter the demand of ‘their accountability’. Third, the University Grants Commission, at the behest of the education ministry’s bureaucracy, has played havoc with procedures to determine the levels of performance of individual faculty members. Any move to create new central universities should be informed by the experiences of existing central universities. But this is easier said than done. The teaching faculty has generally resisted any attempt to ‘differentiate’ on the basis of performance. The notion of a formal equality among individual staff members has given birth to the system of mechanical uniformity and this has, in turn, given birth to complete non-accountability on the part of faculty members.”

Bhambri’s critique is aimed at the established universities, and may not be applicable to the new law universities. The question to ask is whether the way out for the new law universities, as well as for the more established multi-disciplinary universities, is to replicate the model of the leading foreign universities where academic promotion is strictly tied with research and scholarship output. Some people in India have argued that this may not necessarily meet with the interests of the Indian legal community. Reactions?

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  • There are a number of points that the author makes which are very valid. Clearly there is not enough research coming out of law schools in India. And quality research is even less.

    But I think it simplifies some of the issues. Where can the law schools find good quality teachers? It has to come from the general pool of law students. And that pool contains only a very smally number of quality people who are willing to get into teaching. Therefore, I am not sure if the situation is that there are enough good quality teachers but the law schools are not able to attract them. While there may be instances where the remuneration and administrative structures have discouraged a few, generally it appears that there is a serious dearth of quality teachers and researchers.

    The fact that there are not enough quality legal researchers is driven home by the complete lack of quality commentaries on Indian law. The number of quality Indian text books that discuss law on the basis of concepts and original principles can be counted on our fingertips. Nine out of ten times, practitioners refer to English law text books for understanding legal concepts.

    I am not for one moment saying that the leadership in the law schools is satisfactory. But the question that goes begging is where will the leadership come from?

    The one point I do not agree with Rajkumar is on the absence of an intellectually vibrant environment at the law schools. The time I spent at NLSIU, Bangalore was certainly very vibrant intellectually and it was not just because of the students. I am not sure if this has changed now.

  • The new law schools like NLS were designed to be undergraduate institutions. Their primary focus is – and should be – on teaching. Making them focus on research would take away from their primary objective.

    How do we generate legal research? Develop research and policy schools within these institutions which hire faculty across disciplines whose primary job is to engage in research and teach on the side. These faculty generate some quality research and also inspire young scholars to engage in legal research.

  • Thanks for these comments. I will respond first to Vivek’s intervention.

    First, a point of factual history. It is incorrect to say that the motivating idea behind the NLS model was to create an institute focused purely on undergraduate teaching. If one looks at the history of the idea of a National Law School, which can be traced back to the 1960s, it was originally conceived as an institution that would promote legal research suited to India’s needs, and would also act as a feeder institution for law teachers for all other legal educational institutions in India. This comes out most clearly in the deliberations of the Poona Seminar on Legal Education, held in 1972, which was attended by some of the leading law teachers in India and also featured some of the leading academic figures from around the globe (including legal academics from the Universities at Harvard, Yale, London, Warwick, Australian National University,Colombo, Tokyo and Lima). The proceedings of the Poona Seminar are published in a volume edited by Professor S.K. Agarwala, brought out by N.M. Tripathi in 1973. In that volume, Professor Rahmutallah Khan (who will be familiar to those who have studies Indian International Law and int’l relations theory) has a paper titled “National School of Law: A proposal” where he sets out the need to create a legal research and teacher-training institute. If one looks at the various reports on legal education in India, one finds this concern repeated endlessly. So, what Rajkumar is setting out in this piece is hardly new, though he may be one of the few voices stressing its importance in current times. Indeed, this was recognised by the Founder Director of NLS, Dr. Menon when he conceded at a conference organised at NLSIU in December 2000, that while NLS has been a success, it has not been able to create a strong research culture among its Faculty.

    Secondly, to any serious academic, the idea that one can be a succesful teacher by focusing solely on ‘teaching’ should be problematic. Teaching and research are complementary pursuits, and it is wrong to suggest that they are somehow competing priorities. If a teacher does not research and write to develop her ideas, she will, over time, be reduced to repeating outdated ideas long after they have become obsolete in the real world. Research is what allows an academic to stay in tune with what is happening in her subject area. Also, by conducting research and by being an active player in advancing discourse in her subject area (through publications in academic journals, in newspapers and by other forms such as writing basic texts and comprehensive treatises), an academic becomes a participant in the evolution of her field, instead of being a silent, passive observer and narrator of that evolution from the sidelines.

    I am also not sure it is wise to create a separate track of ‘researchers’ within schools who will be considered distinct from ‘teachers.’ To me, this only reinforces this false dichotomy. Obviously, there will be people who will be better class room teachers, while some others will be better at writing scholarly papers. The challenge will be to ensure that these people don’t get fixed into separate categories, but feel the need to interact with, and learn from the other group of people. Appointment and promotion criteria will also have to be revised to ensure that both priorities are advanced.

    I do not think teaching undergraduates and achieving excellence in research are incompatible objectives. Some of the leading law schools in the world today do a very good job of both, and it is demonstrable that teaching a group of demanding, engaged undergraduate students is actually very conducive to the process by which meaningful research is generated. Undergrad students have a way of asking foundational questions which can spur fundamental research in quite profound ways.

    Harish: I think Rajkumar would actually agree with you about the intellectually vibrant atmosphere at the new law schools. In fact, he says as much in his piece, when he speaks of the quality of students at the new law universities, and how they have raised the profile of the average law student in India today. I think his focus is on such vibrancy among the teaching faculty, as demonstrated by regular faculty workshops and conferences, where, instead of invited guests, members of the Faculty themselves present their ongoing research work to their colleagues and interested students. While there was evidence of this in the 1990s at least in NLS, I am not sure it continues today. This is where current students and members of the Faculty can correct our impressions.