Thursday, June 28, 2007

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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