“What is the best thing about my university?” He pauses and thinks for a moment. “The best thing about my university is……I am able to speak with a fluency that I did not have in my first year.”
He may as well as have punched me in the stomach for all the effect it had. The question I had asked was a fairly standard one; put forth to nearly every student I meet on the law school darshan tour. Most answers follow a fairly set routine. A pause followed by a combination of any of the following: good seniors, plenty of opportunities, infrastructure etc.
But this answer made me catch my breath and think for a while. Have I forgotten what a real education is supposed to be about? Have statistics on placements, on moots and on scholarships blurred my understanding of an “education”?
For various reasons, some of which are briefly mentioned below, I am glad that the National Law Institute University, Bhopal (NLIU) was the last school I visited this year; it certainly did help put a few things in perspective. More importantly, the visit raised more than a few questions about legal education in general and the five-year integrated programme in particular.
Prof. SS Singh is a hard, hard man. This becomes apparent five minutes into my conversation him. After spending close to two decades teaching at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (where his students included IAS and IPS officers), Prof Singh joined NLIU in 2008. From a student’s perspective, I can understand why Prof. Singh might not be the most popular man on campus. I don’t think he is a particularly easy man to convince; he does not buy into the “student is a consumer” kind of thinking, and appears to have a very low threshold for PR or marketing jargon.
Having said that though, Prof Singh does come across as a man with impeccable integrity. He also seems to be a person who will always have the student’s best interest in mind, irrespective of whether the student can see it or not. He has also introduced some remarkable changes in the way NLIU is run; classes are held on time, results are declared within the pre-decided time frame, and also sent to the students’ parents. Like I said, he is tough but fair. I quite like that.
Towards the end of the conversation, Prof Singh did mention that recently a mentorship programme was introduced whereby a group of 10-odd students are assigned to one faculty member. I don’t know how effective this has been in practice but my take away from this was that Prof Singh is open to new ideas as well; he just might require a sustained effort to be convinced.
I am walking through the landscaped campus and I keep wondering why NLIU has such a remarkably low profile. The University started functioning a year after Nalsar and a year before NUJS. I mention the year of starting since, in my opinion, one of the distinct advantages of joining an NLU is being able to tap into the alumni network. Yet, I don’t know how far this is true for NLIU. With respect to student preferences via the CLAT, I am unable to understand why NLIU does not figure in the top two. Is it really all down to the 50% reservation for MP domicile? Is that the sole affecting factor?
On the infrastructure front, I think NLIU students have very little to complaint about. The library is well stocked and fantastically well maintained. The hostels are clean; from the second year onwards, students have the option of single occupancy rooms. The mess food is really good (but then I was shamelessly helping myself to the food reserved for the Moot Court Competition participants).
The sports facilities are, by far, the best I have seen. There are indoor badminton courts, a basketball court, pool tables, a well-equipped gym etc. The classrooms are large and air conditioned. There is an air-conditioned computer lab and the library and hostels are wi-fi connected.
When it comes to faculty, again the students seem to think that they have a couple of competent teachers but that is about it. I no longer find this surprising, this almost seems to be a given in various law schools that I have visited thus far.
“It is the closest I can come to arguing in court”, he tells me. I am sitting in one of the classrooms where the first round of the North India rounds of Stetson are taking place. I have just asked him what attracted to him mooting and his answer does not surprise me. Throughout the Darshan series, I have been continuously struck by the amount of importance that is attached to mooting. It is one of the most sought after activities in law school; there are few fields in law school where the competition is more intense. Some students have opined that that mooting allows for a deeper understanding of law, an immersive experience to which classroom teaching simply does not replicate. I digress.
NLIU has been organising an impressive number of moot court competitions and inter-college events over the last few years. The last year, in particular, saw a flurry of events including an inter-college conference to standardise moot court competitions, a mediation tournament and an inter-college sports fest. While I was there, a group of NLIU students organised a run in memory of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy; close to a thousand people signed up for the run. Quite impressive.
The University follows a trimester system, which means that the academic calendar is packed with projects, vivas and exams. If nothing else, this system teaches students the value of time management. I also get the feeling that competition between the students is not very intense; academic pressure is low. It is again down to the student to make the most of his or her time here.
“The BA LLB course is a professional course. We need to question whether we have been able to realise the objectives [of the course]” Prof Ghayur Alam is one of the most respected professors at NLIU, joining the University in 1998. The MHRD Chair Professor on IPR, stumbled into law against the better wishes of his father (“He told me I could study anything I want except law”) and was ranked second in his LL.B and LL.M examinations at Aligarh Muslim University.
In a highly interesting chat, Prof Alam tells me how he ended up at NLIU, about the lack of importance given to academic writing in law schools, and why there is a serious need to rethink the reasons why national law schools were set up in the first place. I think the fact that people like Prof Alam are teaching at NLIU should be given due attention. Once again, I realise that there are plenty of opportunities available at NLIU; in the end the choice lies with the student.
So what do I think about NLIU?
Let’s start with the question of reservation; 50 per cent of the seats are reserved for those domiciled in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Does this lead to adverse consequences? Yes and no.
I don’t think it is fair to say that all students who are admitted via the domicile category are naturally of a poor standard. I was told that some of the batch toppers come from this category. So the assumption that reservation automatically affects the quality of students is too simplistic an assumption. However, what cannot be doubted is that the reservation does affect the student composition in terms of geography. The diversity will undoubtedly not be as varied as comparable batches in other law schools.
If a law firm recruitment is what you are looking at, then NLIU is not the best place. I don’t think the administration is very pro-active in this regard (there was no faculty advisor for placements when I was there) and a large number of graduates opt for either litigation or the judicial services. I don’t really buy the argument that NLIU’s location works against it. The city is barely an hour’s flight from both Delhi and Bombay and is extensively connected by rail.
The annual fees work out to roughly a lakh and a half per annum; par for the course when it comes to national law schools. The batch strength, from the 2013 academic year onwards, will be increased to 120, which means that students might not as tired of their companions by the end of five years.
The city of Bhopal is a hundred rupee auto ride away, the 9pm curfew timings mean post sun-set sojourns have to be planned in advance. Bhopal (at the time of my visit) provided just the right mix of modern amenities which students crave (such as malls and fast food joints) and older, more traditional offerings (historical bazaars and narrow roads).
I would say that NLIU is backed by impressive infrastructure and a motivated student body. The administration seems quite efficient and I don’t think students have too much to complain about. I think the relaxed academic atmosphere means that you have to really motivate yourself to get something done, a factor which may not be to everyone’s liking.