Reforms at National Law Universities: In Conversation with Sidharth Chauhan of NALSAR

Bar & Bench August 31 2018

Earlier this year, NALSAR University released a very interesting report on possible reforms at our country’s National Law Universities. The report (accessible here) made a number of suggestions, and also included a fairly comprehensive survey of students across more than a dozen national law universities.

The report’s co-investigator, and Assistant Professor at NALSAR, Sidharth Chauhan spoke with Anuj Agrawal on preparing the report, some of the findings, and the way forward for Indian legal education.

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview.

In terms of scale, it is quite impressive – more than 800 students, 150 faculty members. How early did you start?

As we have documented in the report, we did the surveys in August and September of 2016. The planning started around March 2016, about six months before we went for the visits.

We initially thought it would be a simple exercise in self-assessment, just confined to NALSAR. But since all the National Law Universities (NLUs) have a similar structure, and attract a similar profile of students, we thought we would expand our scope. In fact, while writing our report, we consciously chose to exclude the responses collected from within our own institution.

The report mentions that the administration of only 3 out of 15 NLU’s actually took the time out to answer your questions. Were you expecting this?

We actually thought that it would be slightly better because we had sent out questionnaires from the [NALSAR] Vice Chancellor’s office to his counterparts. Since the NLU V-Cs have working relations with each other, we thought most of them would respond.

But what we gathered from them was that apparently our questionnaire was either too complex or was demanding too much information. A lot of people who initially promised to fill in the questionnaire just didn’t do it. The three institutions that did respond, were headed by V-Cs who had visited us in the recent past. So maybe they felt obliged that since they were visiting NALSAR, they should cooperate with us. But I personally thought that more of them would respond.

In hindsight, we could have kept it simpler – we were asking for data on recruitments, on spending, on previous faculty appointments. Of course, the other route would be to file RTIs. But given that we are also embedded in a comparable institution, confrontation may not have been ideal. So, we tried to do it the polite way. It did not work (laughs).

You asked students what made them choose a particular institution, and one of the factors marked “most important” was faculty.

We were asking students to compare several different factors which we thought were normally important while choosing law schools. The idea behind the question was that as a matter of general perception, which factors are more important. So, we were not really asking students to judge the quality of faculty at the institution, but we were asking them for a generic opinion.

Another factor marked “most important” in school selection was placements. But were there more discussions on what makes for “good” placements?

It is very clear that the top commercial law firms which give well-paid jobs are usually looking at around seven law schools – NLSIU Bangalore, NALSAR Hyderabad, WBNUJS Kolkata, NLU Jodhpur, NLU Delhi, and to a limited extent NLIU Bhopal and GNLU Gandhinagar. At least in the year that we did the survey, they were not really looking past those schools. So, the normative understanding of placements in these schools was to get a job in the best known law firms.

But since we covered 15 institutions, a large number of respondents told us that we should take a broader view of placements. That it was not just about getting recruited through the student placement cells and securing lucrative jobs, but the discussion should include recruitment to lawyer’s chambers, government jobs, NGOs and the like. This is a criticism that I agree with.

If you look at graduation outcomes in the long term, you can’t just look at student organized recruitment processes held in the 4th and 5th year. By design, people who come with a lesser degree of social or reputational capital will lose out in that process. And in the long run, when you judge the success of an institution, you have to account for public employment also.

Students who may not have gotten a commercial law firm job in the initial stages of their career, may actually end up making a far greater social contribution if they end up joining the judiciary, civil services or academic positions. Some of them are clearly opting for other careers that can be very productive.

And do you see this debate taking place in different schools?

Absolutely! In fact, I think there is a growing [awareness] even in first movers like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Calcutta who were, in a sense, the early beneficiaries of economic liberalization. Even in these schools, there is a growing awareness that the pie is not growing as quickly as they would want. There are more graduates coming from the NLU system, competing for the same jobs. And with time, newer institutions will become more competitive. Even in the so called ‘top’ schools, there is a growing perception that recruitment committees need to diversify their outreach to potential recruiters. 

More than half the students surveyed believed that there were no institutional mechanisms to fight sexual harassment, and caste-based discrimination. That is a bit worrying, no?

Yes. A large number of students we surveyed were largely unaware of mechanisms existing in their own institutions. In fact, we were hoping to corroborate this by comparing it with what the institutions told us. I think it is a dual problem – there is a lack of awareness, and even for the ones who are aware, they think that the existing mechanisms are insufficient or ineffective. Our institutions can do more to not only have robust mechanisms in place, but to also make sure that they are known about in the first place.

A complaint about sexual harassment involves many complexities. It is not just a question of eve-teasing or harassment by strangers. At what point should the institution interfere when one partner in a relationship turns abusive towards the other partner? How is harassment to be understood when the persons involved are adolescents from different cultural backgrounds? These are complicated social issues, so it is quite difficult to address them in the context of small residential campuses where both grievances and reactions get amplified in no time.

And do you think administrations are discussing this?

To our knowledge, all the NLUs are obligated to constitute internal complaints committees under the 2013 law, namely the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. This law provides for a structure and rigor to act on complaints of this nature. Having said that, I think a lot depends on the sensitivity of the people who serve on these committees. If you get people on the committee who are uncritically reflecting patriarchal norms, then the complainants themselves may feel hesitant or embarrassed to approach them in the first place.

And there is always the countervailing problem – if there has been a complaint of ragging, sexual harassment, physical violence or substance abuse, how far should the institution go? What is the threshold for expelling a student found guilty of misconduct? At what point do you order academic suspensions? What is the proper threshold for escalating the matter to the criminal justice system? These are all difficult choices because you are dealing with young people, some of whom may not adequately understand the long-term implications of their actions.

One of the terms that kept coming up in the report was “complacency”, especially in context of the older law schools.

This is a problem that is a bit difficult to document unless you have been an insider. The reason I say that is because these institutions have benefited from earning reputational capital because they chose a more intensive model when compared with law colleges or departments that are part of larger State Universities. And their output, or rather their graduates’ output, also came at a time when the Indian economy wanted transactional lawyers. So, it was also a historical accident.

A lot of insiders have not truly understood that they are beneficiaries of this historical accident.  People just assume that because they have gotten into a ‘top ranked’ school it is a ticket to a comfortable job, or a ticket to good professional reputation. That is where the element of complacency is most visible.

Whereas it never works like that in the long-run – what constitutes reputational capital changes completely a few years into practice. Unfortunately, many stakeholders in these institutions don’t seem to understand this. They seem to be taking their positions for granted. Whether it is in terms of finding jobs for their students, or publicity, or even in terms of claims they make about themselves. We have this expression that is used very often for NLSIU Bangalore (which also happens to be my alma mater)– “Harvard of the East” – I think this is a complete travesty. In fact, it is an obscenity.

This is an abridged version of the interview. To view the full interview, click here.

Anuj Agrawal is the co-founder of Amicus Partners. [http://amicuspartners.co.in/]

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