Sunday, June 2, 2019

Consolidation of Postgraduate and Research Degrees at the NLUs

The following extract appears at pp. 94-97 of a report titled 'Suggestions for Reforms at the National Law Universities set up through State Legislations' which was submitted to the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India in March 2018. It was based on surveys conducted among faculty members (33 respondents) and students (849 respondents) at 15 participating institutions in August-September 2016. I was one of the authors of this report. We welcome any feedback. 

The full text can be downloaded here:

Consolidation of Postgraduate and Research Degrees

So far, the NLUs have largely acquired reputational capital through their undergraduate programmes. However, there is an urgent need to improve the state of postgraduate programmes such as LL.M. and Ph.D. These programmes are primarily meant to provide rigorous training for those who are interested in pursuing teaching and research-oriented careers. As discussed in the previous chapter, the transition towards the one-year LL.M. programme had commenced during the academic year 2013-2014. This has led to a considerable increase in the number of applicants who are appearing for the PG CLAT. On the face of it, this increase can be attributed to the reduction of the length of the master’s programme from two years to one academic year. The premise is that a shorter duration reduces the opportunity costs for law graduates who can otherwise opt for employment.

However, interactions with a large cross-section of LL.M. students indicate another reason for the substantial increase in the size of the applicant pool over the last few years. The PG CLAT scores are being used by several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) to shortlist candidates for their recruitment cycles. So a large number of law graduates are appearing for this entrance examination in the hope of securing public employment. This is evidenced by the fact that the PG CLAT ranks obtained by the students who are actually joining the LL.M. programmes at specific institutions appear to have dropped considerably. In comparison to the much larger Central and State Universities where gaining admission to postgraduate programmes is far more difficult than entering undergraduate programmes, the NLUs have evolved into an anomalous situation where it is comparatively much easier to secure admissions in the master’s programmes.

There is also an evident mismatch between the expectations of most LL.M. applicants and the institutional objectives behind offering these programmes. Those who do gain admission to the better known NLUs assume that these programmes will enhance their chances of securing lucrative employment opportunities with commercial law firms and leading business houses. However, it is only after commencing their postgraduate studies at these institutions that they begin to comprehend the largely academic orientation of the programme. As mentioned earlier, the applicable UGC guidelines contemplate the completion of three mandatory subjects, six optional subjects and a dissertation within one academic year. A large section of incoming LL.M. students may not have previously faced the intensive research and writing requirements that are the norm in these highly selective institutions. There also tends to be inadequate exposure to the fundamentals of doctrinal legal research and the interface between law and other disciplines. This leads to difficulties in coping with the prescribed coursework requirements.

On the supply-side, many of the NLUs are struggling to attract experienced teachers at the level of Professor and Associate Professor who can provide meaningful research supervision across a range of thematic specialisations. In such a scenario, recently recruited Assistant Professors are being assigned as research supervisors for postgraduate students. This is not a desirable practice when many of the Assistant Professors themselves may not have completed substantive research work such as a doctoral thesis or contributions to credible peer-reviewed journals. If we go by the explicit guidance provided by the UGC Regulations for offering the one-year LL.M. programme, each institution should devote the services of at least 10 experienced faculty members (at the level of Associate Professor and above) for the purpose of teaching and research supervision in postgraduate courses. This pool of relatively experienced teachers is supposed to form a Centre for Postgraduate Legal Education (CPGLE) at each institution that is offering the LL.M. and Ph.D. programmes.

Another layer of difficulties arises from discriminatory behaviour by students enrolled in the five-year integrated programmes who tend to dominate student affairs in these residential campuses owing to their larger numbers and longer duration of study. It is also conceivable that several teachers might be taking advantage of the lesser bargaining power of LL.M. students by not delivering the intensive teaching and evaluation standards that are expected from them. In such circumstances, competing with postgraduate programmes at well-known foreign universities is likely to remain a distant dream.

This rather sorry state of affairs can be rectified through some concrete steps. The NLUs can consider introducing separate tracks for the LL.M. programmes, namely a ‘taught’ track and a ‘research’ track. The admissions for the ‘taught’ programme can continue to be conducted through the PG CLAT which consists of multiple-choice questions. The coursework can largely consist of lecture-based courses that are assessed through written examinations, with minimal requirements for producing research papers. There should of course be efforts made to expand the range of optional courses being offered to the students, both in terms of disseminating specialized knowledge and improving their professional prospects. In contrast, admissions to the ‘research’ track should be separately conducted by the respective NLUs. This is because each institution is a better judge of how many research-oriented students it can handle, given the relative scarcity of experienced faculty members who can provide meaningful research supervision. The admissions for such a ‘research’ track should ideally be conducted through a written examination that tests applicants for their capacity for theory-building, careful argumentation and analytical writing. Assessing these skills is not really possible through an entrance exam such as the PG CLAT which only consists of multiple-choice questions. Weightage can also be given for writing samples and academic performance during undergraduate programmes. While this process may appear to be subjective, it is likely to be a far better filter for identifying students who are capable of pursuing intensive research. The NLUs should not view the fees paid by LL.M. students as an importance source of revenue and they should be prepared to limit the intake for these programmes based on the existing faculty strength. The global practice is that the aggregate intake for a postgraduate programme should ideally not exceed one-third of the intake prescribed for undergraduate programmes in the same field of study.

If we turn our attention towards research-based degrees, most of our faculty-respondents lamented that a vast majority of Ph.D. candidates enrolled at their respective institutions had opted for the ‘part-time’ route. Correspondingly, there tend to be very few candidates pursuing doctoral studies on a full-time basis at the NLUs. The foremost reason for such disparity is the significant opportunity costs that would be incurred by those who opt for the full-time route after having completed professional qualifications. A prospective doctoral student in this field has to consider foregoing income-earning opportunities that are available in legal practice and other career-paths. Hence, the ‘part-time’ route tends to be preferred by those who are already working, especially those who are in the early years of a teaching career and see the completion of a Ph.D. as a necessary step for their career advancement. (With the rapid rise in the number of law schools in India and the consequent expansion of teaching positions, an overwhelming majority of the Ph.D. candidates who are presently enrolled with the NLUs are already in teaching positions). There are of course some individuals engaged in professional pursuits such as courtroom practice, the corporate legal sector and in voluntary sector organisations to name a few, who would be pursuing doctoral studies with different objectives in mind.

For those who are inclined to pursue Ph.D. programmes on a full-time basis, there are limited avenues for funding during the course of study. The Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) awarded by the University Grants Commission is limited to a small number of eligible applicants in each academic year. While doctoral fellowships are available through the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), applicants need to effectively compete with a larger pool of applicants from several disciplines. Even though these funding avenues are available, the extent of funding can prove to be quite inadequate when compared with the loss of potential earnings from professional pursuits. There are few Indian Universities that offer their own fellowships for pursuing a Ph.D. programme in Law. (For instance, NALSAR has started offering an integrated LL.M.-Ph.D. programme from the academic year 2017-2018 which offers monetary support to pursue full-time research for a maximum period of four years. However, it is too early to judge whether this programme will yield a high quality of scholarly publications.) This is in sharp contrast to the position at some foreign universities which have acquired a reputation for a serious commitment to research by providing fellowships to their doctoral students across disciplines. Many of the NLUs are using an intermediate method for supporting their Ph.D. candidates by recruiting them as ‘Research Associates’ for sponsored research projects or as ‘Teaching Assistants’ who help in the delivery of undergraduate teaching.

Suggested Readings:

1. Sudhir Krishnaswamy & Dharmendra Chatur, ‘Recasting the LL.M.: Course Design and Pedagogy’, 9(1) Socio-Legal Review 101-120 (2013).
2. Badrinath Srinivasan, ‘LL.M. in India: A Critical Review’, Proceedings of the National Conference on Contemporary Legal Education in the Globalized World, Central Law College, Salem [Available through Social Science Research Network (SSRN), September 2017].     

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Encouraging Interdisciplinary Learning at the NLUs

The following extract appears at pp. 98-100 of a report titled 'Suggestions for Reforms at the National Law Universities set up through State Legislations' which was submitted to the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India in March 2018. It was based on surveys conducted among faculty members (33 respondents) and students (849 respondents) at 15 participating institutions in August-September 2016. I was one of the authors of this report. We welcome any feedback. 

The full text can be downloaded here:

Encouraging Interdisciplinary Learning

... The element of integration between law and other disciplines is supposed to be central to the academic identity of the National Law Universities (NLUs). However, the experiences recounted by our respondents indicate numerous difficulties in the meaningful pursuit of interdisciplinary learning at these institutions ... The five-year integrated programmes do contain introductory courses in other disciplines, especially during the first two years of study. For example, the integrated B.A., LL.B. programme consists of introductory courses in History, Economics, Political Science, Sociology and English. Some NLUs have also included introductory courses in disciplines such as Philosophy and Psychology. Likewise, other variants of integrated law programmes such as B.B.A. LL.B., B.Com. LL.B. and B.Sc. LL.B. include introductory courses in the fields of business administration, commerce and science respectively. In the later stages of programmes which enable some curricular flexibility, optional courses can engage with topics that lie at the intersection of different disciplines. So in many ways the question of interdisciplinarity in the NLUs tends to be discussed by only examining how these courses are being delivered. However, that is a narrow approach to this question.

The broader approach would be to ask how the conceptual apparatus acquired from these disciplines is adding to the instruction of the prescribed law subjects. Likewise, is the teaching of the formal law subjects emphasising insights from the broader universe of the humanities and the social sciences? For example, the teaching of Indian Constitutional Law is predicated on some exposure to colonial legal history as well as the larger currents in political philosophy. The teaching of Corporate and Commercial Laws requires a functional understanding of macroeconomic trends. Likewise, the meaningful study of subjects such as Family Law and Criminal Law require a serious engagement with insights from Sociology and Anthropology. The knowledge of procedural laws such as Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure and the Law of Evidence is better absorbed alongside insights from Behavioural Psychology and Organisational Behaviour. The formal study of Environmental Laws requires engagement with ideas from the fields of Geography and Biology. These are only a few illustrations of the numerous possibilities in legal studies. The conscious cultivation of such interdisciplinary learning enables a better appreciation of the rationale behind different kinds of rule-making, their enforcement and the adjudication of disputes. They may also enable students to understand the limits of formal laws as a means of social control.

The entrenchment of these methods requires years of investment in curriculum development as well as careful coordination between teachers who are engaging different courses as part of an integrated programme. Implementing such a pedagogic approach has come up against several practical challenges. At many of the institutions covered by our study, teachers who are specifically engaged for humanities and social science courses felt that their views were not given due weightage when it came to decision-making about curriculum development and revision. Administrative positions are usually occupied by teachers who deliver formal law subjects and they are often not very receptive to suggestions for expanding the range of interdisciplinary offerings. In some cases, law teachers who have attempted to re-design their courses by bringing in perspectives from other disciplines have suffered in terms of their career advancement. This has happened where Selection Committees have preferred formalist methods of teaching based on the uncritical reading of legislative materials and judgments. 

Faculty members with interdisciplinary training have found it difficult to come within the textual interpretation of the applicable UGC Regulations which reward extended study in the same discipline. For example, an individual who holds a first degree in law (LL.B.) followed by a Ph.D. in Political Science is not going to be considered for an Assistant Professor position in Law despite having a good grasp of fields such as Constitutional Law and Administrative Law. In place of this individual, the rules will favour an individual who holds a second degree in law (LL.M.) and has qualified the UGC-NET but may not have yet completed a Ph.D. in Law. Similarly, an individual with advanced training in Economics may be better suited to teach subjects such as Company Law, Taxation Law and Banking Laws but she is unlikely to be considered above a candidate who holds a LL.M. and Ph.D. in these specific areas.

A teacher’s emphasis on interdisciplinary learning can also create confusion among students, especially during the early years of their studies. School-leaving students may not immediately understand the importance of integrating the elements of a liberal arts education in what is presumptively a programme that confers professional qualifications. However, these doubts can be easily dispelled through classroom instruction that patiently engages with the short-term anxieties of fee-paying students who are predisposed towards looking at their curriculum through the lens of its relevance for employment prospects.

Another problem that was highlighted in this regard was the high rate of attrition of teachers who are hired for teaching humanities and social sciences subjects. The general tendency is for many of them to leave when they get opportunities to work in larger university systems, since the latter offer networking benefits that arise from interacting with others in their respective fields. This is because the NLUs are largely being viewed as monodisciplinary institutions that are not enabling cross-fertilisation among different branches of knowledge. So we need to consider institutional strategies for attracting and retaining such individuals. One such strategy is the initiation of taught programmes and the facilitation of longitudinal research projects that have an interdisciplinary orientation.

In the recent past, a few NLUs have started offering full-time master’s programmes in disciplines other than law. For example, NALSAR Hyderabad started offering a M.B.A. programme in the academic year 2013-2014 while NLSIU Bangalore initiated a M.A. programme in Public Policy during the academic year 2014-2015. GNLU Gandhinagar has also started a M.B.A. programme in 2016-2017. These courses can both develop and benefit from synergies in faculty expertise and course offerings. However, these are examples of job-oriented courses which are primarily trying to attract fee-paying students. Hence, their eventual success is closely tied to whether the incoming students will get good recruitment opportunities. In contrast, now might be the right time to offer M.A. programmes that emphasize the links between law and other social sciences in order to advance the goals of knowledge production. These may attract graduates from other disciplines who are more likely than the graduates of the five-year integrated programmes to pursue research activities in the long-run. 

The NLUs should not take the postgraduate space for granted. Over the last few years, several innovative courses related to fields such as law, public policy and governance have been initiated by institutions such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai and Hyderabad), Azim Premji University (Bangalore), O.P. Jindal Global University (Sonipat), Ambedkar University Delhi (New Delhi) and the South Asian University (New Delhi). These are comparatively larger institutions with more financial resources to support research and they are consciously developing faculty expertise across several disciplines.

Suggested Readings: 

1. Upendra Baxi, 'Socio-Legal Research in India: A Programschrift', 24(2/3) Journal of Indian Law Institute 416-449 (1982). 

2. Jayanth K. Krishnan, 'Professor Kingfield goes to Delhi: American Academics, The Ford Foundation and the Development of Legal Education in India', 46 American Journal of Legal History 447-498 (2004). 
3. Upendra Baxi, 'Enculturing Law? Some Unphilosophic Remarks' in Mathew John & Sitharamam Kakarala (eds.), Enculturing Law: New Agendas for Legal Pedagogy (Tulika Books, 2007).   
4. Sitharamam Kakarala, 'Of Pedagogy and Suffering: Civil Rights Movements and Teaching of Human Rights in India' in Mathew John & Sitharamam Kakarala (eds.), Enculturing Law: New Agendas for Legal Pedagogy (Tulika Books, 2007).
5. Nehaluddin Ahmed, 'Adapting Indian Legal Education to the demands of a Globalizing World', 10 German Law Journal 847-857 (2008). 
6. Rukmini Sen, 'Teaching Sociology in a Law School: Predicaments, Negotiations and Innovations', 1 Journal of Indian Law and Society 37-57 (2009). 
7. Arpita Sengupta & Devrupa Rakshit, 'Modernization of Legal Education in India: The Interdisciplinary Approach to Education', 2(1) Asian Journal of Legal Education 57-66 (2015). 

Friday, May 31, 2019

Curricular Structures at the NLUs

The following extract appears at pp. 57-62 of a report titled 'Suggestions for Reforms at the National Law Universities set up through State Legislations' which was submitted to the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India in March 2018. It was based on surveys conducted among faculty members (33 respondents) and students (849 respondents) at 15 participating institutions in August-September 2016. I was one of the authors of this report. We welcome any feedback. 

The full text can be downloaded here:

Curricular Structures at the NLUs

The discussion on the quality of teaching is intertwined with debates about the curricular structure that is followed at the various National Law Universities (NLUs). A moot point is whether it makes sense to prescribe a uniform curricular structure in a country as vast and diverse as India. While the Bar Council of India’s Rules on Legal Education (2008) stipulate a demarcation between ‘compulsory’ and ‘optional’ courses, more nuanced deliberations are needed to work out a pragmatic balance for each institution while bearing in mind local specificities and availability of teachers. Given that the NLUs enjoy a certain degree of academic autonomy that is not available to departments and colleges that are part of larger public universities, it is worthwhile to briefly sketch how this autonomy has been used in relation to curriculum design.

If we take the five-year integrated B.A., LL.B. programme as a representative example, there are two models prevailing at the moment. NLSIU Bangalore and NLIU Bhopal are following a ‘trimester’ model, wherein each academic year is broken into three equivalent terms of nearly 13 weeks each. During each term, students ordinarily complete 4 courses, implying that the programme as a whole requires the completion of 60 courses over a duration of five years. All the other NLUs are following the ‘semester’ model, wherein each academic year is broken into two equivalent terms of 17-18 weeks each. Students ordinarily complete 5 courses in each semester, implying that the programme as a whole requires the completion of 50 courses over a duration of five years. The courses delivered to the students are usually divided into:-

(i) ‘Compulsory’ subjects as prescribed under the BCI Rules on Legal Education, 2008. Most of these are taught courses which are assessed through written examinations, project assignments and presentations made by students. This list also includes ‘Clinical’ courses which are practice-oriented and entail students honing their skills through simulated activities.

(ii) ‘Optional’ subjects that can be further sub-classified as:-
(a) ‘Elective’ courses (taught courses substantially assessed through written examinations);
(b) ‘Seminar’ courses (discussion-based courses assessed through research papers);

Table VI: List of compulsory subjects prescribed for completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Law (LL.B.) under BCI Rules on Legal Education, 2008 (Schedule II)

1. Jurisprudence (Legal Methods, Indian Legal System and Basic Theories of Law)
14. Administrative Law
2. Law of Contracts I - General Principles
15. Company Law
3. Law of Contracts II - Special Contracts
16. Public International Law
4. Law of Torts (including Motor Vehicles Act and Consumer Protection Act)
17. Principles of Taxation Law
5. Family Law I – Marriage and Divorce
18. Environmental Law
6. Family Law II – Inheritance and Succession
19. Labour Law I
7. Criminal Law I – Indian Penal Code and Offences under other Legislations
20. Labour Law II
8. Criminal Law II – Criminal Procedure Code
Clinical Courses
9. Constitutional Law I – Structures of Governance (Federalism, Separation of Powers)
21. Drafting of Pleadings and Conveyancing
10. Constitutional Law II – Adjudication and Enforcement of Fundamental Rights
22. Professional Ethics and
Professional Accounting Systems
11. Property Law
23. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
12. Law of Evidence
24. Moot Court Exercises & Internships
13. Civil Procedure Code and Limitation Act

Among the other subjects that are prescribed for the five-year integrated B.A., LL.B. programme, students are required to complete foundational courses in disciplines such as History, Economics, Political Science, Sociology and English. The usual pattern is that the first course in each of these disciplines introduces the architecture of knowledge in the respective field while the second course emphasizes the linkages between that discipline and the formal study of law. At most of the NLUs, the subjects that introduce these disciplines are interspersed with law subjects during the first two years of undergraduate studies. Some of them also offer integrated programmes such as B.B.A., LL.B., B.Com., LL.B. and B.Sc., LL.B. that include courses devoted to business administration, commerce and science subjects respectively. While the inclusion of these courses was intended to create an interdisciplinary orientation among faculty members and students, there are some pointed concerns about the actualisation of this objective. They range from the marginalisation of teachers engaged for these disciplines especially when it comes to academic decision-making to the relative indifference of students who often fail to grasp the importance of interdisciplinary learning.

The BCI Rules on Legal Education, 2008 also contain a suggestive list of optional subjects that can be taught to construct thematic specializations in ‘Constitutional Law’, ‘Business Law’, ‘International Trade Law’, ‘Criminal Law’, ‘International Law, ‘Law and Agriculture’ and ‘Intellectual Property Law’ among other sub-fields,. Institutions have been given the autonomy to initiate specializations in areas that have not been enumerated. The actual breadth of optional courses offered and delivered at each institution depends on the availability of teachers and requisite resources. The prevailing wisdom is that giving students more flexibility in coursework will enable them to better align academic pursuits with their interests and subsequent career objectives. Providing such flexibility during the later years of the undergraduate programme may help in addressing the problem of student apathy which becomes quite evident by that stage. Another reason for such diversification is that it enables faculty members to design and deliver courses that better reflect their distinctive research interests. This would ensure that students can directly benefit from the research expertise of the faculty members.

However, there is also a competing concern that too much flexibility during undergraduate programmes will limit the students’ exposure to the various sub-fields within legal studies. Furthermore in the immediate context of the NLUs, the worry is that students who are paying substantial fees will gravitate towards optional courses that are closely tied to the needs of the corporate legal sector while ignoring other areas of academic inquiry. Yet another localized criticism is that if students are free to choose among optional courses, most of them will opt for those taught by teachers who are known to be lenient in evaluation and make lesser demands in respect of reading assignments and class participation requirements. This may lead to oversubscription in optional courses which do not substantially enhance the student’s knowledge or skill levels while at the same time the instructors who enforce more rigorous standards are likely to be left with smaller class sizes.

Irrespective of the factors outlined above, all of the institutions covered in our study have introduced a certain extent of flexibility in their curricular practices. In most cases, students in the final year of the five-year integrated programmes can opt for some elective courses. However, only a few NLUs have implemented a Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS) in the substantive sense by introducing optional subjects during the earlier years of study. In its original curricular structure that was followed for nearly three decades, NLSIU Bangalore provided for 8 optional subjects during the fifth year, which accounted for approximately 13% of the aggregate coursework requirements. However, the same institution has moved towards more flexibility in the academic year 2017-2018, with optional subjects commencing during the third year of undergraduate studies. In this respect, WBNUJS Kolkata had been the first mover among the NLUs with a Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS) introduced in 2008-2009 wherein optional subjects commence in the third year. NALSAR Hyderabad started a comparable transition in 2012-2013, with the coursework during the fourth and fifth year largely consisting of optional subjects that have a further demarcation between Elective, Seminar and Clinical courses. Now that this transition is complete, the optional subjects account for 36% of the aggregate coursework in the five-year integrated undergraduate programme. Institutions such as RGNUL Patiala and NLU Odisha allow their undergraduate students to obtain a thematic specialization by picking a designated cluster of subjects during the fourth and fifth year of studies. In such cases, the student can be awarded a first degree in law (LL.B.) with honours in the chosen area of specialization.

If we turn towards the LL.M. programme (Masters’ in Law), the University Grants Commission (UGC) has laid down some prescriptions for its curricular structure from time to time. The most recent set of prescriptions directed the transition towards a one-year LL.M. programme beginning in the academic year 2013-2014. Accordingly, this programme now requires enrolled students to complete three compulsory subjects, six optional subjects and a master’s level dissertation within an academic year. The three compulsory subjects are as follows:-

(i) ‘Law and Justice in a Globalizing World’;
(ii) ‘Comparative Public Law and Systems of Governance’;
(iii) ‘Research Methods and Legal Writing’.

The six optional subjects can be spread across semesters or trimesters, depending on the model chosen by each institution. LL.M. students are required to opt for at least four optional subjects that form part of a thematic cluster in order to obtain a specialization. While some NLUs ask their postgraduate students to opt for an area of specialization (with a specified basket of optional courses) at the beginning of the academic year, others allow them to build their specialisations over the course of the programme. Those who do not take the required number of courses to build a particular specialization can receive a ‘General’ LL.M. The writing of a master’s level dissertation is undoubtedly an intensive exercise. The written output can be further developed for publication in scholarly journals or serve as the basis for pursuing M.Phil. and Ph.D. programmes in due course.

In the long-run, offering a broader range of optional courses requires sustained investments in faculty development, both in terms of holding regular recruitment cycles and the enhancement of expertise for teaching and research. This is even more important for the purpose of running postgraduate and research offerings such as the LL.M., M.Phil. and Ph.D. programmes. Many of the NLUs are struggling in this regard since they do not have sufficient depth in their teaching capacity to offer such advanced programmes of study. While a pool of recently recruited Assistant Professors may be capable of teaching the compulsory subjects at the undergraduate level, the delivery of courses at the level of offering thematic specializations, postgraduate courses and research supervision requires faculty members who possess significantly more teaching experience and scholarly credentials.

The optional courses offered by the faculty members at each institution can be supplemented with shorter optional courses taught by practitioners and visiting scholars. Courses taught by judges, advocates and those working in commercial law firms as well as business houses can forge meaningful relationships in the long-run. These can directly benefit the institution in terms of the knowledge disseminated while also improving the employment opportunities for students upon graduation. Inviting scholars who are affiliated with other Universities, Research Institutions and Civil Society organisations is also an effective way of compensating for inadequacies in teaching capacity. Furthermore, the NLUs have now been included in the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN). Under this programme, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India gives financial assistance for inviting academicians from foreign universities to teach short courses, carrying 1 credit (12-16 class hours) or 2 credits (20-24 class hours). While some NLUs have begun utilizing this route, all of them could conceivably benefit from it.

If the requisite financial resources are available, invitations can be issued to foreign academics to be engaged as ‘Visiting Professors’ or ‘Research Fellows’ for a semester or an entire academic year. This route can potentially be better utilized if the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India exempts foreign academicians from the requirement of receiving a minimum annual salary of US$ 25,000 in order to obtain an employment visa to work in India. Given the relatively lower pay-scales in India’s public universities, it is ordinarily quite difficult to earmark funds for paying significantly higher salaries to foreign nationals. On this count, some of the private universities which have much higher fee-structures and stronger financial backing are finding it easier to engage the services of foreign faculty members for longer durations, often by paying them much higher salaries than their Indian counterparts.

Suggested Readings:

1. Upendra Baxi, 'Notes Towards a Socially Relevant Legal Education: A Working Paper for the UGC Regional Workshops in Law 1975-77', 51 Journal of the Bar Council of India (1975-76).
2. Jill Cottrell, '10+2+5: A Change in the Structure of Indian Legal Education', 36(3) Journal of Legal Education 331-357 (1986).
3. Gurjeet Singh, 'Revamping Professional Legal Education: Some Observations on Revised LL.B. Curriculum of Bar Council of India', 41(2) Journal of the Indian Law Institute 237-255 (1999).
4. Divya Venugopal, 'The Elephant in the Room: Dealing with Final Year Disengagement', 7(1) NALSAR Student Law Review 62-75 (2008).
5. N.R. Madhava Menon, 'The Transformation of Indian Legal Education – A Blue Paper' (Harvard Law School Programme on the Indian Legal Profession, 2012).
6. Jonathan Gingerich & Nicholas Robinson, 'Responding to the Market: The Impact of the Rise of Corporate Law Firms on Elite Legal Education in India' (Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, 2014).

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Improving Service Conditions for Faculty Members at the NLUs

The following extract appears at pp. 90-94 of a report titled 'Suggestions for Reforms at the National Law Universities set up through State Legislations' which was submitted to the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India in March 2018. It was based on surveys conducted among faculty members (33 respondents) and students (849 respondents) at 15 participating institutions in August-September 2016. I was one of the authors of this report. We welcome any feedback on its contents.  

The full text can be downloaded here:

Improving Service Conditions for Faculty Members

Admittedly, the problem of unsatisfactory teaching in the National Law Universities (NLUs) cannot be tackled through reliance on student feedback alone. In many cases, the immediate cause is a mismatch between a teacher’s prior training and the assignment of teaching responsibilities. As described earlier, the overarching problem is that of a limited pool of individuals with the requisite qualifications who are willing to take up full-time teaching positions. Among those who are available, there tends to be a concentration of qualifications in certain fields such as constitutional law, substantive penal laws and public international law. Inevitably, practice-oriented subjects such as the laws relating to property, taxation and procedure are frequently taught by those who don’t have much exposure to the uncertainties that arise while dealing with clients and public officials in a professional setting. While there are a few who choose to teach these subjects after gaining experience in litigious or transactional settings, a majority of full-time teachers do not have such a background. While some career academicians may progressively become well versed with the statutes, precedents and principles related to these fields, students tend to feel shortchanged in the interim. The situation becomes even more unsatisfactory when efforts to involve practising lawyers in the taught programmes attract those who may be unsuited for the latter. In some notable cases, even eminent justices and lawyers have struggled to perform in classrooms whose dynamics are fundamentally different from those inside the courtroom.

There are numerous instances where full-time instructors are initially hired to teach a given set of subjects but are subsequently asked to teach subjects in which they may have no previous experience or exposure. In conditions of scarcity, this may be a compromise that is eventually accepted by the immediate stakeholders. However, it is difficult to defend such a mismatch in highly selective institutions such as the NLUs that receive public funding and recover a considerable portion of their operating costs from tuition fees paid by students who are enrolled in their full-time taught programmes. The substantial reliance on teachers appointed on an ‘ad-hoc’ or ‘visiting’ basis tends to aggravate this problem of misallocation. Those who are hopeful of being considered for permanent positions would be reluctant to openly disagree with directives given by their administrative superiors. Those who are in ‘ad-hoc’ or ‘visiting’ positions do not have a sense of job security since their services can be terminated without the assignment of reasons. There is the very real possibility of such checkerboard solutions becoming the norm and thereby eroding the quality of instruction inside the classroom.

Many of our respondents pointed towards disparities prevailing in the service conditions for faculty members. During the course of our visits, we gathered that most of the NLUs have on average engaged 30-40 % of their full-time teachers on an ‘ad-hoc’ or ‘visiting’ basis. Only NLU Delhi, RMLNLU Lucknow and NLUJA Assam have engaged more than 80% of their faculty members in permanent positions. On the other end of the spectrum, institutions such as NLU Jodhpur and GNLU Gandhinagar have predominantly relied upon temporary appointments of teachers since their inception. The applicable regulations notified by the University Grants Commission (UGC) state that the number of teachers in temporary positions at a particular institution should not exceed 10% of the total faculty strength and that this route is specifically meant for contingencies such as regular faculty members discontinuing services or going on leave. At most of the NLUs, the non-teaching staff members are also largely occupying temporary positions. However, the overall situation at the NLUs still appears to be better than most public universities in India, many of whom presently have very high vacancy rates owing to delays of several years in conducting recruitments for filling up permanent positions. This had led to a situation where a vast majority of teachers serving in public universities and government-run colleges are doing so in ad-hoc positions. The rapidly growing sector of private universities has a natural preference for contractual appointments that make it easier to ‘hire and fire’ talent as per the fluctuating needs of an employer.

If we adopt the standpoint of those in decision-making roles, there are a few plausible arguments for retaining teachers in temporary positions for some time before considering them for permanent positions. Especially for new entrants to the profession, the time spent in temporary positions gives a good sense of whether they are well-suited for the role and are interested in teaching as a long-term career option. Some would argue that giving permanent jobs too easily would create an attitude of complacency at the early stages of one’s career. The more pragmatic argument seems to be that the continuation of teachers in temporary positions helps the institution to control spending in a context where financial support from the State is limited. This is because teachers in temporary positions usually receive consolidated salaries that are much lower than those of permanent teachers who receive emoluments based on the pay-scales notified by the Government.

However, a heavy dependence on teachers in temporary positions is not healthy for an educational institution in the long run. Prolonged engagement in temporary positions with lower pay can prove to be quite demotivating and lead to a high rate of attrition among teachers who will understandably leave once they get better employment opportunities elsewhere. Such consequences would pre-empt the improvements in curricular content and teaching standards that tend to happen if the same person continues to teach a particular set of subjects over several years. Hence, there should be a thorough review of the existing service conditions in order to draw a fair balance between the objectives of ensuring efficiency and giving employees a certain sense of stability as well as financial security. There should be a time-bound regularisation of the services of those employees who have been hired on a contractual basis, subject to their satisfactory performance. A service-period of 2-3 years in temporary positions is more than sufficient to assess an individual’s suitability for a permanent position.

There should be conscious efforts to improve service conditions – both in terms of material benefits as well as opportunities for career-advancement. It is not desirable to have a wide disparity between the pay-scales offered to teachers at the various NLUs since that may encourage poaching of individuals. We are already witnessing a clear diversion of teaching talent towards private universities that offer comparatively higher salaries. Each institution should also implement measures to provide ‘group medical insurance’ coverage for their faculty members and administrative staff. Especially in cities where costs of accommodation are high, the provision of relatively cheaper accommodation inside residential campuses is a significant incentive. Furthermore, one can look to the example set by some of the IITs and IIMs to grasp the importance of raising resources through contributions made by private parties. The funds gathered from such sources can be distributed as research grants among faculty members. Faculty members should be given adequate time to engage in their independent research projects which could be funded by external sources such as government agencies, private businesses or voluntary sector organisations.

It is in this context that the workload policies for full-time teachers at the NLUs should account for time that needs to be spent for meaningfully supervising student assignments while also pursuing one’s own research agenda. This is especially important for the serving teachers themselves since contributions made to scholarly literature carry substantial weightage for promotions in academic institutions. In the broader sense, it is also important for the institutions to be able to show that their faculty members and research scholars are publishing their work in credible peer-reviewed journals, engaged in sponsored research projects and producing books that will be given a broad platform by established academic publishing houses. Showcasing research output is absolutely vital for the NLUs to gain a position of prominence in national and international rankings of universities which place far more importance to this aspect when compared with other parameters of academic excellence. Even more significantly, high quality scholarship produced by serving teachers can give them a broader audience and reputation that goes far beyond the confines of their respective institutions. It is in this sense that we can make a cursory comparison of the workload policies for full-time teachers across the different NLUs. While some institutions such as NLU Jodhpur and RGNUL Patiala that have larger class sizes follow the norm of each teacher engaging 16-18 class hours per week, there are others such as WBNUJS Kolkata and NALSAR Hyderabad where the average teaching responsibilities range between 8-10 class hours per week. Some institutions have enjoyed a locational advantage in terms of attracting teaching talent and have retained smaller class sizes. Hence, NLU Delhi and NLSIU Bangalore have been adhering to a norm of each teacher delivering 5-6 class hours per week. It goes without saying that each institution makes such decisions after accounting for the availability of teachers and the size of the student body. However, it is not wise to place excessive burdens on serving teachers and thereby make it difficult for them to devote time for their independent research.

In respect of reservation norms for recruitment to permanent teaching positions, all public educational institutions in India are obliged to preferentially consider candidates belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) as well as those identified as Persons with Disabilities. Some States have reservation policies that favour candidates from Other Backward Classes (OBCs). While we were not able to gather reliable data to examine this issue in the context of the NLUs, the widespread feeling among our respondents was that the overall representation of teachers from marginalized backgrounds is quite minimal, often below 5% of the total faculty strength in some of the participating institutions. Unlike reservation norms for students which have to be met on an annual basis, there is no impending obligation to fill up vacancies for faculty positions since institutions usually retain the discretion of not filling them up during a particular round of selections. Such practices feed the criticism that candidates who come from such disadvantaged backgrounds get a raw deal when they apply for positions at highly selective educational institutions. This in turn contributes to the view that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have adequate support for coping with an institutional environment that is largely shaped by persons from dominant caste backgrounds.

Suggested Readings:

1. Amita Dhanda, 'The Power of One: The Law Teacher in the Academy', in Amita Dhanda & Archana Parashar (eds.), Decolonization of Legal Knowledge (Routledge Publishers, 2009), pp. 261-281. 
2. Jane E. Schukoske, 'Legal Education Reform in India: Dialogue Among Indian Law Teachers', 1(1) Jindal Global Law Review 251-279 (2009). 
3. Lovely Dasgupta, 'Reforming Indian Legal Education: Linking Research and Teaching', 59(3) Journal of Legal Education 432-449 (2010). 
4. Anup Surendranath & Chinmayi Arun, 'Elite Law Varsities: The Crisis Within', LiveMint (April 26, 2012). 
5. Mansi Sood, 'Legal Education and Its Outcomes: Digging Deeper into the Successes and Failures of India‟s National Law Schools' [Available through Social Science Research Network (SSRN), November 2017]. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Reforming Governance Structures at the NLUs

The following extract appears at pp. 102-106 of a report titled 'Suggestions for Reforms at the National Law Universities set up through State Legislations' which was prepared by NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. It was submitted to the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India earlier this year. It was based on surveys conducted among faculty members (33 respondents) and students (849 respondents) at 15 participating institutions in August-September 2016. I was one of the authors of this report. We welcome any feedback on its contents.

The full text can be downloaded here:

Reforming Governance Structures

We now turn to some of the opinions gathered in respect of the governance structures at the NLUs. While this issue would be better examined through institution-specific case studies, we have tried to briefly recount some of the concerns that appear to be common to many of the institutions covered by our study. One thread touches on worries about the excessive centralization of decision-making authority in the hands of incumbent Vice-Chancellors. The Vice-Chancellor serves as both the academic and administrative head of a higher education institution. Owing to the relatively small size of the NLUs when compared with larger public Universities, there is bound to be more scrutiny exercised by a Vice-Chancellor in matters of day-to-day administration. It would be a logical consequence of this situation that faculty members, non-teaching staff and students would be interacting with the head of the institution more often than what is the case at larger public Universities. A high degree of familiarity between the respective stakeholders may enable more responsive decision-making in the short-run but can also generate distrust in the long-run.

A certain degree of control is expected in the performance of routine co-ordination functions such as authorizing construction of physical infrastructure and procurement of essential materials (such as books for the library and groceries for dining facilities). However, that should not preclude disclosures about administrative decision-making. The lack of publicly verifiable information about spending decisions creates undue apprehensions about graft and self-dealing behaviour. So the periodic disclosure of spending decisions is an effective means of preventing or allaying such apprehensions. As mentioned earlier in this Report, this can be easily done by uploading the annual financial statements of the institution on its official website after they have been independently audited and approved by the Governing Bodies.

In comparison, there is a much higher expectation of transparency and fairness in decision-making when it comes to academic matters such as recruitment of teachers, allocation of teaching responsibilities and the handling of grievances related to teaching and evaluation. At many of the institutions covered by our study, we heard testimonies detailing instances where incumbent Vice-Chancellors had used their discretion in a very expansive manner when it comes to academic matters. A very troubling set of instances reported at NLSIU Bangalore deals with interference in the evaluation of examinations by individual teachers. The existing procedures for re-evaluation were invoked to modify marks given by the Course Instructors, with no involvement of other faculty members or subject experts. Such interference might be couched as a remedial intervention in order to protect students who are struggling to cope with the coursework, but it seriously undermines the presumption of academic autonomy which has been touted as a distinctive feature of the NLUs. Not only does such interference seriously demotivate teachers, but it also distorts the incentives for students to work hard for completing their coursework. Respondents at several institutions criticized the lack of open deliberations on academic matters. Pointed references were made to the discontinuation of regular faculty meetings and the casual overturning of decisions made by internal committees constituted to administer the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes respectively. Some Vice-Chancellors are known to prefer dealing with grievances in an individualized manner rather than attempting to resolve problems through collective deliberation. Even in dealing with individual representations, there might be an intentional avoidance of difficult and inconvenient questions. Like in the case of public institutions at large, the concentration of powers in a few hands can severely compromise the elements of expertise, efficiency and predictability that are expected in decision-making.

Another set of respondents pointed out that many of the incumbent NLU Vice-Chancellors have been selected for these roles after acquiring their previous work experience in very different institutional settings. Hence some of them tend to be quite indifferent to problems such as teachers neglecting their professional responsibilities and students being visibly apathetic towards their coursework. At a few institutions, no concrete action has been taken despite classes for several subjects not being held regularly and reports of irregularities in the conduct of examinations. Such indifference may also extend to the domain of faculty recruitments if the head of the institution does not see the importance of attracting talented and motivated teachers. In many cases, candidates with impressive scholarly credentials have been overlooked in favour of mediocre teachers at the stage of recruitment and promotion. There were also personalized criticisms such as some Vice-Chancellors demonstrating a decidedly ‘feudal’ style of management where benefits such as fast-track promotions are handed out to teachers and employees who display loyalty. On the other hand, those who are openly critical of administrative decisions tend to have slower career advancement or may even face retaliatory action such as termination of services without assignment of reasons (if they are in temporary positions) and trumped up disciplinary proceedings if they happen to be in permanent positions.

While some of these criticisms might have been overstated, there is no doubt that the selection of the NLU Vice-Chancellors needs to be made in a broad-based manner. At present, the Search-cum-Selection Committees are constituted by the Chancellors and consist of nominees from the Judiciary, the Bar and Academia. The academic nominee tends to play an important role in these committees and is usually an incumbent at a comparable institution. They invite applications from eligible candidates (usually individuals who have served as a Professor of Law for at least ten years) and then shortlist them based on the demonstrated academic and administrative credentials. The shortlisted candidates are then called for interviews by the Chancellor before the final selection is made. This process needs to be conducted with more transparency and it would be better if stakeholders such as faculty members, the elected student body and the alumni association of the concerned institution are at least given an opportunity to provide feedback on the list of applicants before the processes of shortlisting and final selection are completed. This will improve the chances of selecting candidates who possess the desirable balance between scholarly credentials and administrative abilities.

When it comes to the functioning of the Governing Bodies of the NLUs such as the General Council (GC), Executive Council (EC) and Academic Council (AC), there were pointed questions about the role played by existing stakeholders such as the Judiciary, the Bar, and representatives from the respective State Governments. Most of the representatives are preoccupied with their professional responsibilities and tend to view their involvement in these bodies as a nominal function. The representation of permanent faculty members is largely dependent on the personal discretion of the incumbent Vice-Chancellors. It is quite possible that the external representatives may lack the time and the proximity needed to understand the immediate concerns of the primary stakeholders, namely the students enrolled in full-time programmes at these residential campuses. In such a scenario, there are good arguments to provide for the formal representation of the alumni associations in the Governing Bodies of the NLUs. Such an inclusion may become possible within ten years of the commencement of the taught programmes at a particular institution. Representatives chosen from the alumni are more likely to present an informed take on the day-to-day affairs of the University since they are familiar with its needs and also have a long-term interest in maintaining its reputation. They may be able to better understand and articulate issues concerning teaching standards and curriculum reform apart from facilitating support for student-initiated activities.

Apart from the formal governance structures, we should not overlook the role of elected student associations when it comes to day-to-day matters of campus life inside the NLUs. On this count, there is considerable disparity among the NLUs that have been set up so far. While some of them have student associations chosen through annual elections, there are a few where student representatives are nominated by the administration. Even among the institutions that do have elected student associations, there are different models in place. For instance, at NLSIU Bangalore and WBNUJS Kolkata, the student body directly elects two office bearers (President and Vice-President) while a number of activity based committees are constituted through selections made on the basis of previous experience in the concerned activity. In comparison, students at NALSAR Hyderabad chose all of their activity based committees through elections conducted at the level of each batch, whereas office-bearers or chosen through a mixture of direct elections (President and Vice-President) and indirect elections (Secretary, Joint Secretary and Treasurer). In stark contrast, NLU Jodhpur has a model where the office-bearers of the student association are nominated on the basis of academic performance. NLIU Bhopal did not have an elected student association so far, but plans are afoot to constitute one in wake of the recent protests on their campus.

There are different ways of looking at the role performed by student associations. Their foremost role is to act as a bridge between administrative officials, faculty members and the student community. Grievances related to teaching standards and the inadequate provision of facilities (for example dissatisfaction with library resources, quality of hostel accommodation and dining facilities) can be addressed in a participatory manner if there is a commitment to problem-solving through an open dialogue. It would be a mistake to view student associations themselves as a cause of discord. By establishing clear channels for students to raise their problems and work towards constructive solutions, the institution gains in the long-run. Apart from this representational role, student associations can enhance the quality of campus life by organising a range of co-curricular and recreational activities. For many law students, consistent involvement in co-curricular activities such as Moot Court Competitions, Competitive Debating and Simulations of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods provide a channel for deepening their academic learning as well as communication skills. The residential nature of these campuses also allows students to be involved with different forms of community-building activities such as informal discussion groups and hobby clubs among others. Similarly, the organisation of sports and cultural activities can also add value to the associational life of what are otherwise quite intensive academic environments. 

Suggested Readings:

1. Shamnad Basheer & Srovon Mukherjee, 'Regulating Indian Legal Education: Some Thoughts on Reform' [Available through Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN), January 2010].
2. Yogesh Pai & Prabhash Ranjan, 'Legal Education at Crossroads', The Hindu Business Line (May 15, 2013).  
3. Ruchira Goswami et. al., 'Conversation with Prof. Madhava Menon, Former Vice-Chancellor, NLSIU and WBNUJS', Journal of Indian Law and Society Blog (March 13, 2014). 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Assessing Teacher Performance in Indian Law Schools: Problems and Prospects

In three months from now, the network of National Law Universities (NLUs) will welcome incoming students who will secure their places in these institutions after clearing the formidable hurdle of entrance tests. At present, there are sixteen institutions located all over India which form part of the experiment that was initiated with the establishment of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore in the late 1980s. A few more states have announced plans to establish institutions of a comparable design in the near future. The emergence of these considerably autonomous institutions dedicated to legal studies has been described by many as evidence of improvement in the quality and social perception of legal education. However, as pointed out elsewhere, much of the external scrutiny of these institutions is based on narrow parameters such as their intake of students through a competitive admissions process and their visible output in terms of how graduating students fare in the market for recruitment to well-paid positions in commercial law firms and businesses. An excessive emphasis on what happens at these points of entry and exit deflects attention away from several structural problems in the internal working of the NLUs. It is almost as if the essential features of an educational institution such as the performance of its teachers, the impetus needed for carrying out meaningful research and transparency in administration are unimportant and hence undeserving of sustained scrutiny. 

In some instances, objections to apathetic teaching and opacity in administration have been sidestepped by pointing to the achievements of exceptional students in inter-institutional competitions and the job-market, wrongly assuming that these are comprehensive indicators of the institution’s quality. It is akin to saying that the citizens of a country should not be bothered about widespread irregularities in the distribution of public goods as long as it produces some star athletes who succeed in competitions. While this worrying trend can lead us towards a thicket of problems, lackadaisical and often inept teaching in the classroom is the foremost concern. This is largely a consequence of the difficulties faced in attracting and retaining motivated teachers. Since a majority of the students admitted to the five-year integrated law programmes tend to be from upper-middle class backgrounds, the perception of this problem is heightened in cases where teachers do not have the same level of proficiency in the English language or when they are unfamiliar with their students’ cultural preferences. Regardless of such oddities, there is no justification for administrators to sit idly when an instructor’s performance is found to be below par. 

Many observers seem to believe that increasing teacher-pay is a ‘one-size fits all’ solution for improving the standards of instruction in the classroom. The assumption is that better salaries are more likely to attract competent individuals who may otherwise opt for other career avenues and at the same time act as an incentive for existing teachers to up their game. However, financial incentives alone are unlikely to yield the desired changes. For one, the disparity between the salaries given to university teachers and the income that can be earned by experienced litigators as well as those engaged in transactional lawyering is likely to persist. Furthermore, across the board pay-hikes by themselves may not stimulate a large pool of teachers to make conscious efforts towards self-improvement. The missing links are appropriate methods for assessing the performance of teachers as well as the periodic review of course-content and teaching techniques. While most of these schools have adopted formal measures such as preparatory workshops and refresher courses for faculty members, it is the feedback collected from students that often invites heated debates. Since I have been at the giving and receiving end of such anonymous feedback on taught courses, I can safely say that there is some resistance to the idea that it should be given weightage for routine staffing decisions such as subject-allocation and relatively infrequent ones such as the regularization of contract teachers or promotions for those with assured tenure.    

The usual method for gathering such feedback is by way of questionnaires distributed to students at the end of the instructional period in a term. In some institutions, the same process is being conducted online with the help of software that enables individualized surveys. The students are asked to anonymously rate the performance of their course instructors under different-heads such as the quality of reading assignments, communication skills, time-management, responsiveness to questions, guidance for writing requirements and availability outside the classroom for answering doubts. The insistence on anonymity seeks to serve a dual function, namely to ensure that those students who provide adverse feedback on their teachers do not face retaliation and conversely that those who provide positive reviews do not become the recipients of undue favouritism in the future. 

Since autonomous institutions require the instructors who design and teach a course to evaluate their own students’ performance in examinations and term papers, there is scope for the feedback forms to include questions about the levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with grading patterns. This often turns out to be contentious since there is an understandable tendency on part of students to be more concerned about their eventual grades. The inherent risk is that grievances about stricter evaluation standards can play a predominant role in students’ evaluation of their own teachers who may otherwise be quite effective inside the classroom. Likewise, teachers who are comparatively lenient when it comes to grading may often get away with deficient teaching. A precautionary step that is taken in this regard is to release the content of the feedback to teachers only after the completion of the evaluation process. Irrespective of such distortions, it may be useful to recount the presumptive benefits and costs of collecting feedback in the first place.   

The primary argument is that the instruction and evaluation process should put the needs and interests of students first. Since it is the students who interact with a teacher over the course of a term, they are best placed to gauge whether the latter’s performance meets their expectations. The apprehension is that in the absence of any credible feedback mechanism, instructors may become so detached from the needs of their students that the entire process can become redundant. This can happen in different scenarios. You may have the case of an instructor who is very knowledgeable and renowned for scholarship in the respective field. However, it is quite possible that this teacher communicates in a manner that is too complex. Even the choice of reading assignments and examination requirements may be beyond the reach of students who are in their formative stages. Given the extant power-relations in our classrooms, students may hesitate to openly point out such problems. On the other hand, we can consider the possibility of an instructor who is unable to meet the minimum standards expected in such a role. This could be evident in numerous ways such as poor communication skills, inadequate preparation for the classroom, disproportionate coverage of some topics which crowds out the time needed for others and an inability to engage with comments or queries from students. In some cases, this instructor may either evade incisive questions posed by students or resort to disproportionate assertions of authority when the students express their dissatisfaction. In the first scenario that involves the competent yet incomprehensible instructor, the anonymous feedback collected from students serves as a useful dialogical device which can help instructors in aligning their methods with the capacities and needs of their students. In the second scenario involving the underprepared or apathetic teacher, the feedback can highlight issues that need corrective interventions by administrators and other faculty members.  

In turn, we must also examine the arguments against giving weightage to anonymous feedback gathered from students. As described above, students tend to overemphasize evaluation patterns instead of the quality of course materials and in-class teaching. This can lead to serious distortions if their ratings and comments are unquestionably used to make staffing decisions such as the removal of a contract teacher or the denial of promotion to someone with assured tenure. Furthermore, deep-rooted differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of students and teachers may lead to an escalation of minor animosities that routinely arise in campus life. However, the strongest objection to relying on student-generated responses falls back on an idealized characterization of higher education. The assumption is that teachers are positioned as trustees who are expected to act in their students’ best interests precisely because they possess the requisite experience and expertise to do so. 

Sometimes it is in pursuit of the students’ long term interests that teachers prescribe challenging readings, engage in sophisticated classroom discussions and sternly monitor the student’s performance. Instructors may deliberately adopt provocative and seemingly counterintuitive positions in order to compel their students to examine issues from different perspectives. The use of such methods could be perceived as excessively burdensome by students, thereby leading to a pushback of sorts which is reflected in their ratings of a teacher. Students may often be unable to appreciate the teacher’s efforts to expose them to nuanced ways of reading and thinking. In fact, it is very likely that they may only understand the importance of what they were taught in hindsight, in some cases several years after they finish their first degree. In the autonomous law schools, there is the additional expectation of clearly demonstrating how what is discussed in the classroom bears any relevance to what students may encounter in the workplace. Especially among undergraduate students, this often creates an unhealthy impatience with discussions of theoretical materials. Owing to such possibilities within higher education, one may hold the view that staffing decisions made on the basis of student feedback can often prove to be counterproductive.   

Coming back to the particular case of the newer law schools, it must be reiterated that most students come in with high expectations after securing top ranks in extremely competitive entrance tests, whereas the market for teaching positions is under-developed. This reality makes it difficult to fall back on the conventional wisdom about the nature of higher education. Viewed in this light, we must be skeptical of the claim that students are not in a position to judge their teachers. Even if that claim holds good to a certain extent, it is difficult to disagree with the qualified use of student feedback alongside other criterion for monitoring the performance of teachers. Some of us may have serious apprehensions if it plays a determinative role in decisions about continuation in service and promotions. The most serious objection would be that such a process likens the teacher-taught relationship with the one that exists between buyers and sellers of commercial goods and services. There may also be a worry that such measures could possibly invert the power-relations that exist between instructors and students. However, there is an unambiguous case to be made for its dialogic importance, principally to enable teachers to improve their methods of instruction and course-content over time. 

Admittedly, the problem of unsatisfactory teaching in the NLUs cannot be tackled through reliance on student feedback alone. In many cases, the immediate cause is a mismatch between a teacher’s prior training and the assignment of teaching responsibilities. As described earlier, the overarching problem is that of a limited pool of individuals with the requisite qualifications who are willing to take up full-time teaching positions. Among those who are available, there tends to be a concentration of qualifications in certain fields such as constitutional law, substantive penal laws and public international law. Inevitably, practice-oriented subjects such as the laws relating to property, taxation and procedure are frequently taught by those who don’t have much exposure to the uncertainties that arise while dealing with clients and public officials in a professional setting. While there are a few who choose to teach these subjects after gaining experience in litigious or transactional settings, a majority of full-time teachers do not have such a background. While some career academicians may progressively become well versed with the statutes, precedents and principles related to these fields, students tend to feel shortchanged in the interim. The situation becomes even more unsatisfactory when efforts to involve practicing lawyers in the taught programmes attract those who may be unsuited for the latter. In some notable cases, even eminent justices and lawyers have struggled to perform in classrooms whose dynamics are fundamentally different from those inside the courtroom.     

Apart from the presumption that the best talent in the legal profession may be consciously staying away from the teaching branch, another set of concerns can be identified with recruitment practices and administrative decision-making. While these issues deserve a much longer comment, I will briefly point out one of the visible maladies. There are numerous instances where instructors are initially hired to teach a given set of subjects but are subsequently asked to teach subjects in which they may have no previous experience or exposure. In conditions of scarcity, this may be a compromise that is eventually accepted by the immediate stakeholders. However, it is difficult to defend such a mismatch in elite institutions such as the NLUs which receive public funds and recover a considerable part of their operating costs from tuition fees. Unfortunately, age-based hierarchies and substantial reliance on teachers appointed on a contractual basis tends to aggravate this problem. Instead of trying to solve this problem of misallocation, administrators tend to become indifferent since younger teachers who are hopeful of regularization would be reluctant to openly disagree with the existing arrangements. There is the very real possibility of such checkerboard solutions becoming the norm and thereby eroding the quality of instruction inside the classroom. 

The students who enroll in these residential institutions start their studies at an impressionable age. While a few approach these programmes with predetermined career preferences, a majority of the students form their subsequent choices through a fusion of experiences and influences, most importantly those shaped by their teachers and peers. Unfortunately, we seem to have come to a point where the contributions of teachers are being increasingly seen as incidental to the entirety of the student experience. If we do not take decisive steps to arrest this slide, there is a grave danger that the national law schools will be reduced to the pejorative description of degree-selling enterprises.  

(This post was originally carried on on August 20, 2013. I have re-posted it here because it has since gone behind a paywall.)