Sidharth Chauhan of NALASR University

Sidharth Chauhan

Earlier this year, NALSAR University released a 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 me on the report, and the way forward for Indian legal education.
(Edited excerpts)
Amicus Partners: Let’s get started with the report itself. In terms of scale, it is quite impressive – more than 800 students, 150 faculty members. How early did you start?
Sidharth Chauhan: 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 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.
I’ll touch upon this later as well, but 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-C’s 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).
AP: The surveys themselves throw up some interesting data. You asked students what made them choose a particular institution, and one of the factors marked “most important” was faculty.
SC: 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.
AP: Were you surprised at this particular result?
SC: To be honest, no. Because, as insiders, this was also our hunch. Students, in the long run, value the quality of teaching that is being offered to them.
I would like to explain that we were not asking students to evaluate the faculty in that institution. We were asking them to compare across other factors which normally play a role in such choices.
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.
AP: And do you see this debate taking place in different schools?
SC: 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.
AP: Last bit on the student survey. 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?
SC: 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 mechanism 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.
AP: And do you think administrations are discussing this?
SC: 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 rigour 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.
AP: Moving on, one of the interesting proposals made in the report was introducing M.A. courses which could attract faculty from different disciplines.
SC: There are two big reasons for what we wrote – one, as you have said, is to attract faculty. For faculty members who come with primary training in other disciplines like history, politics, economics, sociology or even management studies – they would actually have a stronger reason to stay invested in the institution if they could get to curate and design a distinctive curriculum. At one level, if law schools have to emerge as truly academic institutions, then the linkages with other disciplines can’t simply be first and second-year minor subjects. We have to evolve beyond that.
Another reason is that we find it very hard to get Ph.D. students in law. Law is a professional degree so if people already have a LL.B. or a LL.M., what is their incentive to do a full time Ph.D. with us? What could be a more interesting academic experiment would be M.A. programs which are geared for people who want to do inter-disciplinary research.
I am quite hopeful that if we experiment with an M.A., say an M.A. in Law and Philosophy, we may get a student who may be a serious masters student with us, and may then proceed to do a Ph.D. and then produce scholarship which is possibly of a much higher standard.
There are some private universities that have already shown the way. For instance, at the O.P. Jindal Global University (Sonipat, Haryana) a substantial number of students come for their law programs, but they are running taught programmes in other fields such as International Relations, Business, Public Policy and the like.
The Azim Premji University in Bangalore has a School for Policy and Governance which started an interdisciplinary M.A. programme a few years ago. The Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) campuses in Mumbai and Hyderabad have also started M.A. programmes in Regulation and Governance.
This is a space that the NLUs can easily compete with. NLSIU Bangalore has already succeeded in attracting motivated students to its M.A. Programme in Public Policy.
AP: A lot of what you are saying goes back to the debates in the latter half of the last century. There was a focus on the interdisciplinary approach towards the study of law.
SC: In fact, that is where our inspiration came from. When the early discussions about setting up a ‘national law school’ took place, for instance in the Gajendragadkar report in the 1960s, they were thinking of locating it within a larger university system.
For the longest time, the intent was that it would be created at Delhi University. But many senior academics such as Prof. P.K. Tripathy were skeptical about the proposal to teach law as an undergraduate degree.
But if you go back to the original intention behind the national law school project, it was supposed to be embedded within a larger university system. Now that we have gone down a certain path of setting up isolated campuses, why can’t we at least bring back some elements of the original vision?
AP: When it comes to faculty, the report estimates around 30-40% of all faculty are ad-hoc. But were you able to find out how long they had been ad-hoc?
SC: Actually, these are the questions we had asked in the administration questionnaire. We had asked them to not only disclose the strength of their faculty, but also how long their ad-hoc faculty had been there. But nobody really gave us a consolidated answer.
For even the three institutions that gave us an answer, they have only told us the number of serving faculty members, not how long they had been there. The 30-40% estimate is a conservative number because there are some institutions such as NLU Jodhpur and GNLU  Gandhinagar which have largely functioned with ad-hoc faculty since their beginning.
On the other hand, there are some schools like NLU Delhi and RMLNLU Lucknow that have regularized most of their teachers.
But from what we have gathered, even in the schools where regularization happens frequently, the usual expectation is that you will serve in an ad-hoc position for a minimum of 2-3 years before being appointed at the Assistant Professor level. We have heard of horror stories where the waiting period has been seven or eight years in some cases.
AP: In a few years, a PhD will be mandatory for the Assistant Professor level. But, won’t this force people into PhDs?
SC: That I think is one level of the problem – namely that those who are presently working as ad-hoc teachers after completing a master’s degree will have a compelling reason to quickly finish their Ph.D.s. This may sacrifice quality.
The other issue is that we may actually lose out on potential candidates who may have half a mind to join academia after acquiring some experience with legal practice. But you are effectively pushing them aside by saying, “A PhD is going to be a norm in three years”
But in the long run, this is an overdue measure. If you look at recruitments for teaching positions in other disciplines, holding a Ph.D. is the norm for being appointed. But since  law is a professional discipline, there has been a relative scarcity of qualified people applying for teaching positions.
Which is why many people have been able to get regular positions after completing a LL.M. programme and clearing the NET, which is the existing threshold for appointment as an Assistant Professor.
AP: Sticking with the UGC, there seems to be a gap between what the UGC wants and reality. For instance, the one-year LLM was supposed to make Indian universities globally competitive.
SC: The UGC Committee that framed the one-year LLM program was thinking of aligning it with Western practices. They made the program more intensive with three compulsory courses, six optional papers and a masters dissertation to be completed within one academic year.
To be honest this is a fair amount of work – it is a taught LL.M. and a research LL.M. combined. Whereas in most parts of the Western world, you can opt to do one.
In practice, the applicant pool has increased which led to the hope that the quality of students would also improve.  But, at least in my limited experience, I have found that a lot of applicants are writing the PG CLAT because it is also a prerequisite to apply for jobs in several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs).
Unfortunately, the students with the best ranks in the PG CLAT are not joining the LL.M. programmes at the NLUs.
I think the real problem with the LL.M. programme is that we haven’t got the entrance process right. For a master’s program, does it even make sense to have a common exam that consists of multiple-choice questions? How can that be a suitable gauge for an applicant’s aptitude for research and writing?
Another problem is the dearth of faculty expertise for research supervision. For instance, each institution is a better judge of whether it has the requisite faculty resources to offer specialized courses or to meaningfully supervise dissertation writing.
AP: So, you do think an LLM is geared for academic research?
SC: Absolutely. In fact, the main reason for moving to the 1-year LL.M. was to make it clear to applicants that this is a degree that helps you transition towards a Ph.D. Or, if you are thinking about teaching, it helps you transition into a feeder teaching position.
But somehow, most of the people who write the PG CLAT don’t seem to have that information reaching them.
The other problem which we found is that some schools have started using the LL.M. as a means of financial compensation.
They admit a large number of LL.M. students, say 100, whereas they only have 40 teachers. Now, if you are going to guide LL.M. dissertations, each teacher has to guide 2-3 people. And in the pool of 40 teachers, nearly 20 or so may be very young teachers who have recently done their own LL.M.s.
I personally feel that if enough time and attention is given to it, our LL.M. programmes can become globally competitive. There is no reason why they can’t.
AP: One of the terms that kept coming up in the report was “complacency”, especially in context of the older law schools.
SC: 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.
AP: Looking towards the future – one of the recommendations made in the report was to have alumni representation in the governing bodies of the NLUs.
SC: It is as simple as making amendments to their respective State level statutes where you can easily add the alumni association as one more stakeholder that is represented, in say the Executive Council of the concerned NLU.
So far, Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon seems to be the only senior law professor who has publicly backed this proposal.  I think the idea will only gain traction if one school takes the initiative and invites its alumni into its governing bodies. Then other NLUs will quickly replicate this model.
Having alumni on your governing board proves to be beneficial in the long run. As the experience with many Western universities shows, as they get older, alumni are able to contribute financially and intellectually.
And, sometimes, they are able to help when the institution faces bottlenecks with the government, or in litigation involving the institution. All it requires is incumbent Vice-Chancellors and Registrars who are polite enough to ask for help.

 

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