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Islands of excellence or despair?

Arjun Agarwal | Kolkata |

National Law Universities (NLUs) were set up with the intent of standardising and improving legal education in India. They were meant to provide all-round education and promote academic research in the field of law. While NLUs have made some inroads in improving legal education in the country, the full potential of these ‘islands of excellence’ is yet to be unlocked. NLUs are plagued with administrative problems, which threaten institutional prospects and cause unnecessary tussles with students.

NLUs today are inefficiently administrated institutions that fail to provide basic facilities such as decent faculty, proper classrooms, proper residential areas, a functional library, hygienic environment and other such necessities. For instance, NUALS (Kochi) failed to provide students with clean drinking water which has led to a jaundice outbreak on campus.

Continued lack of these facilities and false assurances by administrations inevitably culminatein student protests such as the ones at HNLU (Raipur), DSNLU (Vizag), NLUJAA (Assam) and RMLNLU (Lucknow) to name a few. In all such protests, administrations have tended to respond with callousness and arrogance by labelling the students as ‘undisciplined’ and ‘disorderedly’, trivialising the protests. This is evident from the student protest at NUSRL (Ranchi) in April earlier this year where students demanded basic rights like hygienic food, basic transparency, proper classes, coded answer scripts, proper security and a rodent-free campus.

Rather than addressing these legitimate concerns, the Vice Chancellor dismissed the protest as one for holidays and threatened disciplinary action against students. While the students had suspended the protest then on assurance of favourable consideration by the Vice Chancellor incharge, his subsequent inaction has now forced the students to resume their peaceful protest.

In my opinion, as someone who has been a part of the student administration in an NLU for his entire student life, there exists a common systematic problem with the administrative setup. NLUs have highly centralised administrative systems which lack basic transparency, especially in financial matters, and which accord little importance to collective aspirations of the students, research scholars and faculty.

Centralisation of Power

Administration of an NLU is supposed to be overseen by its Executive Council (EC). This EC is supposed to act as an accountability mechanism over the actions of the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar, both of whom head the administration. Most ECs consist of judges, ministers, bureaucrats and academicians. Understandably, these esteemed individuals are only able to devote limited time to the university. Typically the EC meets for a few hours twice a year.

In those few hours, the EC has to, amongst other responsibilities, approve of all major decisions pertaining to employment, academics, finance and infrastructural development. Close and proper scrutiny of these decisions or of the conduct of Vice-Chancellors and Registrars therefore becomes a pragmatic impossibility. This leads to higher centralisation of powers in the hands of the ViceChancellor and the Registrar.

Financial Matters

As of the today, the average yearly fees of NLUs is more than Rs. 2 lakhs per annum and is often subjected to multiple upward revisions. If the administrators are to be believed, consistent fee-hikes are “necessary” to make ends meet. They routinely cite insufficient state support as reasons to deny students requests for basic facilities.

Further scrutiny of such claims, undertaken by student bodies, have often revealed instances of serious financial irregularities such as the oneexperienced in NUJS, Kolkata, where the student body exposed a financial scam three years ago which led to the dismissal of a senior administrative officer. This shows a systematic lack of financial accountability of the administration.

Role of Student Bodies

Safeguards against these administrative inefficiencies have completely failed. Vice-Chancellors have routinely ignored or bypassed even legislative safeguards, such as statutorily-mandated Review Commissions, meant to bring about accountability and transparency. In GNLU (Gandhinagar), the Vice Chancellor reportedly attempted to bury an adverse Review Commission report.

Despite his actions and criticism by the Review Commission’sReport, he was granted an extension a week after the report finally surfaced on the internet. Several others have actively prevented such Review in violation of the statutorily prescribed time limit.

There are even those who have prevented the formation of a Review Commission for months even after the college Chancellor, the Chief Justice of India, signed off on it. The abject collapse of administrative checks and balances has left it upon the student bodies to undertake a higher burden and fight for basic constitutional rights such as health and safety before issues like faculty, library or classroom can even be addressed.

As long as these administrations can manage to escape all other mechanisms, some direct intervention by the student body becomes a must. Unfortunately, the lack of organised student bodies in most of these institutions has resulted in denial of basic rights to their students.

Role of Central Government

The change must also come exogenously. The Central Government must take cognisance of the abysmal state of affairs at most of these Universities and attempt to correct these systematic problems by directly engaging with the students. Being comparable to IITs, NITs, IIITs and IIMs (added earlier this year) in every respect, granting NLUs the status of ‘Institutes of National Importance’ (INI) must also be considered especially to tackle the perpetual lack of funds.

To that end, Hon’ble Prof. (Dr.) Sugata Bose had introduced the National Law Universities of India Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha in March this year, which, among other things, proposes INI status and CAG auditing for NLUs. Subsequently, elected student bodies at NLSIU, NALSAR and NUJS advocated for the same by way of a joint statement.

Administrations of NLUs have subjected students to increasingly stringent rules and regulations while simultaneously reducing facilities available to them. It appears that funds are unavailable for trivial demands such as clean washrooms while expensive cameras are installed across campus encroaching on our privacy.

Prof. N R Madhava Menon established these institutes to improve legal education and nurture a generation of “social engineers. Yet, continuous fights for basic survival and a right to decent education may leave us too drained and disillusioned to be of any use to society.

(The writer is the student body President at NUJS, Kolkata for terms 2016-17 and 2017-18)