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NLS Vision 2023: Part I-Academic Reforms

Presenting Vision 2023-Authored by Mathew Nevin Thomas (President, SBA) with Aditya Sanjay Mehta (Batch of 2018), Dhruva Murari Gandhi (Batch of 2018), Megha Hemant Mehta (Batch of 2019), Shraddha Gome (Batch of 2018), Shreedhar Abhijit Kale (Batch of 2018)

 This article is Part I of a Report prepared by 5 NLS students (including 2 generations of SBA office bearers) as a framework for the university to adopt in the coming 5 years to resolve the common issues that have cropped up during our time in law school. We hope this will serve as a base plan for the incoming SBA and CoCo to work on during their tenure. 

In the competitive landscape of legal education, remaining static will lead to being overtaken. There are many Universities today that can lay claim to being good, and there are some that can even make the claim that they are better than NLS. We have never made these claims. What we claim is that we are the best. Here, the group of students who write this are also making this claim. But we are also going to say that we need to be better than what we are, even if we are the best. NLS is not without issues, and here we will discuss the most pertinent of those, because as a self-aware student body it is important that we think and voice our opinions on how our University can be better, so that we are always the best.  The Best University requires many building blocks. Talented students. (Check) Good faculty. (50/50 on that and falling). Good infrastructure (Old hostels, big unused ghost building, etc. but okay, we’re not shabby). An open-minded environment (Compared to the rest of the country, we can’t complain – or can we?). Diversity (Cool). Pride and self-respect (A little too much, maybe). Fraternity (Wait a minute). Commitment (Uh-oh).

It is the destiny of any intelligent and self-interested student body to have to face challenging circumstances on a daily basis. It is better to move forward in a dark room in the hope of finding the exit than it is to stay still and grow comfortable in the darkness. Our obligations as students of this University is to keep working to make it better, one step at a time. No amount of solutions will give us a situation where there are no more problems. There will always be problems, and we have to stay constantly vigilant. They are manifold, and much like Hydra, when you cut one head off, two emerge in its place. For example, the introduction of electives brought with it the paranoia in the administration regarding scam courses, dynamic course and evaluation structures ironically leading to less flexibility in marking, a disturbing variation in marking scales among courses, students operating under different conditions to one another, and so on. The myriad problems however do not invalidate the inherent superior value of the elective system, which is a massive step that the University took in the right direction. Cutting off that one head was very important for us, and worth the BT of having to now fight two other smaller heads.

What we set out to do here is not to lecture or pontificate, but rather to have an open and honest discussion about the issues that plague our University, and hold us back as a student body. They say hindsight is 20/20, and we have to agree. The solutions proposed here are long-term in nature, and most come from the collective’s experience as students for five years. If only they could all be achieved in the scope of one academic year, the two years that a couple of us spent as Office-Bearers would have been enough to fix them. But as seen in the case of the stalled AER Amendments (see below), the conditions under which we operate evolve across time, which means that one academic year will see, at best, a 40-50 per cent strike rate. We hope that at the end of five years, that is, by the time the incoming first year batch is in our position, they can write a Vision 2028 that does not feature any of these problems – as unlikely as it may seem, that is the hope with which we will leave you all.

Part 1-Academics

Students at the National Law School have, over time, laid claim to certain academic standards that we have consistently maintained over the years. It was not long ago that a General Body Meeting of the SBA voted against endeavouring to switch to a five-day week because it would leave us less academically engaged. Because of our internalised assumptions regarding expectations within the student body, these academic standards have been viewed as fait accompli. However, this idea now needs re-evaluation (pun intended).

I. We will deal here with student behaviour and performance before moving onto institutional standards and safeguards. While we must not fall prey to the “falling standards” narrative that has consistently been spun around successive batches, it is important for us to acknowledge our own failings as a student body.

At the root of all our failings is apathy. Somewhere along the way, significant portions of the student body stopped caring – about academic standards, about faculty, about grades and about each other. Submissions became a burden as opposed to a natural function of being a student, and a burden that we fulfil disingenuously at that. Extensions became the norm not solely because of a poor internet infrastructure or various law school events, but because we only found it convenient to start working a few days before submission. More and more, projects started to look the same every year (but of course, so did topics). Malpractice during exams evolved from chits to well-hidden electronic devices. The system became easier to scam as time passed, and many of us took full advantage. We are not altogether innocent in why makeups, revals, extensions, exemptions and FAs have taken on negative connotations among faculty – and that includes faculty that we legitimately care about and are assets to the institution.

Apathy is not easy to cure. More than anything else, it requires good faith to be exercised by all stakeholders. It requires students to start believing that the teacher is reading their projects, that marking is being done objectively, that there is value to attending class besides the 5 marks on offer. It requires (yes, we’ll say it) fear of sanction among us. It is necessary for someone to take the first step – and indeed, someone has started taking these steps. We don’t have access to Turnitin anymore, so we can’t check to see the originality score of our projects (and of course we also cannot now see if we have “gotten away with it”). “Yes permitted”s have changed to “co-ordinate with Padma ma’am” and “forwarded to Prof. X for comments”. On the other hand, the UG Chairperson does not reject every student request based on bad faith anymore. There’s no arbitrary cutting down of extension days. In fact, submissions were moved in good faith to the middle of the month so that all 6-day extensions would be rendered moot (in effect, it was a 10-day extension).

At this juncture, instead of matching this good faith move with some good faith of our own, individual students chased after extensions on top of the new submission deadline, and disillusionment set in once again with the person in charge – disillusionment that will probably end with submissions reverting to the beginning of the month from next trimester onwards.

It is dangerous to remain in the muck even when someone is throwing you a rope, to pull you out. It is necessary on our part to respond to good faith with good faith actions of our own, if we are to break the cycle of apathy. It will take more efforts on our part than it will on the part of the administration and teachers, and that’s okay. It is incumbent upon us to gain back lost legitimacy because it will put us in a much better position, before the UG Council, before the Examination Department, and before any new Vice-Chancellor who will undoubtedly be inundated with the same volume of requests that the current Vice-Chancellor deals with without responding with the same amount of patience and benevolence. Most of the proposals laid out here only work if there is goodwill and trust between faculty, the administration and students. It is on that foundation that we must build our modern Law University. It won’t be easy, and it certainly will be frustrating and disappointing at many junctures, but to build a better institution requires that kind of commitment for us all.

II. If apathy is at the root of the problems faced by the student body amongst ourselves, then at the root of the problems faced by the students body vis-à-vis the University is the dearth of good faculty. The University as it stands today runs largely on the back of a pool of ad-hoc teachers. The vast majority of these ad-hoc teachers very simply do not meet the standards expected of the National Law School. Teachers that do in fact meet these standards do not stay on because it makes no sense to them, financially or in terms of job security, to stay on temporary teaching contracts that may or may not turn into permanent position later.

In 2017, an attempt was made to recruit teachers into permanent positions. There were two major flaws with this process. Firstly, and most importantly – it appears as though these appointments were halted at an Executive Council level (at least at the EC meeting held during AY 2017-18) either because the University did not follow certain rules and regulations that it needs to as a government institution, or because of a myriad political reasons that have little to do with recruiting good teachers. Secondly, the recruitment was envisioned as an attempt to attract external talent, but it turned out that most of our internal ad-hoc teachers applied and, despite not doing well in the demo classes, would still be able to use their experience at the University and the advantages arising from there to compensate for underperforming in the teaching part of being teachers.

The University cannot remain at the peak of legal education in India if most of the current pool of temporary teachers are the ones who finally transition to permanent teachers. While there are a few gems among them, by and large that ad-hoc population is not up to the mark, as has been evidenced by years’ worth of faculty feedback that has diligently been collected among students. The good ad-hocs will have no issue finding permanent employment in other premier institutions – indeed, they do move on quickly and without much trouble to more financially rewarding positions in other universities. The ones that are below par appear to have the most to lose from moving on from this University, since they will not be able to find equivalent positions elsewhere and are therefore going to try their hardest to continue here. No one will just go away because we want them to or because the students see them as not deserving of being at this University. At the end of the day, they are flesh and blood people who find themselves in a good position and want to settle there. It will require a large degree of external force on the part of the students in order for them to move on from NLS. It will also require a great degree of good fortune for the University to find good new talent – there is a dearth of quality at the entry level in academia, and over the next five years the University must do its best to encourage and solicit the services of the few alumni who would be willing to enter the teaching profession.

While we are no experts on the complicated politics of recruitment, what we can garner from having observed the coming and going of faculty at this University over the last few years is that opportunity does exist for talented people to come in and do good work. One of the best teachers we have had here is one such talented person who joined college at the same time as our batch arrived – someone who chose to invest himself in his alma mater as a teacher upon his return from abroad after his LLM. There are real gems in the teaching pool, including ad-hoc teachers who have publications that count towards QS scores, who have not been made permanent yet, and there is always concern that another University will snatch them up. That wouldn’t be anything new to us, having seen it happen with other talented people at this University leaving for NALSAR or NLU-D or JGLS or APU, but this trend has to come to an end. There are positive signs, such as the return of a senior academic from APU, but by and large the trend here has been that the gems we unearth are chased away by the lack of a secure work environment for them.

There is an aging top order of professors at the National Law School who are slowly starting to leave. This is leaving open vacancies that will need to be filled, and it is important that we find the right people for them. While we have talent in the internal faculty pool for Family Law, Tax, Corp, Crim etc. that ensures that we are sorted there for the foreseeable future, the same cannot be said for Constitutional Law, Property Law, International Law etc. once the ageing Professors who teach these courses start to leave the University.

We must remain vigilant regarding how mediocre talent enters and remains in our faculty pool, and how the really good ones continue to slip through our fingers. The last batch of permanent recruitment at this University was made in 2009, and unless the administration rectifies this situation by recruiting good permanent teachers – including by ensuring that the few good temporary ones we have are made permanent – we will not be able to sustain our reputation as being the nation’s best Law University. In many ways, the administration has still not begun to perceive of how information spreads among students – it is not just the surveys conducted by the many magazines that keep placing us at No. 1 that influences opinion. New media, including social media and legal news sites, are much more vigilant regarding the situation on the ground at our University, and it will not take long for the news to get out if the quality of the faculty pool continues to deteriorate. Even the still pending round of faculty only happened mainly because of sustained student pressure and a need to validate our standing in the eyes of the legal community.

Vigilance is not just a buzzword. It is constant pressure, not just on the part of the SBA Office-bearers but also the whole student body, to ensure that the University administration does what is expected of them, and continues to work towards the betterment of the University. What is so peculiar and indeed unfortunate about our University is that so many reforms are student-driven. The administration seems all too happy to delegate responsibility to us. The converse of this state of things is that blame can also be easily shifted to us – but it was never our job to fix the problems with the University in the first place. Always remember that as students, our duty is to study. It is the administration’s responsibility to administer. What we must do is to ensure that they do their jobs, not that we do theirs for them.

III. Once we have good faculty in place for all courses, we will have addressed the rot that has formed in many aspects of academics at the University. There is no greater motivator for students to do original and timely work than a teacher who reads projects. While this may appear to be a fundamental obligation for someone to teach and evaluate, the fact of the matter is that just like there are students who may not be giving it their all in writing papers, there are teachers who do not read them and thus make students feel that their work is going to waste.

It is also necessary for courses to not remain static – it is rare for a course outline to be updated every academic year (and that’s if a course outline is circulated in the first place). It does nothing to encourage students if teachers continue to teach from outdated or incorrect course material, and/or project topics are left unchanged for years. The most original work in law school is often produced in the fifth year, because the changing nature of seminar courses necessitates that fifth year students are not taking the same courses that were taken by their seniors. Another pointless exercise that must come to an end is the circulation and prescription of material that is not relevant to the course or evaluation, which aside from being a waste of paper is also going to end with students becoming somewhat apathetic towards the course itself when they realise that there is no direction to it. Therefore it necessary for professors to keep up with all the updates in the law and assign reading material and project topics which are of contemporary concern to students.

Many of our courses also encourage a system of rote learning which most international academic institutions have moved on from. For a subject as dynamic and research-oriented as law, the idea of having to mug up 200 cases for an exam makes no sense. All exams should be open book, so that teachers will stop testing rote knowledge – it is an empty and pointless exercise, which can easily be replaced with application level questions if a little more work is put into the question paper. It is absolutely necessary for students to be freed from such pointless examination systems, and we can see that most courses that have open book examinations are the ones that students better respond to. The disillusionment that sets in among students when they realise that their memories will be evaluated rather than their reasoning skills is stark, and does not belong in a modern University that seeks to produce good law practitioners. It is not much of a shock that students pick up more “real law” from internships than the procedural law courses, if those courses force students to mug answer keys and sections and not to apply the law. An alternative is for examinations to be replaced with paper submissions, or for greater proportion to be given to paper submissions so that more weightage is given to a student’s research skills than their rote learning capacities.

IV. It must also be pointed out that there is something broken about the way in which law school has structured courses – the five-year program is frontloaded, and the pressure placed on first year students by the history and economics courses in particular is shocking. The number of students struggling in these courses has only increased year by year as the student body becomes more diverse, and the burden being placed on students to climb up to the standards expected of them in these courses without the necessary skills or training is unfair to say the least. The write, repeat and carry cycle that consumes the lives of many students kicks off from not being able to cope with some of these courses, and it does not stop until the very end of our tenure here.

In fact, much like how many law courses have now become optional under the elective system, it must be asked why these particular arts courses remain the only options. While arts courses are necessary for the B.A. part of our degrees, there is no reason why aside from the existing arts courses, we cannot have English, Criminology Psychology, etc. which may all turn out to be more relevant for our future careers depending on the direction in which we choose to take them. It is necessary for a modern University to always ensure that students can maximise what they gain from the University, and having them be beholden to certain courses which they have no interest or skills in is unfair, especially when they fall outside what is mandated. The BCI may mandate certain Arts courses as being required for us to take our degrees, but a perusal of those rules tell us that we are either unnecessarily doubling up certain standards or not meeting others at all. We ought to explore the possibilities of having a majoring system, where we may major in one Arts subject – say, in Political Science by taking Pol Sci-I,II and III and minor in the rest – English, Criminology, History-I, Eco-I. This would also ensure that students who are not comfortable with certain courses aren’t forced to keep repeating them. In the end, being able to choose what we get our B.A. in will enable many of us to escape the cycle of carries that one falls into in the first year itself.

Even today after the Electives system was concretised, certain law courses that are not mandated by the BCI are compulsory in this University. This may be acceptable given that the decision to do that was made after a comprehensive discussion about what the University needs. We somehow seem to have failed to have that conversation when it comes to the other parts of our academics, and it is necessary that this conversation is had as soon as possible.

With the dawn of the electives system, it should also become possible for us to explore interdisciplinary courses with the students of the public policy program and also for us to specialise. The honours system can be put to use in specialisation, where a student who does all their electives and seminars in a particular field, say, Criminal Law, can be given a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) in Criminal Law, or those who do them all in Civil Law is given a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) in Civil Law, etc. This would be very useful to have for future litigators and academics. Of course, the argument can be made that this leaves lesser scope for change later, but it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t offer people the option.

V. This year, just like every other year, the SBA set out to try and amend the deeply outdated Academic & Examination Regulations, 2009, which look like they were written in 1999. In 2016-17, a Committee of teachers had mostly rejected a number of examination amendments and recommended that some others be passed. Thankfully, with the ascension of the new UG Chairperson, the ones that were recommended by that committee will now most likely be passed at the end of AY 2017-18. However, they are in no way enough. Some other changes that hopefully will come to pass by the end of the year are recommendations with regard to project revaluation and attendance marks.

The biggest change that actually needs to be made in the Exam Rules is attendance marks. The present system penalizes students by one mark for failure to attend four hours of class in regular and elective courses, and two marks for failure to attend four hours of class in seminar courses. This system does not adequately account for practical considerations, given that it is rather easy for a student to genuinely miss two days of class in a trimester, and the rules ought not to penalize the student by one mark for such reasons. An even more unfair condition under which students operate is that attendance makeup is not awarded for medical reasons – this means that if a student falls sick, as is likely to happen over the course of three months, then they will lose marks. Effectively, losing marks becomes a penalty for falling sick in this University, which makes no sense at all.

Another aspect of the attendance marks system is the reliance placed on makeups, which are anyway capped. A system has evolved where the SBA gets the Vice-Chancellor to lift the cap on makeups for representing the University, which leads to an absurd condition arising where a student claims 20% uncapped makeup for representing the University, another 15% for committee work, and ends up attending 65% of class and getting full attendance marks whereas a student who has to travel home for family reasons or falls sick for three days will have lost attendance marks. This has led to a makeup culture that takes up a large amount of labour of the examination department and the respective committees, and still somehow ends up screwing over students at the end of each trimester because of makeups that aren’t passed, makeups that weren’t genuine, and makeups that just weren’t filed. At the root of all these failings is the attendance marks system, which is disliked by around 52% of students and liked by around 48% as per an online survey conducted last year. As with every 50-50 debate, there are valid arguments on both sides, and no solution in sight. From a purely efficiency perspective, it makes sense to do away with attendance marks and add those five marks to exams, which frees us from the burden of makeups and releases sick students from being penalised for missing classes. On the other hand, 4 or 5 guaranteed marks as opposed to a 5 marker in an exam that can easily end up going wrong is not a bad trade-off, and there always is the hope of one day having medical makeup – we mustn’t fall into the trap of saying it can’t be done, but it is true that it hasn’t become a reality despite at least the last five sets of office-bearers having tried to get it passed (we must after all not fall into the trap of repeating the same failure over and over, and consider what else we can do).

The Exam Rules also provide no scope for project revaluation, whereas it leaves a lot of scope for examination revaluations. The former is absolutely necessary to combat vindictive marking in a system where only 60% of marking is blind, whereas the latter is now openly being questioned on transparency, accuracy etc. Both require comprehensive re-looks. In a system where teachers are not even sharing the breakdown of project marking, it is quite absurd for a corrective check not to be in place already.

There is also a need to comprehensively amend certain provisions to reflect reality and practicalities, including with regard to soft copy project submissions, plagiarism checks, FAs, Exemptions and Extensions. All of these were prepared and submitted already, only for sudden shakeups to disrupt a process that already led to Elective Rules being notified midway through AY 2017-18 and consensus with the UGC having been achieved in the third trimester. It is necessary for the pieces to be picked back up in the next Academic Year and the ones to come even if Project Reval and Attendance Marking is fixed now, because each recommended amendment is individually important to slowly fix the things that are currently going wrong in our students’ academic lives.

VI. The NIRF placed NLS as the top Law University in the country, where we led NLU-D by one point. The gap between the two Universities as per the numbers provided was most visible in their research output, for a frankly hilarious reasons – NLS did not send over the details regarding our research output to the NIRF. It is likely that we would have scored highly on that metric as well had the information been sent across, and it is to be expected that we do the due diligence next year when the rankings are done over. Of course, NIRF is but one way to qualitatively compare our institutions. QS scores might reflect a different reality altogether – many of our publications wouldn’t count towards those, and indeed not many of our publications have been indexed on SCOPUS either.

The reason our research output is very high is because of the many Chairs and Centres on campus that produce legal work of a good quality – CCL, CWL, CEERA, CIPRA, the Consumer Law Chair etc. all do so regularly, and a number of students do have their work published by them. However, a gap remains between the student body and these centres – students are mostly selected in an ad-hoc manner, depending on who is teaching them, which teachers they manage to get close to etc. This means that a large number of students at the University leave after their time here without ever even having interacted with the centres. What this also means is that the University is missing out on a lot more quality work that could end up helping our Centres and our public profile than it even probably realises. Therefore, it is necessary to bridge the information asymmetry between the platforms for research and publication in the University and the student body.

Ideally, the solution is simple. A noticeboard, or a policy for a call for researchers / papers on relevant issues by the Centres, to be circulated among the student boy. Very often, we see that the Centres even use interns and external candidates to meet their research needs, while having completely overlooked the 540-strong student body at its disposal. Even when they do, of course, it is possible that they do not get adequate responses, in which case they may and should look externally for researchers – but there is no need to overlook the students of this University at the first instance, and therefore it should be a matter of policy that a call for applications is made internally before externals are considered.

We must also make a note here that while NIRF might be authoritative insofar as an Indian University is concerned, another important ranking system exists globally which we have not yet broken into. The QS World Rankings for Universities is something which NLS has not even found a place on in our 30 years of existence. These rankings only take into account publications by faculty, and it is rare for a teacher at NLS to have a paper published in avenues that count here. A more concerted effort can be made to break into QS if faculty and students work together to co-write and publish internationally in a law review recognised here, since it is more than likely that among the 80 papers written for every course there is material that, once refined, will be up to the standards of those international publications. If such activity is incentivised through project exemptions, it would enable us to head in a direction that no other Law University in India has currently charted. Co-writing, of course, is a slippery slope – we must remain ever-vigilant that our students do not have credit stolen from them by people who will not contribute in any substantive manner to the paper. In the long term, however, with good, eager teachers and engaged students, this is a welcome reality for us.

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