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The final word on law school rankings and how they should matter [FROM OUR ARCHIVES]

One of the few things that get law student readers on the legal news website Legally India as excited as reading about jobs are the league tables of colleges drawn up by publications every year.

India Today and Outlook magazines are among those that produce annual special editions that rank colleges in all the major disciplines, including law, usually around June, when admissions are being decided.

The issue is required reading for all parents whose children have just passed entrance tests. And for law students, present and future, there is a sense of pride or reaffirmation or indignant anger that one’s college has been “objectively” ranked as better or worse than another. But there are several issues that should stop anyone from taking these rankings too seriously. The most plain element is that India’s best, at least in law, appears to change year-on-year, as does the second-best, third-best and so on, all the way down to 15th or 25th rank.

One could ask whether the “quality” of these institutions can really be so variable or whether seeing some movement in the rankings is also a sure-fire way to shift more copies? A fair rebuttal would be that the magazines are doing the math and publishing the results. Well, let’s look at the math, at least whatever is out there.

The magazines usually publish a general ranking methodology that’s sparse on specifics but does include subjective “perception scores” gathered from a large panel of academics and employers, employability statistics (usually supplied by the college), and often a beauty parade element, where schools submit “pitch documents” of varying degrees of glossiness to put their best foot forward. All these are assigned numerical scores (with decimal points to four significant figures).

Most of the number crunching is actually outsourced to consultancies but some of the figures simply do not make any sense. One ranking’s criterion is the “selection test”, which according to that magazine ranking varies among the national law schools. But in reality, the oldest national law schools all select their intake from the same entrance test, where the pecking order by applicants is long established and verifiable, and very different from the magazine’s figures. Many placement scores are similarly hard to correlate to the available facts.

I don’t mean to imply, as some critics do, that there is any deliberate massaging of rankings or figures by the magazines (although many colleges have been known to polish their recruitment or other statistics). But it is difficult to argue that the current systems possess any scientific merit.

Those that criticize or are concerned by the rankings most—one college, The WB National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, went so far as to complain to the Press Council of India in 2011 about the rankings—perhaps misunderstandingthe philosophy of such special issues.

First and foremost, most regular magazine or newspaper supplements or special editions exist for one main reason: generating advertising revenue.

For marketers and advertisers, special issues are attractive because they guarantee a target audience that is interested in a particular topic. Therefore, a special issue will normally only get off the ground if there is a commercial perspective to it.

College ranking issues work because advertisers believe that they can talk directly to those prospective students and parents making decisions about their academic future.

Unsurprisingly, most advertisers in such rankings tend to be the actual colleges. Late last year, three judges wrote a report critical of the administration of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (Nalsar), Hyderabad, in which they complained that the college spent between Rs. 3.5 lakh and Rs. 8.5 lakh per advertisement or “impact feature” in India Today and elsewhere. While they said that the expenditure was “needless and wasteful”, they also noted the “curious” correlation between the advertisement spending and Nalsar’s top position that year.

This does not mean that a college’s rank is bought and paid for by advertising (which the external agency conducting India Today’s ranking had denied when responding to the NUJS complaint, and in this year’s India Today rankings issue, only one pure-play law college advertised—National Law Institute University or NLIU, Bhopal—and that slipped down the rankings from third to fifth).

Rankings need to be transparent to make them above reproach.

Apart from just objecting on principle, though, opponents of these ranking systems also complain that they create a risk that prospective applicants will be misled about the quality of a college and ruin their careers by studying in the wrong place. Unlikely. It does not seem as though candidates are giving any real weight to rankings, at least as far as national law schools go, and the influence of admission test coaches is arguably far greater and more opaque.

And certainly, no one intelligent enough to make it into the top 20 or 25 universities would base a “buying decision” purely on the rankings of a magazine? Or would they?

Maybe some institutions are oversold, maybe others are not given the place that is their due, but these rankings are journalism in a loose sense, not peer-reviewed journal articles on rocket science. Lawyers, used as they are to challenging facts and events, perhaps therefore take it all a bit too seriously.

And bear in mind the alternative. If one day a magazine were to be more transparent and scientific in its ranking of colleges, for example by attempting to visit every single one of India’s 800 or so law school campuses and interviewing all faculty members and current students, then one annual supplement (with only one law school advertisement) is unlikely to pay the bill.

And in any case, the outcomes or results are unlikely to be any more important or enlightening than they are right now.

This article first appeared in Mint. Legally India has an exclusive content partnership with Mint, which will feature the latest legal news and analysis every fortnight on Fridays in its print and web editions.

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