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Nalsar study reveals how law schools are chosen • Slams mag ‘rankings’, CLAT convenors, NLU-D • Suggests reforms

The main factors students use in picking law schools
The main factors students use in picking law schools

For previous years’ Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) candidates, faculty quality of a law school was the most important factor in choosing whether or not to seek admission, according to a study conducted by Nalsar Hyderabad on legal education reforms which was commissioned by the Department of Justice (DoJ).

The responses to that study also showcased ambivalent opinions on the justification of CLAT itself as an entrance exam.

While more than 38% respondents to the study’s survey answered that it was a “good idea” to use the CLAT as a method to judge an applicant’s aptitude, a nearly equal number - more than 33% - also thought that it was a “bad idea”.

In terms of factors influencing law school choices, faculty quality came first, followed by the law school’s placement track record, the ‘ranking’ of the law school, its physical infrastructure, financial assistance available and its geographical setting.

Consideration of the fee only came in last among the “most important” factors, according to the study.

“The responses to our questionnaire show that after the quality of ‘faculty’, the publicly known ‘Law School Rankings’ are the second most important factor for applicants to choose between NLUs,” noted the survey, adding:

With respect to the Common Law Aptitude Test (CLAT), the preferences of applicants seem to be driving the rankings of the NLUs, the latter having a strong correlation with the year of their establishment. These informal ‘rankings’ are then publicized by news-magazines and online publications which in turn shape the preferences of newer applicants. This is not a desirable situation since it gives relatively older institutions an artificial advantage and has already led to complacency on their part when it comes to the actual quality of education offered by them. It would also demoralize newer institutions who may not be able to improve their perceived ‘ranking’ despite significant efforts made to improve teaching standards. Hence, there is a need for an authoritative ranking of the NLUs by a publicly reliable source. We suggest that the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) introduced by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India should include the NLUs as one of the sub-categories in their annual exercise of ranking higher educational institutions in India.

However, the study also noted more positively:

It is heartening to note that an overwhelming majority of the student-respondents value the quality of teaching as the most important criteria for choosing a particular institution.

This is a welcome change when compared to the long-entrenched stereotype about law students enrolled in India’s larger public universities being indifferent to the quality of classroom instruction. It indicates that the NLUs have succeeded to some extent in attracting students with healthy levels of motivation to pursue higher studies. This places an obligation on the NLUs to constantly enhance their teaching resources, whether it is in terms of the number of personnel available, the range of expertise available, the quality of instruction delivered and the extent of student satisfaction.

The study makes detailed actionable recommendations to improve access to NLUs, to:

  • improve access,
  • academic inputs, and
  • administrative processes.

How to tackle the faculty crisis?

Since faculty quality was such a top factor in choosing a law school, and since NLUs had a general dearth of quality faculty, the report suggested:

Contrary to the popular wisdom on this issue, pay-scales are not the only factor. Competent and motivated teachers will join institutions that are known to offer permanent teaching positions within a reasonable time-frame of 2-3 years. Relying on teachers in temporary positions for several years at a stretch leads to a high rate of attrition and makes it difficult to attract fresh talent. In order to induct fresh talent, pathways can be created such as paid Teaching Assistant positions for recent LL.M. graduates and Ph.D.

candidates who show an aptitude for teaching. Another prospective step that can be considered is for the NLUs to collectively organise their own Law Teachers Eligibility Test (LTET) in place of the UGC NET which is the current threshold for being considered for permanent teaching positions. This test can be designed so as to ensure a more meaningful assessment of an individual‟s aptitude for teaching. In the larger scheme of things, a working environment that encourages diligence, creativity and transparency will enable the accumulation of qualitatively better human resources.

The study also made several other suggestions, such as:

  • more use of the Socratic method or smaller-group ‘tutorials’ in teaching rather than just lectures,
  • a choice-based credit system (CBCS) as a “must” for all institutions,
  • all schools to organise “curriculum development workshops” before the start of each academic year,
  • special English language skill classes,
  • more student feedback on teacher performance,
  • a “conscious effort” by NLUs to “share their academic resources”.

Judging the entrance

CLAT growth through the ages (via report)
CLAT growth through the ages (via report)

The CLAT, which was not a “good idea” for the second-largest number of respondents to the study, can be cracked more easily with entrance test coaching according to more than 35% of the respondents who said coaching “makes a significant difference”.

31.7% of the respondents even recommended that adding personal interviews or group discussions to the law school admission process was a “good idea”.

The study commented:

Multiple-choice questions might entail effort-saving for those who organize admissions, but do not capture an applicant’s aptitude for theory-building and analytical writing, both of which are vital for meaningfully pursuing legal education. Making admission decisions solely on the basis of a two-hour exam appears to be unfair to school-leaving applicants who might better demonstrate their abilities through scrutiny of several factors taken together such as performance in school-leaving examinations, writing samples, letters of recommendation and achievements in co-curricular activities.

In order to increase the number of students applying and to improve diversity, the study authors recommended that the application fees of Rs 4,000 for the CLAT should be halved, to correspond to entrance fees in other disciplines.

The authors also recommended that there was a “pressing need to improve the co-ordination mechanisms for conducting the CLAT”, with the “present model of rotating organisational responsibilities to a fresh institution each year” having “undermined the quality” of the exam, citing many of the very public errors in the conduct that have been well documented in previous years.

NLU Delhi really should join the CLAT (despite iffy quality?)

The authors also recommend in particular that NLU Delhi should really join the CLAT:

At least two of the NLUs that are currently in existence (NLU Delhi and HPNLU Shimla) are not using the CLAT for conducting their admissions. They should be advised to join the same. By remaining outside the ambit of this process, they are undermining the objective of a common exam introduced in 2008, which was to reduce the monetary and physical burden on applicants.

Domicile quotas

They also say that high “domicile quotas” at several NLUs are “not a desirable characteristic in the long-run, as it undermines the national character of the student body”, and “lead to undue resentment against students who gain admission with much lower ranks” in the CLAT.

NRI-sponsored seats misused

The study also recommended that the high-cost NRI-sponsored seats should be abolished, though seats allocated to students from abroad, particularly to economically developing countries:

Furthermore, a few NLUs have provided for „NRI-Sponsored‟ seats. This category should be discontinued since it is being misused by those who have completed their schooling in India but have relatives in developed countries who are willing to sponsor their education by paying the higher fee structure.

How to fix the administrative malaise?

The study makes some good points about how to improve transparency and quality in administration, including:

  • all NLUs to proactively disclose annual financial on their websites,
  • a more “broad-based process” for selecting VCs, and
  • “elected student bodies need to be nurtured and encouraged rather than being discouraged or even prohibited”:

Having said that, there are good arguments for continuing with the prohibition on mainstream political parties from mobilizing on these campuses. However, we should not go to the other extreme of not allowing elected student bodies at all. In some NLUs, the student office-bearers are being nominated by faculty members or being selected on the basis of their academic performance. Those models are not desirable either.

Methodology and authors

A total of 849 students from 15 national law universities (NLUs) were surveyed (“12% of the aggregate number of full-time students at the participating institutions”, according to the study), in addition to interviews with around 160 faculty members.

The paper’s listed authors are Nalsar vice chancellor Faizan Mustafa, Nalsar’s Jagteshwar Singh Sohi, Sidharth Chauhan and Sudhanshu Kumar, and Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas head of learning and development, Vaibhav Ganjiwale.

The full report can be accessed on SSRN.

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