Legal Education and National Education Policy 2020
The National Education Policy 2020, the third to be adopted by the country has come a long way since its first predecessor, the National Policy on Education adopted in 1968 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It called for the “radical reconstruction of education” on the lines suggested by the Education Commission 1964-1966, headed by D. S. Kothari, Chairman, University Grants Commission that for the first time voiced the need for free and compulsory education up till the age of fourteen years and equalizing education opportunities to transcend regional, social, gender, class and caste boundaries. The subsequent policies adopted in 1986 and modified in 1992 primarily pinned their attention to addressing issues of access and equity in educational opportunities amongst the different social groups. The latest edition of the Education Policy adopted in 2020 is a significant improvement from the 1986 version since it accounts for the developments that the country has witnessed post the 1991 reforms and the competitive global landscape that makes it incumbent for the country to align its policies to match the needs of the global scene. The NEP 2020 is the most ambitious education policy adopted by the Government till date, since it takes into account the demands, necessities and aspirations of all the stakeholders. It is a vision document which proposes equitable and inclusive education to achieve social and economic justice and seeks to balance local and global human resource needs of the growing Indian economy. Globalization and integration of world economies has made the thirst for education more insatiable and the necessity of quality educational institutions has never before been so desired. The fundamental Right to Education in Art 21A of the Constitution is not only about primary education or school education but also paves the path for affordable and competitive higher education, which will ensure jobs and lay the foundation for a competitive environment.
Legal Education had its first set of reforms by the introduction of the integrated five year B.A. LL.B course in the early 1990s. Drawing inspiration from the west, the Law school model became the nurturing ground for young minds to take ‘law’ as a profession and career. Law schools have provided the necessary impetus for Indian lawyers to practice abroad and embrace trans-nationalism.
Being a vision statement, NEP has immense positive inputs to achieve potential growth in the ever demanding field of legal education. As expected, however, legal and medical education has been given their autonomy in regulation, but it’s also true that these institutions cannot work in silos. If legal education does not integrate into the ‘fourth vertical’, or the General Education Council proposed to function under the aegis of the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), set academic standards and replace bodies like the UGC as proposed in the NEP, law schools and Universities may lose out on funding and grants from the Government. It is also important for law schools to create accrediting body similar to the one that would be created under the NEP. The introduction of Professional Standard Setting Bodies (PSSBs), is a welcome move by the NEP. In legal education, the Bar Council of India continues to play a key role. However, there is a lot to desire, especially in raising the standards in local colleges where the quality and pool of the teaching faculty is at times dependent on the poor pay for law teachers, since brighter candidates move out to opt for higher paying institutions or alternative career options in the legal field. The authors believe that local institutions have played a vital role in legal education and should be supported by the Bar Council. Through philanthropy or State funding, special provision for books, computer labs, subscription to online journals, should be facilitated by the Bar Council of India.
The NEP further suggests by 2040 all Higher Education institutions ( HEI) including Centres for Legal Education, shall aim to become multidisciplinary institutions having optimal use of infrastructural resources and creation of vibrant higher education institutions resulting in the growth of both public and private universities at par with each other. NEP insists that stand alone legal Universities must aim to be multidisciplinary in their approach and curricula, NLUs across the country must branch out in the areas of Economics, Political science, philosophy, criminology and such other areas which will bring diversity to the campus and bring about holistic learning for their students. NLUs must attempt [despite the rigid and conservative nature of the UGC] to introduce short term Diplomas, credit courses. Para 20.4 of NEP specifically deals with legal education. It insists that use of technology must be adopted for timely delivery of justice. Considering the local language use and practice in local Courts, the policy promotes bilingual teaching in law for State Universities. However, there is dire need for law books to be written/translated in local languages to make legal education more inclusive and enable students to take up the study of law within their local limits and not move to bigger cities and dissuade rural and semi-urban to urban migration. Significantly, whether Centres for Legal Education are able to achieve the status of multi-disciplinary learning, would be dependent on the best skill development, professional and vocational training it offers to its students.
The University Grants Commission [UGC] has been marred with orders which have asked Universities to change the nomenclature of its degrees [UGC 2014 notification] and has in the past renamed Business Law Course as ‘MA in Law’. UGC has further passed, though in typically bureaucratic style, insisting on prior course approval before law Universities offer such courses. UGC has also insisted on a minimum NAAC score before Institutions can feature in the top 100 University rankings released every year by the NIRF or before Universities can offer courses in the distance education mode [as per the latest UGC Open and Distance Learning Regulation 2020].
NEP intends to establish a National Research Fund to facilitate research activities in institutions of higher education. However, policies such as NEP and many other national initiatives for research tend to automatically apply to ‘law’. These research initiatives are basically borrowed and based on the discipline of science. The MHRD-UGC duo first mandated all Law University publications to have an ISSN number, followed by the need for registering with the Registrar of Newspaper, followed by mandatory listing in UGC CARE Journals, and then Scopus indexed journals. In adhering to these requirements, legal education parameters and practices are often ignored and several concerns are left unaddressed. This is adding to the confusion and has caused discriminatory hardship for legal journals which should not be judged through the same lens as journals of life sciences, physical sciences, arts or technology are evaluated. Legal research must not be constrained by these straitjackets of formality, especially when the contribution of legal research is in law making and policy transformation, rather than invention and technological patenting. Apart from addressing the above issues, the Bar Council should come up with guidelines for research ethics in law and immediately set standards for legal research.
It is time for 2nd generation reforms in legal education in India. The start of such reforms should come from the top; the institutions that offer legal education. Private Universities are mushrooming across the country. With privatization, comes the questions of certainty, credibility and accountability, of not only the administration but also the courses offered. Most often, private universities are individually run or family-run, though through a trust or society. NEP in 18.12 states that institutions must be ‘not for profit’; wonder why then do members of a family have to tussle over the control of the University? The case of Alliance University in Bengaluru is the most significant wakeup call. The fight within the family is in the court; ugly, bitter as it was/is. The Alliance Law school continues to suffer, and the students are left in the lurch. Further, while the NEP states that institutions must practice good governance and transparency of disclosure, they fall short of making RTI applicable to all Higher education institutions, including the private ones. RTI would have ensured accountability of Private Universities, not only with the regulator, but with stakeholders, including parents and activists. Moreover, the NEP under para 10.3 allows for the establishment of Autonomous degree-granting College (AC) which focuses on undergraduate teaching though it would not be restricted to that. While this seems to be a good move, it could again lead to mushrooming of colleges and lead to arbitrary use and exploitation of institutions which should ideally function for advancement of inclusive education.
There is a strong case for establishment of an Ombudsman for legal education. Considering the numerous issues and grievances that law students and teachers face in law schools, it should be imperative that the Bar Council of India commences establishing some institution similar to what is proposed as the Higher Education Commission in Legal Education.
There are concerns of legal education having multiple regulatory frameworks. While the Bar Council, UGC, NAAC and other bodies inspect law schools, the autonomy to start courses, award certificates, diploma and degree must be expounded. While NEP advocates globalized education, the UGC in the past several years has not permitted Indian Universities to go abroad and open campuses. Surprisingly without any legal logic, NLUs which have been State Universities by virtue of being established by a State law, though National in name, were directed not to have any study or branches outside the State. This is in contrast to the fact that NLU faculties are offering MOOC Swayam courses for MHRD, attracting students from abroad. UGC must explain the rationale behind such orders. What is known is that such directions will adversely affect outreach of quality Indian education to all, not only globally but also nationally.
Legal education reforms are also required in encouraging law teachers to engage in ‘practice’. I firmly believe that Law teachers, like Doctors in medical colleges, must engage in legal practice, though not necessarily before the Courts. However, retrograde as it may sound, some Universities citing Bar Council Guidelines continue to strongly discourage law teachers from ‘practice’. A legal practice today, is significantly wider than mere court practice. Law teachers must never forget that they are trained lawyers first; law teachers next. Engaging in law practice, research, training would encourage teachers to teach theoretical concepts as they play out in the practical field. Though this idea is not new, various law schools have failed to realize or apply the above. Teachers must be guarded from turning themselves to mere classroom teaching without any practical approach or practice for themselves. Unless teachers lead the way, with practice or create internal internship opportunities, with research centers within institutions, practice ready law students are a distant dream. It is not only about how to teach the law; it is about how to apply the law-that should be emphasized.
The skill development in Law colleges must look beyond moot court competitions. Training in legal aid, arbitration and mediation, drafting, client counseling and research must be pursued with rigor. Art of legal writing in law students needs to be emphasized with the different facets of legal writing like drafting contracts, notices, pleadings, books, opinions and so on. While the language is important, content creation must develop hand in hand. Legislative drafting is another key skill that can be imparted in law schools, not merely in theory but also in practice by collaborating with practicing advocates and law firms that allow students to hone their drafting skills.
Legal education must blend with skill-based learning, which necessarily prompts me to put forth Prof. Madhava Menon’s idea. Prof. Menon had insisted to convert the five years LLB into 4+1 year course. Four years of law school education and one year of compulsory internship, either in the Industry, litigation, or any other field, including but not restricted to Judicial clerkship, working with political parties, media houses, NGOs, Human Rights Commission etc. It was suggested that the law degree must be awarded based on the 4+1 rule. Such internships must be credit based, with a 60% 40% evaluation pattern. [60% with the law school and 40% with the internship institution/individual]. In fact, the NEP supports the idea of a 4 year bachelor degree with research and 5 years for an integrated course. Also, after three years, unless it is integrated, Law schools must amend their regulations to provide for exit in case the students want to receive only the BA degree [NEP supports the idea in 11.9].
Finally, online learning, digital infrastructure and online teaching tools will increase the accessibility of law universities to a wider audience. The law universities should overcome the digital divide and adopt the best technology to cater to the needs of students. Innovations are required in legal education and it is surely not restricted to Science or Engineering. National Education Policy is a farsighted vision statement wherein law universities can imbibe the important aspects; bring about a constructive change in pedagogy, one that is aligned with the needs of the changing times to emerge as Centres of Excellence.
 Professor of Law, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
 Advocate, Bengaluru.