West Bengal's Attack on the Idea of National Law Universities

A new amendment to the governing statute of the state's National University of Juridical Sciences will put the institution at odds with its founding principles of being autonomous and diverse.

The government of West Bengal, on November 20, amended the governing statute of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS). The Preamble to the university’s enacting statute states that it was established as a “national level institution of excellence in higher learning of law.” Affirming the fact that it has lived up to the expectation of its founders, the first University Review Commission Report states that it has emerged as the “best law school in India, earning the respect of the global legal community.”

Just as NUJS was on the cusp of transitioning from a young institution held back by its limitations to one which aspires to contribute to nation building, this amendment will put it at odds with its founding principles of being an autonomous and diverse national institution.

At the outset, the Bill seeks to provide for “at least 30%” reservation on the basis that a student is from West Bengal. While it has a laudable regional objective, it actually decreases the possibility of meritorious students from across the country benefitting from an education at NUJS. By doing this, the institute will move further away from its national and diverse character which forms the core essence of a meaningful education and personal growth at the institution.

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Not only does it exclude a large number of people, but this amendment also has a mechanism to dissuade future aspirants. Through clause 4B (1) of the Bill, the state government has ascribed to itself the power to determine the mode through which students would be admitted. This may include a separate exam conducted by NUJS alone or even the marks obtained by students in their board examinations. This allows NUJS, a founding member, to withdraw from the CLAT set-up of admitting students. While this may prompt other NLUs to follow suit, it may also find itself violating a 2006 decision of the Supreme Court which prompted the setting up of CLAT in the first place.

While the autonomy and prestige of NUJS as a premier law school stands in doubt, this Bill may also make an autonomous institution subservient to state and local political interests. The Bill allows the state to control the fees of the students and also provides for fee-waiver for 5% of the students if they belong to the economically backward sections of the society. It, however, mentions that the legislation shall have no financial implications – thereby making no assurance of state governmental funding.

At the moment, NUJS’s finances are completely dependent on the fee charged from students in the face of meagre state government and private grants. Furthermore, NUJS has been facing a serious lack of administrative efficiency due to impermanent administrative staff like its head, the vice chancellor and the registrar. At such a juncture, these financial models would ensure that the university enters a state of permanent paralysis.

While the financial autonomy of the institution is being taken away with this Bill, the state government does not have a clear plan to finance the institution. The state government is still grappling with the Sixth Pay Commission whilst the Central government has moved to the Seventh Pay Commission since January 2016. In such a situation, salary cuts for university employees are possibly imminent.

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This might trigger another faculty exodus at a university which is already woefully understaffed. These consequences are then fertile ground for the excesses of governmental interference – both in terms of recruitment and institutional development. Therefore, while the surface of the Bill makes for a laudable regional and political exercise, there is much to be desired if one digs deeper.

Ignoring these real-time implications, when the university is trying to emerge out of a functional paralysis caused by the long state of interim administration, the amendment Bill – enacted without any guided consultation with the stakeholders including the faculty and the administration – would push the university into a state of irrecoverable damage.

Especially given the rising demands by student bodies of NLUs, prominent individuals and legislators, and organisations in favour of centralising the NLUs and granting them the status of ‘institutes of national eminence’, the implications of this amendment by the West Bengal government seems to be a step in the opposite direction. What the NLUs, like the IITs and IIMs, need is greater functional autonomy, not deeper state control.

Arindum Nayak & Gatha G. Namboothiri are both 4th-year students of WBNUJS. Arindum is the President and Gatha is the Vice-President of SJA, the official student body ofNUJS.