New Delhi: There is discontent brewing in India’s top law colleges where a combination of high fees, poor infrastructure and administrative apathy is bringing students onto the streets.
On Wednesday, when students of the National Law University (NLU) in Odisha began an indefinite protest against administrative and infrastructural issues on campus, it was at least the sixth such agitation at an NLU over the past two years.
The Odisha students’ grouses are fairly simple: They want a girls hostel with proper amenities, a ‘world-class’ library that was promised to them, removal of the resident warden in the girls’ hostel who “has a history of inappropriate behaviour” and vitally, an affordable fee structure.
Only, their demands have echoes of similar concerns across the agitating NLUs in the country. They also highlight the deeper issues plaguing the colleges that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once described as “islands of excellence”.
The raging row over fees
There are 24 NLUs in the country, the first of which is the prestigious National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, started in 1986 through the National Law School of India Act, 1986. The NLUs are recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Of late, there have been concerns over their fees. The students at NLU, Odisha, are up in arms as according to them, their fee has been increased by Rs 30,000, taking it to over Rs 2 lakh a year.
In a press release, they have demanded a detailed explanation for the fee hike. “A proper explanation for the necessity of this fee hike has not been provided, especially considering the fact that previous hikes by the administration have never been this steep,” the press release reads. “For students who come to study from various parts of the country, this hike places an unreasonable financial burden and could even result in deserving and meritorious students dropping out.”
Earlier this month, students at NLSIU, Bengaluru, had protested against the sharp fee hike of 27 per cent for their courses, which meant that some of them had to pay an annual fee of over Rs 2.5 lakh for their courses.
The recent protests over fees have exposed a vital anomaly in the management of the colleges — though they are called the ‘national law universities’, they are left to be run by the respective state governments.
The state governments often leave the NLUs to fend for themselves after a one-time grant of funds. For instance, the Central Public Works Department in Jharkhand nearly dragged the National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), Ranchi, to arbitration in 2017 on the grounds that the university owed it Rs 42 crore as dues for construction on the campus.
Funding a major issue
A senior UGC official cited this lack of funds as the primary reason hampering the functioning of the NLUs.
“They (NLUs) have not been provided with any funds, except for the initial land and other infrastructure from the state government,” the official said. “Post this, they have to raise their own resources, including the teachers’ salaries. At conventional universities, these salaries come from the state government.”
According to the official, without the funding, the law universities are dependent only on internal revenues. “While the fee at a law college affiliated to a state university or a government law college is around 10,000 per annum, the fee at NLUs ranges between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3 lakh per annum,” he said. “This is exorbitant, a common student cannot afford this fee. This is the issue.”
He added that while these NLUs receive funds from UGC as well, it is only for developmental purposes and not for teachers’ salaries, which is a major expenditure. “The NLUs should receive some seed money or one-time assistance from the central government to keep them going,” he said.
Professor (Dr) Faizan Mustafa, the vice-chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, said that funding was the need of the hour.
“As president of the Consortium of National Law Universities, I feel sad and pained when students have to resort to protests on the issue of infrastructural facilities. They do deserve the very best but most NLUs are facing acute resource crunch and badly need substantial funding,” Mustafa said.
“We cannot and should not try to recover the entire cost of legal education from the students. Governments must see investment in legal education as important.”
‘We can’t be IITs or IIMs’
NLU Odisha registrar Yogesh Pratap Singh also blamed a lack of funds for the situation but added that the Odisha government has been benevolent with money. The increase in fee, he said, was to implement the seventh pay commission.
“Most of the law universities don’t receive funds. If they do, they receive very little amounts from the government. This is one of the main reasons for issues in other NLUs but the Odisha government has been very kind,” he said.
“NLUs are facing issues because there are high expectations from the administration and the people because they compare them with the IITs and IIMs but we can’t be IITs or IIMs,” Singh said. “Those are fully funded institutions and we are dependent on the state government.”
Administrative issues and sexism
Several past protests at the NLUs have revolved around the larger issues concerning the facilities being provided to students as well as the response of the universities when these deficiencies are brought to their notice.
Students of Rajiv Gandhi National Law University, Patiala, had taken to the streets in March to protest against the suspension of six students. The suspended students had been shown the door after they voiced their concerns over the “poor and unhygienic food” served in their mess.
The same month, students of the Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla, also protested for basic amenities such as clean water and food after several students were hospitalised due to alleged food poisoning.
Then there is a rampant issue of professors and wardens allegedly passing sexist remarks against women students.
In September last year, when students at the Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Ranchi, staged a series of protests demanding the removal of Vice-Chancellor Sukh Pal Singh, whose appointment had been declared invalid by the Chhattisgarh High Court, they also sought action against alleged sexual harassment on campus.
The campus of the National Law University (NLIU), Bhopal, had back in November 2017 turned into a battleground after its director was accused of passing “obscene remarks” against a student.
The director had allegedly told the girl, “Tumhare jaisi ladkiyaan apni izzat aur sharm ko bechkar aati hain (Girls like you readily compromise your dignity).”
Two months earlier, in September 2017, students of Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow, staged a sit-in against incidents of alleged sexual harassment by two administration officials.
The students had alleged that during a random inspection on campus, one of the officials allegedly took videos of students and also threatened a women student that he had a photograph of her in a compromising position. Students had begun their protest after being dissatisfied with the actions taken on their complaints.
Similar concerns have now been raised by students at NLU, Odisha, who claim that the resident warden of the girls’ hostel “has a history of inappropriate behaviour”. They have sought her removal and action against her for “misconduct and inappropriate behaviour with the students”.
‘Heartening to see students take charge’
The protesting students appear to be getting the backing of the legal fraternity. Academician professor Shamnad Basheer rejoiced in the fact that students of these NLUs are voicing protest against the arbitrary actions of their college administrations.
“The NLU reputation was built largely on the shoulders of students. Not so much from an outstanding infrastructure or faculty. It’s therefore heartening to see students take charge of their universities; one that was meant to serve their interest in the first place,” he told ThePrint.
“Certainly, a new phase in Indian legal education. And a very welcome one at that, given that the current NLU structure vests hugely disproportionate power in the hands of vice-chancellors and their cronies.”
He also pointed out the role of vice-chancellors in making or breaking these institutions.
“Visionary VCs use that power to elevate an institution to great heights, as did Prof MP Singh with NUJS. And the ones with vindictive ‘vices’ bring it down in no time,” he said. “We need to really democratise and decentralise this power a lot more and ensure that a strong ‘institutional’ culture is built from the bottom up.”
The report has been updated to reflect that the Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU) is in Raipur, and not in Ranchi. The error is regretted.