Higher Education in India

Ram Manohiya Lohar National Law University of India

It’s difficult to believe that my first Restorative Justice class in the National Law Universities of India is almost over. I have not written about it sooner because I could not make the time. The course is an intensive – a full-semester, twice weekly class which I have (to the extent possible) packed into four weeks of daily class sessions. Not exaggerating, I have been working 18/7 most weeks, preparing lessons, teaching, mentoring and counseling students, much more. Necessarily it has been a challenging course, for me and for my students.

My 26 students are a mix of the urban privileged and villagers from the lower castes. The latter generally have had mediocre to poor public education before coming here. Many of the them had little mastery of English prior to to a full year of English instruction upon their arrival at the Law University. Still their English is generally weak and all legal education is in English. For more understanding of the context here, some background is needed about the current state of the caste system and about how legal education is done in India. Caveat: all of this information is “to the best of my knowledge.”

Although the caste system was declared unconstitutional some years ago, it remains fully alive and well among the rural and the poor, as well as in the economic low end of the urban population. The National Law Universities (and I believe, all institutions of higher education in India) have a mandate from the federal government that 50% of their admissions must be from rural areas and from the lower castes, although their academic record would not qualify them for admission absent the mandate. This “affirmative action” program has both advantages and disadvantages, as you can imagine or as you may know from personal experience. And of course it is controversial, especially among the students.

In India, professional/vocational education begins at the age of 16, in one sense. Before entering the 11th grade (same as in USA) students must declare their educational “track” and take the required courses of that track in their last two years of high school. After high school, the “college-bound” will go to an educational institution for their chosen profession. At a typical law college or university, students enter into a five-year program which will culminate in a “Bachelor’s in Law” and their eligibility to sit for the Bar Exam. The first two years of their education will be exclusively in the “Humanities,” which are very different in India. In addition to English, they consist of courses such as Government, History, Psychology, Sociology and other courses that in the USA would be considered to be “pre-law.” The Humanities as I know them – the arts, etc. are not to be found. All higher education in India is similarly structured, including only a shade of the concept of a liberal arts undergraduate education.

While the 5-year Bachelor’s in Law qualifies the graduate to sit for the India Bar Exam and practice law if they pass it, some graduates will continue into a two-year Master’s in Law, which is roughly the equivalent of the J.D. (Juris Doctor/Doctor of Laws) that is required to sit for a bar exam in the USA. The J.D. requires a 4-year Bachelor’s degree plus graduation from a 3-year program in an accredited law school (full time) or 4 – 5 years, part-time.

In no way do I intend this as a critique of higher education in India – only an explanation of the differences. I am in no position to be making any judgments about the relative merits and demerits of India’s approach, as compared to the West. My “barely informed” take on it is that this approach probably fits with the culture and also with the professional and economic needs of India.

My next post, following closely on the heels of this one, will be a “brag” on my wonderful students, with whom I am having a love affair (not literally, of course.)

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