Is legal education in private universities truly substandard?

The Honourable Chief Justice of Bangladesh has, in a recent speech, in very unequivocal terms deplored the quality of legal education in private universities in Bangladesh. For quite some time, private universities (including, but not limited to, law departments) and academics working in private universities have far too often been the subject of concern and criticism by many informed and sometimes not-so-informed quarters in this country. The comments of the honourable Chief Justice is valuable because, through his comments, he has shown his concern for and awareness about the quality of legal education in Bangladesh and has thus, also given us an opportunity to reflect on some of the misgivings about the quality of education offered by private universities.

Because of the structure and modus operandi, the law departments (and other departments too) of private universities are naturally market-driven. Whether or not all of the market-driven developments are forces for good is open to debate, but probably few would argue that an inevitable outcome is a culture of strong accountability. Private universities are bound to be more responsive to the needs of the students and other stakeholders. Indeed, arguably it is not totally improbable that such a culture of accountability has had some positive spill-over impact on the public universities of this country too.

A common allegation hurled against law departments of private universities is that their curriculum is too diverse or even borderline whimsical. However, the diversity in the curriculum is not just an inevitable outcome of the self-governing nature of universities; it is perhaps also an inseparable part of the legal education. For sure, a very significant percentage of the law students would choose to pursue the career of a lawyer or judge but there are many other professions that law graduates may choose to pursue. Rather than it being a flaw or weakness, I would argue that diversity in the curriculum is a blessing and an indication of the strength of the law departments of private universities and the teaching and research interest of their academics and students. As the professional regulatory body, Bangladesh Bar Council would inevitably have its say in fixing the core courses required for being eligible to sit for the bar entrance examination.

The Judicial Service Commission would also naturally fix the syllabus for its entrance examination. However, any intrusion by these regulatory bodies, with well-defined regulatory functions, beyond their respective competence, is not only an encroachment on academic freedom, but would also make law education much more vapid. And perhaps even worse, it would fail to cater to the needs of various other professions in which law graduates can have their role. Diplomacy, corporate sector, journalism and research organisations are just many of those other professions where law graduates may play a significant role. And there can be students who may be keen to pursue legal education for various other reasons, and therefore, solely focusing on the needs of the bar and the bench, would result in losing sight of their needs too. Even apparently esoteric subjects such as aviation law or world trade law can play their role, in a country like ours, where the role and force of these legal regimes are not commonly perceived. And in no case can the law departments of private universities be reduced to the role of coaching centres for entrance examination for the bar and judicial service.

An integral part of higher education is research. Indeed, it has been established for centuries that good teachers at tertiary level would be committed researchers and through their research, would contribute to the existing body of knowledge. In terms of research, despite the challenge of resource-constraints, the accomplishments of law schools of private universities probably would not look meagre if it is compared with many of the law departments of public universities in this country. While specific information relating to law departments of different universities is apparently unavailable, some international ranking of universities (e.g. Webometric Ranking) have placed a number of private universities well above most of the public universities, which would belie the perception of poor quality of education of private universities (this should apply to law departments as well).

Without being oblivious to my unavoidable self-interest (because of my professional affiliation), this writing would be incomplete if some of the successes of the 'poor legal education' imparted by private universities are not mentioned here. At least on one occasion, a private university student has stood first in the entrance examination of the Bangladesh Judicial Service Commission, many students of private universities are pursuing higher education in world's best universities with fully funded scholarship, and there are many who are in the bar and the bench, and also in other professions. The students of these universities have done well in national and international mooting competitions. And all of these have happened within a span of around two decades.

Some recurrent and serious irregularities and limitations regarding admission, grading, and library resources etc. in certain law departments of some private universities are not being denied. However, such issues are not just issues of law departments of private universities and not all of the private universities are affected by them. A broad-brush branding of the quality of legal education in private universities may please many and may perpetuate some myths, but probably would make little contribution to the improvement of the real quality of education. It would also fail to respond to the irregularities or lackings. Rather, any perception-based, dismissive attitude would accentuate a futile categorisation which would not be conducive for any meaningful, rigorous assessment. Like all other institutions and their products and services, law schools of private universities and the services that they offer would be subject to constant scrutiny, but the scrutiny should be objective, fair, and rigorous.    

The writer is an Associate Professor at School of Law, BRAC University.