OPINION – School fee reduction: The time to act is now
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment directed private unaided schools in Rajasthan to provide 15 percent fee concession to students. The court reckoned that schools must have saved at least 15 percent in view of unutilized facilities, and hence, they have to give a deduction in annual school fees to that extent. The court said the schools “must willingly and proactively” reduce the fees.
“We would assume that at least 15 percent of the annual school fees would be towards overheads/ expenses saved by the School Management. Arguendo, this assumption is on the higher side than the actual savings by the school Management of private unaided schools, yet we are inclined to fix that percentage because the educational institutions are engaged in charitable activities of imparting and spreading education and not make money. That they must willingly and proactively do. Hence, collection of commensurate amount (15 percent of the annual school fees for the academic year 2020-2021), would be a case of profiteering and commercialization by the school Management,” the order said.
The order was issued after the Private School Managements of Rajasthan had approached the Supreme Court challenging the government orders regarding deferment of collection of school fees in the wake of Coronavirus pandemic. They had also challenged the government order on reduction of tuition fees by 30 percent in schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The parents’ associations in Jammu and Kashmir were quick to welcome the verdict and demanded that the order should be implemented in the union territory as well. They said the order should be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir retrospectively from August 5, 2019, when the first lockdown was imposed.
Interestingly, the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK) too welcomed the Supreme Court judgment. The association reserved comments on the directive to reduce fees by 15 percent during the conduct of online classes but welcomed the observation that states cannot impinge on the autonomy of private unaided schools to fix and collect ‘just’ and ‘permissible’ school fees from parents. Parents were quick to point out that the PSAJK was ‘misinterpreting’ the Supreme Court ruling.
Now, all eyes are on the Committee for Fixation and Regulation of Fee of Private Schools (FFRC) headed by Justice (retd) Muzaffar Hussain Attar that has stated that it will study the Supreme Court judgment before taking a call vis-a-vis its implication in Jammu and Kashmir. Pertinently, parent’ and school’ bodies were on a warpath last year over fee waiver during the lockdown period. Despite a tweet from then Principal Secretary of School Education Asgar Samoon that the government ‘may direct private schools to reduce tuition fees of students by 30 percent, there was no word from the government later.
“In view of the recent judgments of High Courts of Madras and Rajasthan, the government may direct private schools to reduce the tuition fees of students by 30% in view of the closure of schools due to the lockdown from March to September 2020; views of parents & management solicited,” Samoon had tweeted in September last year.
The parents later accused the government of giving in to the ‘lobbyism’ by the schools’ associations even as the latter maintained that they too had suffered losses in view of the consecutive lockdowns in the aftermath of Article 370 abrogation and then due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Therefore, it is imperative that the FFRC resolves the issue once and for all because the Supreme Court has come with a clear verdict – there has to be a 15 percent fee waiver during the lockdown period. And the schools have also been told to desist from charging transport fees during the lockdown. In the past, the FFRC too has come up with few landmark decisions. Besides directing schools not to charge any transport fee during the lockdown period, it had ordered a 50 percent reduction in the monthly fee of two top private Valley-based schools. The monthly tuition fee of the Foundation World School, Mammath-Humhama, Budgam was fixed between Rs. 2900 and 3200 from Nursery to Class VIII. Earlier, the school was charging Rs.6360 per month as a tuition fee. In another order, the FFRC said it had received several complaints from the parents of students of the Birla Open Minds International School, Pampore in Pulwama district that the school was charging fee without the approval of the Competent Authority. While the school was earlier charging Rs. 4900 to Rs. 6000 per month, the FFRC had directed the Birla Open Minds, Pampore to fix the monthly fee between Rs. 2900 and Rs. 3200. Both the orders were passed in March earlier this year. The parents are hoping that the FFRC would now act following the Supreme Court order on private unaided schools in Rajasthan.
At the same time, the genuine demands of schools need to be addressed too. Several private schools are suffering due to non-payment of fees for months by parents. And in case a school takes strict action against any student for non-payment of fee, it gets censured especially in social media. There were also instances when parents did not pay fees for months and then switched schools. True, the schools have rightly been directed not to bar students from attending classes/ exams in case of non-payment of fee, but there has to be a mechanism in place so that the schools recover dues from erring parents. There are several other issues like payment of low salaries to teachers in comparison to high fees charged by the private schools. However, the FFRC should resolve the issue of fee waiver during the lockdown period in light of the Supreme Court ruling on Rajasthan schools.