Dipta Joshi, Maharashtra
Despite a May 3 judgement of the Supreme Court in Indian School Jodhpur & Ors vs. State Government of Rajasthan in which the apex court ruled that the right to determine private school fees is of “management alone,” on June 7, the Maharashtra coalition government announced the formation of five Divisional Fee Regulatory Committees (DFRCs) for Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur and Aurangabad districts. Another three divisional committees and an appellate committee to hear school fees-related disputes are on the cards. DFRCs have been established under provisions of the Maharashtra Educational Institutions (Regulation of Fee) Act, 2011.
Justifying this initiative, Maharashtra’s education minister Varsha Gaikwad tweeted that “discouraging commercialisation and profiteering in the education sector” is the prime objective of establishing DFRCs state-
wide, and advised “parents aggrieved by unjust school fee hikes to look no further.”
Although parents contract to pay fees stipulated by private school managements at the time of admission of their children, in a society which has little respect for contracts, many of them subsequently challenge school fees and annual fee increases necessary to adjust for inflation. Several Supreme Court judgements of the 1970s, the heyday of Indian socialism when the apex court was packed with left and communist judges, prohibited “commercialisation of education”. Since then, these judgements have provoked a flood of litigation in the country’s choked courts.
The hostility of parents’ communities towards the managements of private schools has increased over the past 15 months during which they have been ordered to shut down because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. A majority of parents across the state have refused to pay full fees for their children attending online classes provided by private schools.
In June 2020, the Bombay high court stayed a state government order of May 8, 2020 directing private schools to refrain from increasing fees for 2020-21 and continue charging fee as per the previous academic year. The court was responding to a petition filed by several representative associations of private school owners who argued the government has no right to directly regulate fees of private schools under the MEI (Fees Regulation) Act 2011.
The Act mandates that in private schools, tuition and other fees should be approved by Parent-Teacher Association executive committees (PTA-ECs) constituted under the Act. If fees proposed by the management are not approved by the PTA EC, school managements are permitted to appeal to DFRCs. In July 2017, the Bombay high court affirmed that “parents disgruntled about school fees cannot approach DFRC”. However on the court’s order, the government constituted an 11-member committee under the chairmanship of educationist V.G. Palshikar, which recommended changes to allow parents to appeal to DFRC in some circumstances. The panel also recommended that school managements be allowed a 15 percent fee hike every two years and the right to appeal to DFRC, if the hike is not approved by the school’s PTA EC.
In 2018, however, the state’s then ruling BJP-Shiv Sena government (voted to power in October 2014) introduced several amendments to the Act that have riled parents. For instance the amended Act allows parents to challenge fee hikes only if more than 25 percent of the total parents’ body is against the increased fee. The new provisions also allow school managements to increase fees by 15 percent every two years and declare fees for the next five-ten years when a child is admitted into class I, thus undermining the role of the PTA EC in fee-related decisions. Even as parent bodies across the state continued to protest these amendments, the amended Act was passed in August 2019.
Parent associations across the state want all these amendments scrapped and replaced with a set of eight new amendments. They have also put forth a list of 25 demands including strict enforcement of the mandatory (as per the Act) publication of quarterly financial audits on every school’s website and allowing parents to approach the DFRC for fee-related grievances. “In the current framework of the Act, setting up any number of DFRC committees doesn’t benefit parents who cannot contest fee structures before DFRCs. The fact is the Act approved by the incumbent government does not permit government intervention, which is necessary. Thus our demand to scrap all amendments. Unfortunately, this government does not seem interested in enforcing even the little power awarded to it under the Act. Not even to insist that schools submit their financial audits to the education ministry,” says advocate Anubha Sahai, president of the Mumbai-based India-wide Parents Association.
School managements believe that the structure of the Maharashtra Educational Institutions Act provides parents sufficient voice — through mandatory PTA ECs — to determine the annual fees of private schools. In the circumstances, permitting individual aggrieved parents to file objections in DFRCs would flood these committees with litigation. Moreover, they claim that despite suffering severe financial loss during the pandemic shutdown, most private schools are providing online classes to children and granting fee concessions and credit to parents suffering job or income losses on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, private school managements in Maharashtra have pinned their hopes for raising their fees for 2021-22 on the May 3 judgement of the Supreme Court in the Indian School, Jodhpur Case that managements are best qualified to determine tuition and other fees subject to approval of PTA-ECs. They are hopeful this judgement will become an enduring precedent.