Dipta Joshi (Mumbai)
Succumbing to intensifying pressure from parents demanding reduction of private school fees because of income and job losses suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Maharashtra government is all set to slash fees payable in the new academic year 2021-22. On July 28, the state’s cabinet approved an ordinance to enforce a 15 percent cut in tuition fees of private unaided (independent) schools. However, a battle royale is in the offing as several private schools associations are reportedly set to file writs in the Bombay high court challenging the constitutionality of the proposed order.
Maharashtra (pop.115 million), India’s most industrialised state, hosts 18,000 independent private schools with an aggregate enrolment of 900,000 students. A majority of them are now confronted with an existential crisis because of massive fees defaults by parents.
“The USF (Unaided Schools’ Forum) has already challenged the Maharashtra (Regulation of School) Fees Act, 2011 in the Bombay high court. We are now exploring legal options to oppose the proposed ordinance. It’s pertinent to note that private schools didn’t increase their fees in the academic year 2020-21 and continued the 2019-20 fee structure approved by every school’s Parent Teacher Association executive committees established under the Act. The proposed ordinance will accelerate unrest among parents and encourage them to abstain from paying even reduced fees,” says Subhash Chandra Kedia, honorary secretary of USF.
Citing financial difficulties due to job losses during the pandemic and provision of a few hours of online education to their children during the prolonged pandemic lockdown, parents are protesting against paying full fees. Several parents associations and representative organisations are demanding a 50 percent reduction of school fees and numerous protests have been staged statewide since the lockdown.
However, it was only on July 22 after the Supreme Court directed the Maharashtra government to study its Indian School, Jodhpur vs. State of Rajasthan order delivered on May 3 that the Shiv Sena-led MVA coalition government resolved to announce its decision within 21 days (by August 11) as per the SC directive.
In the Indian School, Jodhpur case, the apex court directed all private schools in Rajasthan to collect 85 percent of contracted fees for the academic year 2020-21. Taking a cue from this apex court order, the MVA government has proposed to apply this formula for the academic year 2021-22. But parents’ representatives are demanding this order should be applicable with retrospective effect and cover 2019-20 and 2020-21 as well.
Even as battle lines are being drawn with school managements on one side and parents and government on the other, government spokespersons are generating confusion. While the cabinet resolved to pass an ordinance, Maharashtra’s education minister Varsha Gaikwad said the state would pass a government resolution (GR) to reduce fees by 15 percent this year.
Moreover, on July 26, a directive by Vaishali Jamkar, deputy director of the education ministry’s Nagpur division, ordered private schools to reduce fees by 25 percent following a meeting with Union minister of transport and highways Nitin Gadkari, a BJP heavyweight. Chastising the government and education ministry officials for announcing confusing ad-hoc decisions, school management associations are demanding Jamkar’s dismissal.
“If government expects unaided schools to reduce school fees by 15 percent, it should underwrite the remaining 85 percent to save schools the hassle and expense of collecting the prescribed amount. MESTA member schools have already waived 50 percent of fees for parents experiencing financial difficulties. However, to direct all schools across the board to manage with reduced fees in these inflationary times is unjust,” says Sanjayrao Tayde Patil, founder-chairman, Maharashtra English Schools Trustees Association (MESTA) which claims to have a membership of 18,000 institutions statewide.
Moreover, Patil stresses that in its anxiety to follow the directive of the Supreme Court in the Indian School, Jodhpur case — which Justices A.H. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari emphasised, was applicable only to Rajasthan during the pandemic — the Maharashtra state government seems to have overlooked the “heart of the judgement”, i.e, that private independent schools have a fundamental right to determine fees payable by parents.
Unfortunately all too often parents’ communities — and learned judges — seem to overlook the reality that unlike government, private school managements don’t have the deficit financing option.