New Delhi: As the threat of contracting Covid-19 looms large across the country, schools and colleges have remained shut since March this year.
While some have been holding online classes for their students, others have chosen to give them some time off. However, ever since the lockdown began, several parents have questioned annual fee hikes for the new academic session and have even demanded that schools shouldn’t be charging fees during the period of the lockdown.
Education being a part of the concurrent list in the 7th schedule, both the Centre and the state governments can make laws on the subject. But if there is a conflict between the Central and the State laws, it is the Central law that would prevail.
While HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal had in April asked private schools to reconsider their decisions on annual fee hikes and collecting quarterly fees during the coronavirus lockdown, there has been no uniformity on the subject across states.
At least nine states, including Gujarat, Maharashtra and Odisha, have issued notifications to the schools in their jurisdiction, with varying relief — some allowing deferment of quarterly fees and others waiving fees except those specifically under tuition.
The matter also reached several high courts. While at least seven high courts have either stayed notifications barring schools from hiking fees or rejected petitions against collection of fees during the lockdown, two high courts so far have advocated for a dialogue between the stakeholders to come to a solution. But there was some good news for the parents too, from the high courts of Uttarakhand and Gujarat.
Meanwhile, a petition has now been filed in the Supreme Court as well, demanding the waiver of private school fees for a period of three months, from April to July 2020, and seeking a direction to schools to not remove enrolled students due to non-payment of fees.
As the Supreme Court gears up to hear this plea, here’s a look at the mixed bag of orders that high courts across the country have issued so far.
Bad news for parents from seven HCs
In a setback for parents, the Bombay High Court on 26 June stayed the 8 May government resolution (GR) that barred schools and educational institutions from charging fees at a hiked rate for the 2020-21 session. This GR also prohibited educational institutions from collecting any balance fees for the year 2019-20 or fees for the year 2020-21 at once, and gave parents the option to deposit the fees monthly or quarterly.
Aggrieved by the GR, several educational trusts running schools across the state approached the high court, leading to the stay.
The Kerala High Court, on 30 June, dismissed a PIL against the collection of school fees during the lockdown. The court had been approached by two students seeking a direction to the government to bar schools from collecting fees during the lockdown period. Rejecting the petition, the court took note of the fact that monthly salaries to the teaching and non-teaching staff were still being paid and therefore refused to accept the students’ demands.
On 14 May, the Rajasthan High Court also disposed of a PIL highlighting difficulties being faced by the parents. The court relied on the state government’s assurance that it has deferred payment of private school fees for three months, starting 15 March. However, no such advisory has reportedly been issued so far, even prompting parents to stage protests against the payment of fees in Jaipur.
Similar orders have been issued by a few other high courts. For instance, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on 30 June held that all schools, irrespective of whether they offered online classes during the lockdown or not, are entitled to collect tuition fees. It, however, said that schools should restrain themselves from increasing the fee for the academic year 2020-21.
Back in April, the Delhi High Court had rejected a petition seeking a direction to the Directorate of Education to prohibit schools from charging even the tuition fee during lockdown period.
More recently, on 15 June, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed the government order restraining private CBSE schools from charging fees other than the tuition fees. It, however, ordered schools to refrain from charging fees for services not rendered by them during closure, such as transportation and mess fees.
The Allahabad High Court had, on 24 June, also dismissed a PIL seeking a direction to all schools and colleges in the State to completely waive off fees, including tuition fees. But another plea has been filed in the high court, seeking a direction to all private schools in the State to charge only the tuition fee and desist from levying other ancillary charges until the lockdown prevails. This petition is currently pending.
Calcutta, Madras HCs call for dialogue
The Calcutta High Court, meanwhile, has adjourned the PIL demanding that unaided schools should not be permitted to collect fees during the lockdown period.
This was after the court was informed by the state government on 25 June that a “dialogue” has been initiated between the state authorities and private unaided schools to figure out a solution that would cause “minimum hardship” to students and their families. The case was then adjourned for four weeks, to allow the dialogue “to come to a fruitful conclusion”.
Similarly, the Madras High Court has also expressed hope for a more collaborative effort to deal with the situation. On 30 June, it asked the petitioners — the Federation of Association of Private Schools, the All India Private Educational Institutions Association and the Consortium of Self Financing Professional — to come up with a scheme to allow payment in installments for some time. It asked them to submit this scheme to the government, which was asked to take a decision on the basis of this scheme.
The high court was hearing a challenge to the government order passed on 20 April that restrained all private schools and colleges across the state from demanding fees in view of the Covid-19 lockdown. The government is expected to take a decision on this by 6 July and the case will next be heard on 8 July.
Flicker of hope from Uttarakhand, Gujarat HCs
However, there was some relief for parents from the Uttarakhand High Court, which, in May, had passed an interim order prohibiting private schools in the state from sending emails and WhatsApp messages asking parents of students to pay tuition fees for online classes during the lockdown. But this order was challenged a few days later and the Supreme Court has issued notice on the plea.
Meanwhile, the Uttarakhand government, on 22 June, issued an order saying that private schools can neither hike their fee during the academic year 2020-21 in view of the coronavirus lockdown nor take any fee other than tuition charges. Even tuition fees can be charged only by schools that have been conducting online classes during the lockdown, the order added.
The Gujarat High Court had also, on 19 June, asked the state government to ensure private schools do not cancel admission of students who are not able to deposit fees by 30 June. The bench further asked the government to regulate online classes for school students and examine whether the schools’ move to hold virtual classes for children in nursery class is in the interest of their health.
The Orissa High Court has also issued notice to the state government, seeking its reply on a plea for exemption of tuition fees for private schools during the lockdown.
Parents from eight states move SC for uniform policy
In the meantime, parents’ associations from eight states (Rajasthan, Odisha, Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Delhi) have now approached the Supreme Court to demand a uniform policy for fee payment across the country during this period.
The petition seeks “protection of fundamental right to life as well as education guaranteed under the Constitution”.
It also highlights the “non-uniformity” in the orders passed by different high courts so far and asserts, “Hence, it is the need of the hour to consolidate the said guidelines/ directions/ orders that have been passed by the various states and respective courts to come to an integrated reasonable fee structuring and collection mechanism effective during such lockdown period and therefore, so as to achieve a harmonious result which shall be uniform across the nation.”
Another PIL, filed by a Delhi-based lawyer, has sought “uniform maximum relief” in the school fee for the period of national lockdown.