Parents rise in protest against the Tamil Nadu government’s inability to regulate the fee structure of private unaided schools.
The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market
M.K. Gandhi (True Education)
FOR the first time in its annals, Tamil Nadu is witnessing an extraordinary spectacle of parents of children studying in private self-financing schools taking to the streets across the State, calling for an end to the commercialisation of education.
Rallying under the banner of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Students-Parents Welfare Associations, several parents’ and students’ associations staged a demonstration in Chennai on October 9 demanding, among other things, action against the school managements that have violated the fee structure evolved by the government-appointed Justice Govindarajan Committee.
Parents, pupils and educationists got the much-needed breather on October 5 when the First Bench of the Madras High Court, comprising Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, set aside the interim order of a single-judge panel restraining the State government from enforcing the fee structure. It ruled that the managements that had submitted objections to the new fee structure should not demand any further fees than what was collected at the beginning of the current academic year. It also directed that the fee collected in excess of what had been fixed by the committee or any additional fee levied by the managements after the interim order was passed should be retained as deposits. The Bench directed the committee to consider the objections of 6,400 institutions by affording the managements an opportunity of personal hearing and to pass individual orders as expeditiously as possible, preferably within a period of four months.
Educationists blame the indecision of the State government on implementing its policy to regulate the fee structure at the primary and secondary school levels for the unprecedented situation. The government’s inaction has placed over one crore pupils of 10,934 private unaided schools and their parents in a tight spot, even as the fate of as many as one lakh members of the teaching and non-teaching staff hangs in the balance.
The government initially gave the impression that it was seriously contemplating measures to curb the collection of exorbitant fees by the private unaided schools. It brought forward the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Bill, 2009, on July 16, and the State Assembly passed it on July 21. The Act was notified in the gazette on August 7, 2009, and the related rules were notified on December 7. Most importantly, the legislation enabled the government to constitute a committee for the purpose of determination of the fee for admission to any standard or course of study in private schools.
The government constituted the committee under the chairmanship of Justice K. Govindarajan, a retired High Court judge, on December 7, 2009. Then it suddenly went into a shell, particularly in the wake of the order of the single-judge Bench of the High Court on September 14, 2010, staying the operation of the fee structure fixed by the committee on technical grounds.
After much dilly-dallying, the government responded to pleas by parents’ associations by filing an appeal before the High Court on September 28, seeking to set aside the order. In its appeal, it said the order of the single judge had crippled the functioning of the committee, which had evolved the fee structure after verifying the accounts with the help of 12 auditors. It also pointed out that the order had created unrest among students and parents and led to chaos in the payment of fees. Such a situation was dangerous if allowed to continue, it said. The final hearing in the case is slated for November 29.
The government’s response came close on the heels of the permission granted by the First Bench of the High Court on September 27 to the State Platform for Common School System, a forum representing educationists and social activists, to file an appeal against the interim injunction.
As parents and students were left in the lurch, school managements allegedly resumed collecting fees at rates higher than what the committee had determined. By and large the managements do not provide receipts for the exact fee collected by them, many parents say.
Parents’ associations have accused the managements of a sizable number of schools of humiliating parents and their wards for not remitting the fee demanded by them. N. Karthikeyan, president of the students-parents welfare association in Namakkal district, said that in some schools students who failed to pay the management-prescribed fee were seated separately and denied access to facilities such as the library and laboratories.
Parents are clueless about whether they should go by the fee structure fixed by the Govindarajan Committee or just obey the diktat of the school managements, and a sizable number of them have decided to intensify the agitation for a reasonable fee structure. Protests in the form of rallies and road blockades have rocked different parts of the State.
At its protest rally on October 9, the Federation of Tamil Nadu Students-Parents Welfare Associations urged the government to take over the management of the schools that violated the new fee structure or threatened to issue transfer certificates to pupils or close down the institutions on the grounds of non-payment of the higher fee demanded by them. It said the government should ensure that the managements operated transactions pertaining to the collection of fees and disbursal of salaries to the teaching and other staff through banks. The fee structure fixed by the Govindarajan panel should be made public, the federation demanded.
Interactions with representatives of school managements, parents, student activists and educationists have thrown considerable light on the fee imbroglio.
SERIES OF MEASURES
The State government’s initial steps came in the wake of widespread criticism against the collection of exorbitant fees by many private unaided schools. Section 6 of the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Act enabled the Govindarajan Committee to determine the fee leviable by a private school taking into account factors such as its location, availability of infrastructure, expenditure on administration and maintenance, reasonable surplus required for its growth and development.
The committee is vested with powers to determine the fee collected by schools belonging to different streams, to hear complaints with regard to the excess fee decided by it, and to recommend to the appropriate competent authority cancellation of the recognition or approval of a school if the complaint is genuine. It is also empowered to require each private school to place before it the proposed fee structure with all relevant documents and books of accounts for scrutiny within a specified date. It can verify whether the proposed fee is justified and does not amount to profiteering or charging of exorbitant fee; and approve the fee structure or determine some other fee which can be charged by the private school. The Act categorically says, The committee shall, for the purpose of making any inquiry under this Act, have all the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
The rules framed under the Act have also made it mandatory for the private schools to submit to the Appropriate Officer an annual financial return not later than July 1 of every year or within such further time as may be fixed by the Chief Educational Officer (CEO) of the district. The orders passed by the committee [on fee structure] shall be final and binding on the private school for three academic years, the Act says.
The penalty clauses are also stringent: Section 9 of the Act says, Whoever contravenes the provisions of this Act or the rules made thereunder shall on conviction be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to seven years and with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees. The person convicted under this section will have to refund the excess fee collected to the pupil concerned.
Rattled by the penal and regulatory provisions of the legislation, many school managements announced that they would close down the schools if the fee structure was imposed on them.
They also launched a legal battle in a bid to nip the government’s initiative in the bud. Several associations of the managements of nursery, matriculation and higher secondary schools moved the High Court to get the Act and its rules declared unconstitutional and violative of the right to establish and administer educational institutions guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (g), the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes guaranteed under Article 26 and the right of the minorities to establish and administer educational institutions guaranteed under Article 30 of the Constitution of India.
But the High Court, in its order on April 9, 2010, referred to the Supreme Court’s verdicts in relevant cases such as T.M.A. Pai Foundation and others vs State of Karnataka and others (2002), the Islamic Academy of Education and another vs State of Karnataka (2003) and P.A. Inamdar and others vs State of Maharashtra and others (2005) and upheld the validity of the Tamil Nadu Act on the grounds that it was in consonance with the rule laid down by the apex court. It also observed that the legislation by and large struck a balance between the institutions’ autonomy and measures to prevent commercialisation of education.
At the same time, the court held that Section 11 of the Act and Section 4 of its rules pertaining to search and seizure of records, accounts, registers or other documents from school premises for the purpose of ascertaining any contravention were ultra vires of Article 14 of the Constitution and liable to be struck off as unconstitutional.
The school managements went in appeal to the Supreme Court. The apex court, on May 11, dismissed at the admission stage a batch of appeals challenging the High Court verdict upholding the validity of the Act.
State Education Minister Thangam Thennarasu informed the State Assembly on May 7 that the Govindarajan Committee had held 15 sessions, and that barring 700 schools, all the remaining schools in the self-financing sector had submitted their replies to the committee’s questionnaire. He also said stern action would be taken against schools levying fees higher than what was prescribed by the committee. The committee appointed district-level committees headed by the CEOs, flagging off the massive exercise of collecting information on the income and expenditures of unaided schools, including the salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff and power and telephone charges, to finalise the fee structure taking into account the factors specified in Section 6 of the Act, apart from considering the student strength and the status of the schools.
After ascertaining the facts through the district committees, the Govindarajan Committee finalised the fee structure for individual schools. Without revealing the heterogeneous, school-specific revised fee structure, Justice Govindarajan announced at a press conference on May 7 the average annual fee rates Rs.11,000 for higher secondary schools, Rs.9,000 for high schools, Rs.8,000 for middle schools and Rs.5,000 for elementary schools.
Subsequently, the CEOs concerned handed over individual letters on the new fee structure in sealed covers to the heads of private schools in May. But the students, parents and other stakeholders were kept in the dark as the new fee structure was not displayed on the school notice board. Nor was it posted on the official website of the Tamil Nadu School Education Department. This enabled the managements to collect exorbitant fees ranging from Rs.15,000 to Rs.1 lakh under different heads, educationists allege.
Justice Govindarajan made it clear that the fee fixed by the committee would be in force for three years and no school would be allowed to revise it during this period without permission from the panel. If the committee received any complaints from students or parents against the schools that collected more than the prescribed fee, it would inquire into these and recommend penal action against the managements concerned if the complaints were found true, he said.
Although Section 6(3) of the Act allowed school managements to file their objections to the new fee structure within 15 days of the receipt of the decision of the committee, only a few schools initially sent their responses.
But when Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced on May 23 that petitions of the private schools would be reviewed for appropriate action, it opened up the floodgates of disgruntlement. Within a fortnight of this announcement, over 6,400 schools raised objections to the fee fixed by the committee, said P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System. The whole issue acquired a new twist in the second week of August in the wake of Justice Govindarajan’s statement on August 10 that the committee had decided to inspect all the schools that had submitted petitions seeking a revision of the fee structure on the grounds that it was so low that the managements would not be able to meet the expenditure on teachers’ salaries, maintenance and development activities.
He also stated that the managements had told the fee determination panel that the low fee structure would affect the standard of education. As the committee needed more time to fulfil the exercise of inspecting these schools before taking a decision on the demand for revising the fee structure, the revised fees would come into force in the academic year 2011-2012. He clarified the next day that until then all the schools would have to adhere to the fee determined by the committee for the current academic year.
In other words, the Govindarajan Committee had admitted its inability to pass orders on the objections of the private schools within 30 days from the date of receipt of the petitions as stipulated by Section 6 (4) of the Act.
The school managements lost no time in moving the High Court, questioning the validity and enforceability of the provisional fee structure besides seeking a direction to the authorities concerned not to implement it during the current academic year before the committee considered their objections and passed its final orders.
Educationists point out that this is not the first time Tamil Nadu has attempted to regulate the fee structure in private schools. Ever since the Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Act, 1920, enforced during the British rule, several pieces of legislation have been introduced by successive governments. Among them are the Tamil Nadu Recognised Private Schools (Regulation) Act, 1973, and the Tamil Nadu Compulsory Education Act, 1994.
Echoing the sentiments of the private self-financing schools, the Chief Education Officer of the Alpha Group of Educational Institutions, S. Alfred Devaprasad, said school education in Tamil Nadu had been pushed into a big mess, threatening the core values of the system. Though a few managements that collected exorbitant fees were primarily responsible for the current state of affairs, the unrealistic fee structure recommended by the Govindarajan Committee complicated the problem, he said.
Several school managements have described the fee fixed by the committee as ridiculously low, more so when the Sixth Pay Commission has revised the scales of pay of teaching and non-teaching staff. But teachers’ associations dismiss the claim as false. According to T. Subramanian, former president of the Tamil Nadu Graduate Teachers’ Association, a vast majority of the private unaided schools have been paying monthly salaries to graduate teachers ranging from Rs.4,000 to Rs.6,000, although the Sixth Pay Commission has recommended Rs.9,300-Rs.34,800 as the pay scale for this category of teachers.
Justice Govindarajan favoured action against the managements that collected capitation fee and other fees without providing receipts. In principle, the government should allow the market to regulate fees in view of the absence of monopoly in the school education sector, he said, suggesting that the authorities should also evolve a system to accredit schools, taking into account factors such as the cost of living and the geographical location of the institutions, for fee determination.
Expressing concern over the issue, all-India joint secretary of the Students Federation of India, G. Selva, said, The developments only betray the government’s inability to implement the Govindarajan Committee’s recommendations. In the light of the Kothari Commission Report of 1966, the Muthukumaran Committee Report of 2006, and the Supreme Court’s verdicts in relevant cases, the government should have taken proactive measures to regulate the private sector in education. This becomes essential when education is being converted into a commodity.
He urged the government to call an all-party meeting immediately to evolve a consensus on the issue. He also demanded steps to bring all the streams of school education other than the Central Board of School Education under the State board. A uniform system of school education should be implemented with people’s support and participation, he opined.
While welcoming the government’s move to regulate the fee in the private self-financing schools, Gajendra Babu called for removing the flaws in the Tamil Nadu Act. Students and their parents were not involved at any stage of the exercise, he said. The fee structure should be fixed on the basis of the financial potential of the parents instead of determining it on the basis of the provision of air-conditioners at the school, its location and achievement of cent per cent results.
By fixing fee on the basis of ensuring a reasonable surplus for the growth and development of private schools, the government is only trying to legitimise the collection of capitation fee, which the courts have been trying to curb and even the government itself, by its earlier Act, had abolished, he added.
Against the backdrop of the 86th Amendment to insert Article 21-A in the Constitution, which provides for free and compulsory education to all children in the 6-14 age group as a fundamental right, the government should move forward to regulate private schools, he said.
Criticising the private schools for insulting and humiliating parents, he said the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, provided for the setting up of school management committees with parents constituting 75 per cent of their members and women representatives forming 50 per cent. The Act also laid down that proportionate representation should be given to parents or guardians of children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections, he pointed out.