One of the new normals that children have been forced to slip into owing to the Covid pandemic is online schooling. It came with its share of apprehensions and hitches in terms of increased screen time, lack of social interaction and other unavoidable consequences but perhaps one of the most raging debates is about school fees. Should schools continue to charge the same fees for online classes?
There is no denying that the pandemic has brought with it significant economic ramifications across sectors owing to lockdowns imposed over the past fifteen months. The education sector is no exception, with students being forced to adapt to online classes as schools remain shut. Amidst all this most educational institutions are against a sizeable fee reduction stating that their fixed expenses like rent, taxes, salaries, interest on loans, etc continue at the same rates. Parents however cite that with schools remaining shut their running and maintenance expenses have surely reduced, the benefit of which should be rightfully transferred to the parents. However while most schools continue to charge the same fees, some have definitely earned a lot of goodwill from parents by providing interim relief on fees. Others have also done whatever best they can on request, on a case to case basis. At the same time many schools have gone ahead with the annual fee hike in 2021 putting parents across the country in a tough spot.
Matters reach the court
Inevitably courts across India saw a surge in litigation cases on the issue of fee payment. After several petitions across different courts in the country, matters finally reached the Supreme Court. As per orders dated 4th May, 2021 the Supreme Court declared that educational institutions must reduce fees as their running costs have come down with various on campus facilities remaining closed for students. The bench stated that the school management cannot collect fees in respect of activities and facilities which are not availed by its students due to circumstances beyond their control. Demanding fees even in respect of overheads for such activities is nothing short of indulging in profiteering and commercialisation. Infact the court further stated that owing to prolonged closure of schools, the management would have saved on overheads and recurring costs on various items like petrol/ diesel, electricity, maintenance costs, water charges, stationery charges, etc. Based on these facts several state governments released circulars, notifications and regulations announcing fee relaxations. However, the haphazard manner in which this was done sparked a lot of confusion among parents.
No clear solution
So far while most private schools have stopped charging for transport and meals, the issues around other fee components rage on. Parents have petitioned for schools to charge only tuition fees and roll back development fees, annual charges, sports fees, lab charges and all other similar components as long as schools continue to function on an exclusively online mode. Schools however are not relenting and parents feel that the lack of uniformity and clarity across state governments on this issue has led to private schools being at an advantage.
As Mrs Ratna Banerjee, parent of a Class 5 student of one of Gurgaon’s premier schools puts it, ‘we definitely do not want teachers and the school staff to suffer and are willing to pay the entire tuition fees for as long as online classes continue but how is it justifiable for schools to charge annual fees and development fees when their overheads have actually come down?’
‘Why should I pay maintenance fees, annual charges and sports fees for online schooling?’ asks a disgruntled Mr Alok Gupta, parent of another top notch school in Bangalore. Schools need to understand that the pandemic has been tough on everyone. As parents we have had to make necessary arrangements and investments to ensure that our kids have the required electronic devices, uninterrupted internet connection, etc to facilitate online classes.
‘My child, all of 12, was pulled up in class and told that he may not be allowed to attend classes if I do not pay his fees!’ fumed Mr Singhania, parent of a private school in Delhi. This is unpardonably insensitive on the school’s part and I am going to make sure they do not get away with this!’
Clearly, things are getting uglier by the day between parents and school authorities on the fee issue and we can only hope that the central Government intervenes and comes up with a uniform resolution applicable across states, that works to everyone’s benefit.
Till then let us all hope that every single child gets to exercise his / her right to education irrespective of the circumstances.