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Analysis

The Great Muddle in Gujarat’s School Fee Regulation Model

It is a year since the Gujarat Government introduced and passed on March 30, 2017 so called visionary legislation, namely Gujarat Self-Financed Schools (Regulation of Fees) Act 2017. The vision was to regulate overt and abject commercialization of school education in the state, specifically to put a brake on the exorbitant fees charged by the self-financed schools. The Government intention was good, so to say, and the hapless parents, throughout Gujarat, also thought that this serious policy efforts to regulate exorbitant fees will rescue them from the burden of costly and unaffordable schooling for their kids. But as it has turned out today, after prolonged one year of struggle, confusion and chaos, long-drawn-out litigation, protracted wait, delayed decisions from Fee Regulation Committees (FRCs), flexing of muscles from rich schools and powerful school bodies and internal conflict of interest in front of regulators themselves, that little have changed in the fate of the parents as well as children studying in private schools.

All these make it amply clear to all concerned in this matter that it’s extremely difficult and complicated to regulate commercialization of school education in India, however may good be the intention of the government. I myself is a parent trapped in this mess and trying to derive conclusions from the entire progress of the fee regulation experiment. But as I am a University teacher of economics and a researcher simultaneously, I have my own conclusions to draw. I feel that the large scale privatization and liberalization drives started since the 1990s have only added to economic concentration, which is inherent to the mighty forces of capitalism, and the governments’ intentions are not strong enough to overpower this process. The casualty of this capitalistic developments are common citizens and poor consumers, and in the case of education, it is the middle-class parents of India who wish and dream a good and affordable education for their children.

…Gujarat’s school fee regulation model failed utterly in effectively implementing declared approved fees within the approved timeline and undue delay occurred…

Let’s examine the issues involved here. First, the passing of the Gujarat Self-Financed Schools (Regulation of Fees) Act 2017 has created much excitement and promised relief for the middle-class parents, who suddenly saw a possibility of educating their kids without burgeoning burden on their heads. Informal estimates suggest that Indian parents spend around one-third of their annual income on their kids’ school education- a hefty amount indeed. And a major chunk of the middle-class income goes on just to meet basic services like education, health and rental/housing expenses. The unregulated commercialization in schools and colleges has been causing rising educational expenses from year to year and from one level to another- making school education unaffordable beyond a threshold level. This along with the inadequate availability of (quality) government schools make it extremely difficult for middle and lower-middle income parents to access a good quality education at an affordable cost.

Second, the new legislation provided for basic fee brackets of Rs.15, 000, Rs.25, 000 and Rs.27, 000 per year for primary, secondary and higher secondary levels of schooling and later revised to Rs.30, 000 exclusively for the higher secondary science stream. This fee structure was mandated to be applicable for all self-financed schools affiliated to any Boards including Central or State like CBSE, ICSE or Gujarat State Board. The basic fee structure seemed attractive and very promising to the parents. But there was a caveat – schools wishing to charge higher fees over and above the basic levels must get it approved by one of the four Zonal Fee Regulation Committees (FRCs) established under the Act. The appropriate amount was to be decided by the FRCs after receiving application from such schools, based upon the reported expenses of the schools on various heads including salary of staff, maintenance, overhead expenses, security, rental and expenses on other services incurred on actual basis.

Third, the legislation allowed parents to pay only the first quarter fees of 2017-18 academic year till the time FRC decides the approved fees for each school who had applied for higher fees. All parents happily followed this postulation by paying the fees for first quarter, 2017-18 when the admission for new session started. The Act provided a timeline of 90 days for the FRC to declare the approved fees after receiving application from a school, which got delayed in most cases and finally, the government extended it to 120 days. One can say that the timeline was still reasonable enough. But then the legality of this new legislation was challenged in Gujarat High Court by the Federation of Self-Financed Schools and at the same time, the payment of second and third quarter fees also came up when the FRC had not decided on the fee levels of middle-level and higher-levels private schools. This led to a deeper confusion among parents about whether to pay the next quarters’ fees or wait.

Fourth, as the matter over legality of the legislation was sub-judice, the government representatives could not issue clear cut directives on payment of next quarters’ fees, rather issued half-baked statements that no school can charge higher amount than the prescribed basic amounts. This led to increase in the confidence among the schools to flex their muscles over the parents and to pressurize them to pay the full fees for the ongoing academic year 2017-18. All these resulted in protests by the parents over schools’ pressure and non-inclusion of Parents’ representation in FRC committee, which is supposed to decide over the amount of fee.

Clearly, Gujarat’s school fee regulation model failed utterly in effectively implementing declared approved fees within the approved timeline and undue delay occurred. Partly, the delay was due to the tactics adopted by private schools in putting up a challenge over the legality of the Act in Gujarat High Court. Second, there was no provision of parents’ representation in the Fee Regulation Committee- at the zonal or the state level.

It is to be taken note here that the application for fees over the basic level specified by the Act are on supported on self-reported basis by the schools and which is to be decided on production of expenditure certificates on overall heads mentioned earlier. But one crucial issue remains left out, namely ensuring the ground level inspection by FRC representatives to be vetted/ corroborated by the parents’ body of respective schools. The FRC decides the fee caps affecting impacting the parents’ finances but there is no provision of parents’ representation in FRC under the Act. Non-inclusion of parents’ opinion on such crucial matters led to lots of protests throughout numerous cities of Gujarat- Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot etc. Moreover, it has now finally turned out, the legislation which was intentioned to put a brake on the exorbitant fees charged by schools, may not be effective in doing that, or at best it will be putting a token cap only.

…The long wait for a year, however, was a perfect case of chaos, confusion and harassment suffered by the poor parents who are pressurized by many schools to pay the full amount of annual fees many times higher than the prescribed levels, bombarded with repeated messages and circulars and even threatened with the eviction of the wards, non-declaration of results, non-permission in sitting in board examinations and so on…

In the meantime, on December 27, 2017, the Gujarat High Court upheld the sanctity and constitutional validity of the Gujarat’s Self-Financed Schools Fees Regulation Act, giving much relief to the parents expecting speed up of the process of fixation of fee levels for various schools. The High Court ruled that state had the authority to form fee regulation laws for schools situated within Gujarat and affiliated to any board be it Gujarat state board, CBSE or ICSE. The High Court rejected the School Federation’s argument that CBSE and minority schools could not be regulated by the state government.

But, as expected, the Schools’ Federation hired the top lawyers and went to the Supreme Court against the Gujarat High Court decision. The Supreme Court initially fixed the date of final hearing on 3rd May 2018, however with appeal from All Gujarat Parents Association to decide the matter before summer vacation, the final date has been preponed to April 18. As an interim relief, however, Supreme Court allowed the schools to collect ‘provisional fee’ for the year 2017-18, as per the amount decided by the FRCs. The Supreme Court did not mention the operational definition of ‘provisional fee’ and left its’ interpretation to the FRC. With clearance from the Supreme Court, FRCs have now started the process of declaration of ‘provisional fee’ for schools zonal-wise on the basis of application received from the schools or self-reported affidavits that they are charging fees within prescribed caps.

The long wait for a year, however, was a perfect case of chaos, confusion and harassment suffered by the poor parents who are pressurized by many schools to pay the full amount of annual fees many times higher than the prescribed levels, bombarded with repeated messages and circulars and even threatened with eviction of the wards, non-declaration of results, non-permission in sitting in board examinations and so on. With lack of enough guidance from the government, many schools interpreted the ‘provisional fee’ in their own way- often, coercing parents and sending notices to pay the full amount of fees charged earlier. Amidst confusion and chaos, many parents started paying the fees due to delay in the declaration in provisional fees at least for 2017-18 as beginning of new academic session had started and out of the fear that their wards may not be promoted to the next standard. The fears also percolated down to the level that some schools may get shut down if the approved fees will not be able to recover their costs, creating further confusion over paying the fees or not to those parents who are still kept on waiting.

The result was that a significant proportion of parents had already paid the full amount of fees for the year 2017-18, which suggested that parents have finally yielded to the pressure tactics of the schools and silence of the government! The impasse and harassment to the parents and kids has not ended as of now. On 11th April 2018, fed up with the persistent harassment to parents and children from the schools over fees and inaction from Gujarat government, the All Gujarat Parents Association requested to the Gujarat State Child Protection Society to intervene in the issue.

…In case of Gujarat, when the schools have obtained interim protection from punishment from the government; the parents and children are not protected and vulnerable. Parents are on road- abandoned, and confused…

The preliminary rounds of fee declaration by the FRCs, tells the story of insufficient effectiveness of Gujarat’s fee regulation Act. The Supreme Court order makes provision of creating a Revisional Authority by the state to hear the cases of schools’ challenges against the provisional fees fixed by the Committee, and dispose it within 30 days, if they are not satisfied over it. The primary school fees, for the Ahmedabad zone was declared by FRC on 5th April 2018 for 200 schools out 252 of schools that had applied to FRC.

The preliminary findings reveal that the approved fees are way above the prescribed cut-off limits, which were in the range of Rs.18, 000 to Rs.82, 500. The FRC has slashed fees of many schools, but only marginally or not leading to any significant difference. Moreover, the FRC has approved the fees of quite a number of schools ‘as proposed’ without any changes, for example, that of New Shayona International School (Rs.21, 000), NR School (Rs.22, 000), Hiramani Primary School (Rs.20, 450), SH Kharawala School (Rs.19, 000), Somlalit School (Rs.25, 000), Vedant International school (Rs.38, 000), LM Lions School (Rs.45, 000) etc. Some schools have marginal to medium cut in their proposed fees: Zydus School (Vejalpur: reduction of Rs.6, 000–Rs.17, 000; Godhavi: Rs.1, 000–Rs.21, 000) and Global Indian International School, Gota (slash of Rs.16, 670 –Rs. 22, 200). Very few schools had high fee reduction: Redbricks School, Satellite got a cut of Rs.35, 400 (proposed- Rs.1,17,900 for primary; approved Rs.82, 500). (DNA/Ahmedabad Mirror, Apr 7, 2018).

The effectiveness of fee control in Gujarat, thus, will not be significant if only marginal to small cut in the proposed fees are finally effected. Even in the cases of sizable cut the schools can always find ways to create more heads to monetize their already existing and new services and, thus, in next session revised fee can be higher on par with the past fee levels. The fee regulation Act does not bar schools from raising such fees on different activities/ services. In the end, the entire fee regulation model will only be an accounted one and so-called government-monitored one is render toothless and without much efficacy and efficiency.

Rising cases of harassment of students and parents are the result of over commercialization of education and capitalistic profit mongering. Every services beyond the primary task of providing quality education, are monetized by the schools and thrust upon the parents like purchasing books, uniform, kit, shoes etc. Schools earn hefty profits on these. And when parents protest and demand for accountability on the fees and services charged, schools threaten to evict the children. One school in Dadar, Mumbai had expelled 40 kids in July 2017, and another Borivli school had expelled 25 kids of standard I & II in April 2015 over non-payment of fees, whose parents were protesting over higher fees (Asian Age, July 19, 2017; DNA, Apr 30, 2015). Numerous such cases exist and rising throughout the country. To put a check over such events CBSE had sought details on the fee structure charged by its 18,000 affiliated schools in November 2016. But the schools’ capitalistic power can be gauged from the fact that the National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA) had threatened to sue the CBSE (The Telegraph, April 21, 2017).

There seems to be no effective law in the country today, which can protect the innocent children and hapless parents from harassment from the schools. The Right to Education Act implemented in 2010 to provide inclusive education to the children has become highly ineffective even in protecting kids’ basic educational rights. In case of Gujarat, when the schools have obtained interim protection from punishment from the government; the parents and children are not protected and vulnerable. Parents are on road- abandoned, and confused. The government should look into the welfare of 3.76 million school children of Gujarat, and clear the messy muddle as soon as possible– so that Gujarat fee regulation model can truly become a ‘Model’ to be emulated in the country.

 

The AuthorShri Manoj Kumar Sahoo is a Faculty of Economics, School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, E-mail: sahoomanoj1@rediffmail.com

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