The High Court of Punjab and Haryana on Tuesday held that all schools, irrespective of whether they offered online classes during the lock-down period or not, are entitled to collect the tuition fee.
The single bench of Justice Nirmaljit Kaur issued the following directions :
(a)Schools are permitted to collect their admission fee, henceforth, since the COVID-19 lockdown has now been lifted (Earlier the date to pay the admission fee had been deferred by the Government to a month after the pandemic conditions improve. "To remove all confusions, the schools should be allowed to recover their admission fee now that the lock-down stands lifted on 08.06.2020 to a great degree", the High Court said).
(b)All schools, irrespective whether they offered online classes during the lockdown period or not, are entitled to collect the tuition fee.
(c) The school management of each schools shall work out their actual expenditure incurred under the annual charges for the period the school remained closed and recover only such genuine expenditure incurred by them including actual transport charges and actual building charges but shall not recover any charge for this period for any activity or facility towards which no expenditure was incurred. However, the annual charges for the remaining period shall be recovered as already fixed by the school;
(d)The schools shall restrain themselves for the reasons, as mentioned above, from increasing the fee for the year 2020-21 and adopt the same fee structure as of 2019- 20.
(e) Any parent not able to pay the school fee in the above terms may file their application alongwith necessary proof about their financial status, which shall be looked into by the school- authority and, after looking into it sympathetically, give concession or exempt the entire fee, as the case may be. In case the parent is still aggrieved,in any manner, with an adverse decision by the school on his application, he may approach the Regulatory Body, so constituted under Section 7 of the Punjab Regulation of fee of Un-aided Educational Institutions Act, 2016. No parent shall misuse the concession by laying a false claim.
(f) Section 7 of the Punjab Regulation of fee of Un-aided Educational Institutions Act, 2016 is already in place for looking into the complaints of the parents or guardians with regard to charging of any excessive fee or to do any other activity with the motive to give financial benefit or profit. The parents are at liberty to take recourse to the same and, therefore, no specific direction is required to be given by this Court separately;
(g) In case any school is facing a financial crunch for not having charged the increased fee for the year 2020-21, may move a representation to the District Education Officer alongwith its proof of the same, who shall look into it and pass appropriate orders within three weeks of the receipt of such an application. However, this may be exercised only in a very hard case where the school is facing financial crunch and has no reserved resources to meet the expenses.
(h) The May 14 directions advising schools against imposing any increase in school fees in 2020-21 over those charged in 2019-20; against striking down the names of students from the school rolls and not to debar them from attending the ongoing online classes even if their parents are not in a position to pay the proportionate tuition fee due to loss of their jobs; and against resorting to removal of any teacher or reduction in the monthly salary or total emoluments of teaching/non-teaching staff; have been retained.
(i) There is also no modification in the direction of the order of May 14 that no child will be deprived of attending the schools and online classes.
The Court was dealing with a bunch of petitions filed by associations of unaided private schools and parents of school students, challenging the May 14 notification issued by the Director, School Education, imposing curbs on the charging of fees.
The Director, School Education had in essence directed:
a) the complete waiver of fees by the Private Unaided Educational Institutions that are not conducting online classes during lockdown period;
(b) The schools giving online classes could charge only the tuition fee for the lockdown period;
(c) The schools were restrained from recovering building charges, transport charges, charges for meals meaning thereby, the parents could not be burdened with the costs of any such facility or activity which was not availed by them during the lockdown;
(d) However, there was no bar of charging the fee for the period of summer break although there is no distinction between the schools providing online or not providing online classes when charging of fees during the summer break is concerned;
(e) It was advised not to increase the fee during the year 2020-21;
(f) the School Management was not authorised to remove any teaching or non-teaching staff;
(g) the school management could neither stop nor reduce the monthly salary either of the teachers or the staff.
Accepting the petitioners' arguments, the Court said that the restrictions were arbitrary.
"It is not disputed that even if schools do not provide online education, the schools are still required to meet the expenses, i.e. Full salary of the teachers and non-teaching staff as well as building, electricity expenses etc.. The schools that are not giving online classes are not exempted from paying the salary of its teaching and non-teaching staff", said the bench, concluding that there is no rational in laying down such a classification especially when the obligations and basic expenses of all private un-aided schools remain the same irrespective of whether they are conducting online classes or not.
Holding that in these circumstances, there cannot be a separate direction for the schools who are not offering online classes, the bench declared the direction to the privately unaided institutions who are not giving online classes not to charge tuition fee for the concerned period to be definitely discriminatory and arbitrary.
"The grievance of the parents that they should not be made to pay for the services which have not been rendered, especially when either some schools did not offer online services or because they reside in remote areas, where the online facility is not available, may be a reasonable complaint but while making the said complaint, the parents have forgotten the fact, as already noted above, that the staff and teachers have to be continuously paid the salary during this lockdown period", held the bench.
The judgment further points out that the infrastructure will have to be maintained during this period so that when the children return to schools, the basic amenities to the students in the form of qualified and competent teachers as well as the infrastructure is intact, that it is the own stand of the parents that the grant of recognition to a private school depends upon fulfilment of various requirements including financial status and infrastructure but under no circumstances, the private schools can indulge in profiteering or business.
"If it is so, then the schools require the basic tuition fee in order to continue to maintain and fulfil their various requirements of financial status and infrastructure lest the schools are forced to close down which will be neither in the interest of the State, or the parents or the children. Even otherwise, this Court has no doubt that the schools shall make endeavour to make up the loss in the studies as suffered by the students during this lockdown period on its re-opening", opined the bench, reiterating that there cannot be two set of rules between same class.
Case : Independent Schools' Association Chandigarh (Regd) and others vs State of Punjab and others, and connected cases.