In a notable judgment, the High Court of Kerala held that deemed universities affiliated with the University Grants Commission(UGC) cannot levy fees on students in excess of what is stated in the admission prospectus.
Holding thus, a single bench of Justice Anu Sivaram directed the Indian Institute of Space Science Technology(IIST), Thiruvananthapuram, to refund the excess fees collected from research scholars, which had no mention in the admission prospectus issued in 2013.
The decision came in the writ petition filed by 51 Ph.D students of IIST challenging the mid-term decision of the institute to introduce tuition fee (Rahul O. R and others vs IIST and others).
The admission prospectus of 2013 had no provision for collection of tuition fee; all that was stated in it was that the scholars will have to pay for the services provided by the institute for boarding, lodging, medical facilities etc.
In 2017, the institute took a decision to introduce a semester tuition fee of Rs.12,500/-. This was challenged by Rahul OR and fifty other students as contrary to the UGC Regulations.
Referring to Clause 6.1 of the UGC (Deemed to be Universities) Regulations 2016, the petitioners' counsel, Advocate Surya Binoy, submitted that no deemed university can levy a fee which has not been declared by it in the admission prospectus and its official website. It was further pointed that as per Clause 6.5 of the Regulations, the institution has to publish a prospectus within 60 days of the commencement of the course, explaining different fee components. This has also not been complied with by the institute, the counsel pointed out.
Seeking to justify the decision, IIST stated that the fee was meager when compared to the fellowship offered to the students. Claiming the charging of fee to be a "prerogative" of the institution, IIST stated that it cannot "afford" to exempt the students from paying the same.
The UGC took an ambivalent stand before the Court stating that its regulations were "silent whether a Deemed To Be University can increase/enhance the fee at mid term". The UGC also said that it had "no control" on the fee charged by a deemed university.
"...depending upon the curriculum and other factors a Deemed To Be University can charge their own fees. As such UGC cannot say that the charging of fees contemplated in Ext. P1 is excessive or otherwise", the UGC stated in the counter-affidavit filed in the HC.
Despite that, the HC proceeded to enforce the regulations framed by UGC itself. The Court noted that the admission prospectus had no provision for tuition fee, and that such fee was introduced mid-term. This was found to be contrary to the specific provisions in the UGC Regulations.
"In view of the specific provisions contained in UGC Regulations that fees can be collected only after informing the applicants by way of a prospectus and in view of the specific contentions that there was no such intimation in the admission notifications pursuant to which the petitioners were admitted, I am of the opinion that Exhibit P1 circular can have no application to the petitioners, who were admitted prior to the issuance of the same", the Court held.
Allowing the writ petition, the Court directed IIST to collect "only such fees as are provided in the in the admission notifications/prospectus on the basis of which the petitioners were admitted".
The excess fees was directed to be refunded to the petitioners forthwith.
Lauding the judgment as empowering students, Sreenath J, law student of NUALS Kochi, said :
"We are hoping that the judgment will act as a reminder to institutions of higher education that they are functioning under rule of law. Let this empower students to question the administration when policies are forced upon them".
Sreenath is a member of 'Your Lawyer Friend', a collective of students and lawyers working for students' rights, which assisted the petitioners in the instant case.
'Your Lawyer Fried' has also made effective interventions in the past leading to landmark judgments holding special restrictions in girls' hostels and ban on mobile phones in college hostels to be unconstitutional and illegal.
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