The Punjab and Haryana High Court on June 30, 2020 allowed private schools in Punjab to collect tuition fee, even if they had not provided online classes during the lockdown period. The High Court also permitted them to collect admission fee in 2 instalments in 6 months. However, the schools have been restrained from increasing the fee for the academic year 2020-21. The Court took note of the earlier decisions taken by the Kerala High Court, Allahabad High Court & the Punjab & Haryana High Court itself in this regard. The Court has tried to strike a balance between the schools & the parents. The Court has worked out an amicable formula for both the financially strained parents who are unable to pay fee to schools and also the financially weak schools who are unable to sustain due to impact of the Government order and the financial conditions induced by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is too early to say whether the schools & the parents accept the said reasoned judgement or move to the Apex Court for redressal.
The brief facts of the case are that a writ petition had been filed by the Independent Schools’ Association, Chandigarh, with member schools in Punjab, pleading against the government order dated 14-05-2020 to allow schools to charge only tuition fee for the period of lockdown but had restrained the schools from charging towards building, transportation and meals. A number of parent associations also filed writ petitions which were connected & heard together with the Writ Petition of the School’s Association. The State Government was the primary respondent in the said petitions.
It is pertinent to refer to the relevant part of the Government order dated 14 May 2020 which is reproduced as under:
“(i) The schools shall not charge any fee for the period of lockdown/curfew, excluding the period of summer break. However, those schools who have provided or are providing online education during the period of lockdown, may charge ‘tuition fee’ only, i.e. fee other than building charges, transportation charges, charges for meals, etc.; (ii) Given the exceptional circumstances occasioned by the lockdown, private schools are advised not the impose any increase in school fees in 2020-21 over those charged in 2019-20.; and (v) School management should not resort to removal of any teacher or reduction in the monthly salary or total emoluments of teaching/non-teaching staff.”
The schools opposed the said government order as arbitrary, illegal and without authority of law. It was mainly contended by the schools that it would not be possible for the schools to pay fee to the staff if they are not permitted to collect full fee. As regards the transportation charges it was contended that they are not just for the fuel charges but for the salaries of the drivers/attendants, repayment of loans & upkeep and maintenance of the fleet of buses. It is pertinent that as an interim measure, the High Court had earlier allowed the private schools in Punjab to charge 70% fee from students for the academic year 2020-21 which was neither acceptable to the schools nor the parents. In fact there were protests by the parents throughout the state.
The parents pleaded the High Court to issue the necessary directions in the interest of the students & their parents in these extraordinary times
*Not to increase the tuition fee by merging other charges in the same and keep it same as in the previous academic session 2019-20.
*Not to adopt coercive means to force the parents to pay fees.
*To make public the profit and loss, balance sheets, ITRs showing the bifurcation of different fee & charges collected by them.
*To make public details of salaries which have been paid to various staff members for the months of April and May 2020 by each school.
*To give details of teaching and non-teaching staff expelled, relieved, sent on compulsory leave or removed by these schools since March 2020.
* To refund the fee, admission fee, annual charges, development charges and charges for extra-curricular activities etc.
* To appoint District Education Officer in each district and at sub-division levels to whom complaints can be addressed against the erring schools.
After due deliberations, the Court has passed a detailed judgement in the said writ petition after discussing the pleas raised by parents, schools, teachers and the state government. The Court categorically held that “All schools irrespective whether they offered online classes during the lock-down period or not, are entitled to collect the tuition fee. However, they will continue to endeavour and impart online/ distance learning so that education is not adversely impacted due to the present or future lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19.”
The Court was not convinced about discriminating between the schools which provided virtual classes and the ones who could not do so & categorically held as under:
”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. Hence, 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. In these circumstances, there cannot be a separate direction for the schools who are not offering online classes. Therefore, direction to the privately unaided Institutions who are not giving online classes not to charge tuition fee for the concerned period is 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. The maintenance of 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. 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. Hence, there cannot be two set of rules between same class.”
The Court after detailed discussions and application of settled law, as declared by the Apex Court & various High Courts summed up its final observations as under:
“In view of the above discussion and reasons for each of the direction stated in the judgment above, the writ petitions are disposed of as under:- (a) The schools are permitted to collect their admission fee, henceforth. (b) All schools irrespective whether they offered online classes during the lock-down period or not, are entitled to collect the tuition fee. However, they will continue to endeavour and impart online/ distance learning so that education is not adversely impacted due to the present or future lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19. (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 along with 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 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 along with 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) It is clarified that there is no modification in the direction Nos.(ii), (iii) and (v) of the impugned order dated 14.05.2020. (i) There is also no modification in the direction No.(iv) of the order dated 14.05.2020 that no child will be deprived of attending the schools and online classes. However, the same is subject to the parent of such a child moving an application in terms of direction (e) above of this order and final decision on the said application.”
Thus, the Court acting as a mediator has endeavoured to address the concerns of all affected parties. Although this judgement is only applicable to the private schools of Punjab & the parents of the children studying there but the same will have wide ramifications throughout the country.