The Punjab and Haryana High Court Tuesday ruled that all the private schools in Punjab, whether conducting online classes or not, will be entitled to collect tuition fee and also permitted them to collect the admission fee. The order comes more than a month after Punjab government issued a slew of directions pertaining to payment of fee in wake of the Covid-19 situation and closure of the schools amid curfew and lockdown.
A single bench of Justice Nirmaljit Kaur also allowed the schools to collect other charges for the lockdown period, but with a rider. The court also restrained the schools from increasing the fee for the ongoing academic session (2020-21) and ordered them to adopt the same fee structure as of previous year.
The court declined to interfere with the government direction asking schools to allow parents to pay fee on monthly or quarterly basis, and also with the government order asking them not to resort to removal of any teacher or reduce the monthly salary of teaching or non-teaching staff. Out of the major five directions issued by the state to the schools, the court has mainly interfered with the direction pertaining to not taking charges, other than tuition fee, from parents.
The government earlier had allowed only those schools to collect tuition fee, which were conducting online classes. While all the schools had been also asked to defer the last date for depositing admission fee, the government had prohibited them from taking other charges like transport, building expenses during the period of closure. The orders were challenged before the high court by various school managements including Independent Schools Association and Punjab Schools Welfare Association.
While state was represented by Advocate General Atul Nanda and Additional Advocate General Rameeza Hakeem in the case, the schools were represented by Senior Advocate Puneet Bali and advocate Aashish Chopra.
Schools to decide other charges
Justice Kaur, in the ruling, said school managements will work out the actual expenditure incurred under the ‘annual charges’ head for the period they remain closed and recover only 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,” the bench added in the order.
The court noted that it cannot “ignore the painstaking efforts” being made by the schools and teachers in providing the education and holding classes through online platforms. “…and the expenditure involved in disseminating education online may conceivably be much greater than that involved in classroom teaching,” it added.
The schools earlier had submitted that transport charges form only a small part of the full charges but they are required to maintain the buses, pay the salaries of drivers and attendants, repay loans, maintain the buses and also have to incur more expenditure in taking various measures once schools reopen.
All schools entitled to tuition fee
The court said even if schools do not provide online education, they are still required to meet the expenses like payment of salary and building, and electricity expenses. It added there was no rationale in creating a classification when obligations and basic expenses of the 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 HC ruled, adding the maintenance of the infrastructure will have to be done so that when students return to the schools, the basic amenities like competent teachers as well as infrastructure is intact.
No fee hike
While declining to interfere with government advice of not increasing the fee for the academic session 2020-21, the court said that keeping in mind the overall impact on the economy, some concessions and adjustments should be made, and has ordered the schools to restrain themselves from increasing the fee.
It also said any school facing a financial crunch on account of not charging the increased fee can approach the district education officer along with the proof. The DEO has been ordered to look into such representation and pass appropriate orders within three weeks after receipt of application. However, the court said such exercise be carried only in a “very hard case”.
Parents facing hardship can approach schools
The bench also said that any parent not able to pay the fee can file an application alongwith necessary proof about their financial status before the schools, which will look into it sympathetically and give concession or exempt the entire fee. The court said a parent, if still aggrieved, can then approach the Regulatory Body constituted under the 2016 Act pertaining to fee regulation. The parents, however, have been asked to not misuse the concession.
“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,” the order reads.
Ordering that no child will be deprived of attending the schools and online class for non-payment of fee, the bench said the direction will remain subject to a parent moving an application to the school and the final decision of such application.
“State’s instructions not out of line’
Observing that there is a merit in the argument that the orders passed by the government with regard to payment of fee are an “interference and infringes” the rights guaranteed to the private unaided educational institutions under the law, Justice Kaur, however, added that the state does have the power under Article 162 to issue executive instructions, especially when the entire country was under lockdown.
With regard to issuance of orders regarding fee payment under Disaster Management Act 2005 and the Epidemic Disease Act 1897, the court said such orders may not technically fall within the ambit of the 2005 and 1897 Acts. However, it added that the steps taken by the state to control the risk of the diseases has lead to loss of business, work and daily earning by people and, “therefore, the concern of the state to mitigate and avert the trickle down the effects as a temporary measures is not totally out of line”.