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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Not for profit: why schools hiking fees arbitrarily must be reined in

Maharashtra government’s move to regulate fees is laudable. But it must also address larger issues of transparency, accountability and inequality related to private schools


April 2, 2021 7:45:30 pm
ISC 2021 examsThe last years saw the systematic dismantling of Right to Education (RTE) and private school regulations to favour privatisation and private school managements.

Written By Akshay Tarfe

In February, Maharashtra Minister of State for Education Bacchu Kadu directed the state education department to create a “plan” to take action against private schools allegedly charging excessive fees and repeatedly violating state regulations on school education. Kadu has been at the forefront of hearing pleas by parents who have been protesting, filing petitions, and approaching court to prevent arbitrary fee hikes by private schools in the state. Since October, the state’s education department has been issuing notices and fees refund orders to several private schools and even defended fees school hike ban in the Bombay High Court.

As per the Government Resolution (GR) of March 17, the department is now actively seeking suggestions for amending the Maharashtra Educational Institutions (Regulation of Fee) (Amendment) Act, 2018. In 2017, the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government amended the fees regulation act, allowing private schools to hike fees by 15 per cent every two years. Since then, the act has been used by private schools to hike school fees exponentially. Additional charges, such as extracurricular activity fees, uniforms and books, remain largely unregulated. The 75th round of National Sample Survey (NSS) Household Social Consumption on Education in Maharashtra shows that the average household may spend as much as Rs. 24073 per child/ year on school education.

Ironically, this hyper commercialisation of school education is happening in a state which is proud of its legacy of universal education driven by Phule-Shahu-Ambedkarite traditions. Almost 100 years ago, BR Ambedkar had warned about the commercialisation of education in the Bombay Legislative Council. Mahatma Jotiba Phule also cautioned about the privatisation of education to the Hunter Commission in 1881 and said, “educational machinery, both ministerial and executive, must be in the hands of Government.”

The state government’s move to amend the fees regulation act is laudable. The Maharashtra State Right to Education (RTE) Rules 2011 reiterate that schools are ‘not for profit’ entities and it is critical for this to be realised in practice. However, we also need a more comprehensive framework which can stop the arbitrary behaviour of private schools that has caused parent associations and lawyers alike to complain. Action is needed to address larger issues of transparency, accountability and inequality related to private schools.

The last years saw the systematic dismantling of Right to Education (RTE) and private school regulations to favour privatisation and private school managements. The Divisional Fee Regulatory Committees (DFRCs), the bodies responsible for keeping schools in check, have been stripped of penal powers and grievance redressal over the years. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a mushrooming of private schools in the state. The Economic Survey of Maharashtra showed a 111 per cent rise in private unaided schools between 2013-14 to 2017-18 in the state.

Despite the presence of RTE Section 12(1) (c), which guarantees 25 per cent reservation in non-minority private unaided schools to children from poor and socially disadvantaged homes, private schools are far from being inclusive spaces for Maharashtra’s marginalised communities. Children from marginalised groups such as Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and those with disabilities are underrepresented in private unaided schools’ enrolments in Maharashtra. An analysis of data from the Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE) shows SC student enrolment in private unaided schools in the state has been around 8.7 per cent from 2013 to 2018. For ST student enrolment, the number was around 4 per cent. During the same period, the enrolment of children with disabilities dropped from 1 per cent to 0.8 per cent. In contrast, the state’s economic survey shows the share of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and disabled persons in Maharashtra is 11.8 per cent (SC), 9.3 per cent (ST) and 2.64 per cent (disabled persons).

With two committees, one to implement NEP and second for fee regulation amendments, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government has a chance to uphold the state’s education legacy by reimagining Maharashtra’s private schools as institutions accountable to people, not profits.

Currently, private unaided schools in Maharashtra function in such a way that they lack the key mechanisms for parents and public to hold the management accountable at local, city and district level. Parents should not be left helpless and entangled in prolonged legal battles as a result of undemocratic decisions by school managements.

It is time for restoration of Divisional Fee Regulatory Committees with grievance redressal and penal power by fee regulation committee. However, this is not enough to ensure accountability. The state needs to put in place transparency and accountability mechanisms for private schools such as ensuring that schools’ balance sheets are kept updated and placed online and all school fees are publicly disclosed on school websites as well as notice boards. Greater role needs to be given to parents in creating school development plans involving spending and infrastructure upgradation, as has been given to government school parents under the RTE Act. The state government also needs to ensure that school accounts are audited with the reports kept on school websites as well as in the public database of the state education department. Doing so is not only critical and in line with existing global best practice, but is part of several state laws.

Akshay Tarfe is a campaigner at Oxfam India. Views are personal

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