This summer, Tamil Nadu has been witnessing heated arguments on fees in private schools.
Educationists say the recent directive by the Madras High Court of advising the School Fee Panel Committee to review the fee structure will only attract more litigation and keep the courts busy.
Can there be a more permanent solution?
For example, schools could be allowed a fixed, year-on-year 5 per cent hike instead of the currently permissible hike every three years, as per the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation and Collection of Fees) Act of 2009.
Such a ceiling could well stop the flood of litigations against the fee prescribed by the Committee. More pertinently, the Committee's time and resources could be deployed in monitoring the schools to ensure that they deliver on the promised lines.
Till date, although numerous parents have complained against particular schools, there is no record of the number of complaints registered, or details of what action, if any, taken against such schools. The 2009 Fees Act itself was born out of parental protests, and for the Act to deliver full justice, it needs to be amended, say experts.
The High Court verdict is only an interim relief. Now, the government should amend the Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation and Collection of Fee) Act of 2009, to accommodate the view of parents, says Prince Gajendra Babu, Secretary, State
Platform for Common School System.
Pointing out that there is a provision for monitoring in the 2009 Fees Act, Babu feels that all the educational districts (over 64 of them) of Tamil Nadu should fall under the monitoring committee's purview.
Additionally, the inquiry report on complaints should be made available to the parents, he added. Other educationists too feel that the recent victory in the Madras High Court is merely a temporary one and want a lasting solution.
Last week, in a judgement relating to over 300 writ petitions challenging the fee recommended by the committee, the Madras High Court asked the panel to review the fee prescribed.
In the interim, the litigants were permitted to hike their fee by 15 %. The rest of the schools which had not approached the court have to charge the amount fixed by the committee, and not avail the 15 % buffer offered to the petitioners.
In 2009, when K Govindarajan was appointed head of the committee, there were 10,934 schools. Close to 6400 schools appealed to the committee and over 330 schools approached the Madras High Court.
According to the Act, fees are prescribed every three years, and the fee fixed by the present committee would be valid only until the next academic year. If you add at least another 1000, which is the likely number of new schools to be opened across the state, at least 12,000 schools would be awaiting the fee committee's fee fixation.
And it would be yet another ride on the carousel - of countless rounds of litigations.
The only way to make the Act deliver on its potential is to go for an amendment that would permit schools to hike fees year on year.
Suresh Kumar, an advocate, says the recurring scenario (of the committee prescribing the fees) is the norm across India.
School principals, however, trot out the old argument -- that schools have huge overheads, especially when it comes to salaries.
Schools are expected to abide by the VI Pay Commission while disbursing salaries. A grade II staff should be
paid a basic salary of Rs 11,170, trained graduate teachers Rs 14,650 and post graduate teachers Rs 16,690.
Additional expenses for the school include insurance, HRA, gratuity and other allowances.
In today's world even a 25: 1 ratio of students per teacher is a tough call, since the learning skills of all students is not the same.
Housekeeping staff are expensive as well, and schools have to make provisions for expansion plans and other contingencies as well, say educationists.
While parents have no arguments over well paid staff, many wonder about the contingency plans in place. Educationists agree that schools are now industrial estates where everything from books, stationery, food and clothes are marketed.
They also say that some schools accumulate funds, with the aim of opening branches elsewhere, which would result in the transfer of funds, amounting to profiteering -- something the apex court frowns upon.
Making it mandatory for schools to declare their audited statements on their websites would be one way of determining where the money went. It could also satisfy the parent community, at least a good portion of them.
However, if the litigations are to stop cluttering the courts then we can't forget the 300 plus schools that have argued continuously for three years. The government should amend the TN Schools (Regulation and Collection of Fee ) Act
of 2009 and arrive at the right formula for fixing the fee hike on an annualised basis, taking into account, inflation, quality of education and the need for a more sensitised teaching fraternity, given that the Right To Education (RTE) will be implemented and unaided private schools across the state have to ear mark 25 % of their seats (entry level) for the less
There are tough lessons ahead and no one can afford to get the formula wrong.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist