Curricular Profiteering

There is a mushroom growth of schools in private sector in Kashmir- KO file photo

Syed Arsalan Abid

Education means a lot in one’s life as it facilitates learning, knowledge and skill. It completely changes ones outlook and personality and helps attain set goals. One thing that pinches the conscience of any concerned individual is the commercialisation of education. The education has now become a profitable business with the involvement of all type of traders in the field. Every year 4-5 schools are opened within the area of two km radius across India. Many newly opened schools boast of modern facilities and hi tech infrastructure to lure parents.

It seems very easy and smooth going process in the Kashmir Valley as if there is no criteria set by the government for opening a school. This is very much detrimental for the society in the long run. The mushroom growth should be checked because it can erode the quality education system.

Back in the 90s, education never pinched the pockets. Most of the time, parents never considered it a part of monthly expenditure, except when they had to pay a bulk amount during the beginning of a session or on purchase of uniform. However, the case is no longer the same now. Over the years, the schools have grown, the facilities have increased and so have the fee structure. Charging of exorbitant fees in private schools is a major cause of concern now. Steep hike in tuition fees along with additional costs such as transport charges, fee for extra-curricular activities and sports are added costs and a burden on parents.

Regulating school fees is one of the most significant legal and administrative challenges policymakers in Kashmir face. Schools justify their fee hike as the costs of maintaining a fully functional private school with quality teaching and world-class infrastructure are quite steep. In this context, balancing the autonomy of private schools and their public welfare function becomes a contentious issue.

Can Schools Arbitrarily Hike Fees?

The constitutional basis for regulating the fees charged by private schools was considered by the Supreme Court in T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka (2002).The Supreme Court held that “regulatory measures imposed on private schools must ensure the maintenance of proper academic standards, atmosphere and infrastructure and the prevent maladministration”.

Recently Supreme Court ruled that any private school in Delhi running on land allotted by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has to take the permission of the Delhi government before hiking the fees.

While private schools have the autonomy to generate surplus, there has to be a balance between autonomy of such institutions and the measures taken to prevent commercialization of education.

How did different states respond to private schools arbitarily charging exorbitant fee?

Several state governments have either enacted fee regulation laws or are in the process of framing one.

Tamil Nadu follows the fee fixation model whereby a government committee is empowered to verify and approve fee structures proposed by private schools.

Karnataka is for a formula that caps fees for schools by way of framing rules under its school education legislation.

Maharashtra has a weakly enforced legislation to regulate fees and has multiple government bodies to approve school fees. Recently, the Maharashtra government’s decision to cap proposed fee hikes at 15% was widely criticised by schools.

The Self-Financed Independent Schools Act 2017 of Andhra Pradesh, which encourages private schools to open, gives them freedom of admission and fees, and removes corruption from board affiliation.

In Kolkata, about 5,500 Government-aided schools have been brought under the direct control of the State Government.

Public Concern

Different state models to curb fee hike menace are affected by the challenges of weak implementation, a lack of capacity and constant legal challenges posed by private school associations. According to the CAG report, it is found that many private schools collect money from parents under false heads, while at the same time, teachers are being underpaid, and accounts misrepresented. Existing legislative efforts have made an incomplete assessment of the deeper problems with financial management and accounting practices adopted by private schools.

An Effective Policy

There needs to be a jurisprudential clarity on what private schools can or cannot do, how much 'surplus' they can make, or what 'commercialisation' actually means.

The state should clearly articulate the objectives behind regulating fee. It must be acknowledged that schools are free to set their fee structure and the state can only verify whether the fee charged is reasonable and does not amount to profiteering.

There is a need for transparency in private school finances. For instance, we can add a requirement for extensive disclosure on each school’s website giving all fees, staff qualifications, details of infrastructure, strengths and weaknesses for parent to know before selecting a school.

The measures such as regular government supervised audits, generating capacity in State-level Departments of Education, regular inspections, and stricter sanctions for fraudulent reporting could be considered.

A fee hike should be used for improving the quality of education and not for profiteering.

It is also crucial that a regulation strikes a balance between protecting the interests of students and parents, and preserving the autonomy of schools.

The efforts should continue and state must come up with at least a fee framework that can be implemented by both the government aided schools and the unaided private schools. That is the least they can do. Ironically there is no framework, which in turn leads the schools to decide their own fee structure over which the parents have absolutely no control.

This transparency will ensure an end to financial malpractices. And while governments should remain regulators, they need to remember that this is not a long-term solution. The problem of an acute mismatch between demand and supply of schools has happened because the government has not been able to fulfil its role of providing high quality education. And while regulation and efforts at transparency should continue — governments across the country need to pull up their socks and improve public schools. If high quality is available free of cost, why would anyone pay exorbitant fees for the same?

Author is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India. 

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