Education News

Delhi: Annual confrontation

Like a hardy annual ritual, the higher tuition fees issue has returned to haunt school mana-gements and parents alike in India’s national capital. Last April, the generous award of the Sixth Pay Commission (2008) which jacked up the pay packages of government school teachers by 40 percent (with retros-pective effect from January 2006), obliged the capital’s top private schools to follow suit and hike tuition fees commensurately, and provoked a storm of protests and litigation. On August 7 last year, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of the Delhi state government to regulate the tuition and other fees of unaided private schools under the Delhi School Education Act, 1973. Although the court’s judgement didn’t rule out the right of school managements to raise tuition fees, it held that prior approval of the state government is necessary.

On the eve of the commencement of the new academic year, perhaps in anticipation of a flood of applications from private unaided schools to approve higher tuition fees in an inflationary environment, on April 16 the state government issued a circular making it mandatory for school managements to get prior clearance of fee hikes from their parents’ associations.

While parents associations welcomed the circular, school managements were quick to find fault with the directive. “The circular is ridiculous since every school’s management committee has a parent and government nominee. Therefore when a school issues a tuition fees increase notice, government and parents are a party to it,” says R.C. Jain, president of the Delhi State Public Schools Managements Association.

Meanwhile, the All India Parents Association led by militant lawyer-activist Ashok Agarwal, who has accessed the balance sheets of several schools which show comfortable surpluses, has made the data the basis for filing yet another petition in the Delhi high court challenging the constitutional validity of a 11.02.2009 circular of the director of education of the Delhi state government permitting unaided recognised private schools to hike tuition and development fees with retrospective effect from January 1, 2006. “It is submitted that the circular is illegal, unconstitutional, irrational, discriminatory, arbitrary, unjust and violative of Articles 14, 21, 21-A and 38 of the Constitution of India read together with the high court’s judgement in Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh v. Union of India and Others (AIR 1999 Delhi 124), in which the division bench laid down the criteria according to which fees should be determined by unaided recognised private schools,” says Agarwal. The petition is scheduled for hearing on May 21.

According to Jain, the recurring arguments about tuition fees increase can be put to rest by amending s.10 of the Delhi School Education Act, 1973 which mandates teachers’ pay parity between government and private schools. “It’s the obligation of private school managements to pay their teachers government scales that has made the fees issue ugly. While government gets money from taxes, cess and other sources, for private schools the only income is from tuition fees which have to be increased to meet the bigger wage bills. If this pay parity provision is repealed, it would be a big relief and we won’t need to raise tuition fees substantially,” says Jain who is confident that better pay scales of government schools aren’t likely to attract private school teachers.

Quite clearly, there is considerable merit in Jain’s plea for the teachers’ pay parity provision to be removed from the Delhi School Education Act. Because the right to determine faculty remuneration is inherent in the right of minority education institutions — a right expanded to cover all private unaided education institutions by a full-bench of the Supreme Court in T.M.A. Pai vs. Union of India (2002) — under Article 30(1) of the Constitution to ‘administer’ themselves. Indeed there’s a good case for the Delhi State Public Schools Management Association to file a writ questioning the constitutional validity of s.10 of the Delhi School Education Act.

Moreover the petition should also pray for further judicial clarification of the right of private unaided schools to determine their admission processes and tuition fees as mandated by the apex court in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation (2002) and Islamic Academy (2003) judgements. Unless such clarification is forthcoming, the annual confrontation between the subsidies-addicted Indian middle class (unwilling to avail free government provided education) and private school managements will flare up on the eve of every new academic year.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)