On August 7, the Supreme Court rejected a petition of the Delhi-based Action Committee of Unaided Private Schools for a review of the apex court’s judgement passed in 2004, upholding the right of the Delhi state government to regulate the tuition and other fees of unaided private schools under the Delhi Education Act, 1973. Although the court’s judgement has not ruled out the right of school managements to hike tuition fees, prior approval of the state government’s department of education is now mandatory.
This verdict has dismayed promoters and managements not only of Delhi’s 1,976 registered private schools but also of the country’s 8,000-10,000 upscale independent primary-secondaries rapidly gearing up to provide globally benchmarked ICT (information communication technologies)-intensive education to their students. In the August 7 verdict, the apex court distinguished and further clarified its historic judge-ments in the landmark T.M.A. Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnataka (2002) and P.A. Inamdar’s Case (2005). In these two cases, full-strength benches of the Supreme Court had upheld the fundamental right of minorities to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” as mandated by Article 30 (1) of the Constitution, and extended it to all citizens. As a corollary, the court held that private unaided professional (medical, engineering etc) colleges have the right to administer their own admission processes and procedures, (provided they are based on merit) and to levy “reasonable” tuition fees without profiteering or extracting capitation fees.
However in between in the Islamic Academy Case (2003), a five judge bench mandated the establishment of admission and fees regulation committees headed by retired high court judges in every state to determine if admission processes and fees of professional colleges are fair and reasonable. It is under the ratio decidendi of the latter judgement that the apex court has upheld the right of the Delhi state government’s education department to regulate tuition fees levied by private unaided schools falling within the ambit of the Delhi Education Act, 1973.
“In this context it may be noted that in T.M.A. Pai Foundation and Islamic Academy the principles for fixing fee structures have been illustrated. However, they were not exhaustive. They did not deal with determination of surplus and appropriation of savings. Ultimately, Rule 177 (of the Delhi Education Act) seeks transparency and accountability and (our) further directions merely bring about that transparency,” said the court in its August 7 verdict.
Parents of children enroled in the national capital’s independent schools have been protesting “arbitrary” fee hikes by school managements under the banner Abibhavak Mahasangh (Parents Association) since 1997. In 1998, the Delhi high court upheld the powers of the education department to regulate tuition fees and ordered a committee to examine the extent to which private schools had complied with rule 177 of the DSE Act. The committee headed by retired high court judge Santosh Duggal held private schools guilty of not adhering to Rule 177 (transparency). The Action Committee of Unaided Private Schools challenged the high court verdict which was upheld by the apex court. The Action Committee appealed again with a review petition in 2004 which was disposed on August 7.
“This is a landmark judgement in the education history of this country. The honourable Supreme Court has brought in “accountability and transparency” relating to fee issues in the schooling system,” says Ashok Agarwal of the Abibhavak Mahasangh which initiated this legal battle against private school managements in 1997.
However independent school spokespersons refute the charge of lack of financial transparency. “Private schools are doing what the law demands by presenting audited accounts. They are always available for government to check. If the court and the Delhi government offer suggestions of how to further improve transparency, we’ll be happy to comply,” says S.L. Jain, chairman of the National Progressive Schools Conference and principal of Mahavir Senior Model School, Delhi.
Meanwhile at the short-sighted instigation of parents, government regulation of fees chargeable by private unaided schools has been conceded. The camel has entered its nose into the proverbial Bedouin’s tent.
Autar Nehru (Delhi)