All schools are entitled to collect tuition fee, regardless of whether they offered online classes or not during COVID-19 Lockdown: Punjab and Haryana Highcourt

The Punjab and Haryana High Court today held that all schools are entitled to collect the tuition fee, irrespective whether they had offered online classes during the COVID-19 lockdown period or not (Independent Schools’ Association Chandigarh (Regd.)& others v. State of Punjab and others.)

Justice Nirmaljit Kaur, however, added that schools should “continue to endeavour and impart online/distance learning so that education is not adversely impacted due to the present or future lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19.”“[The] direction to the privately unaided Institutions who are not giving online classes not to charge tuition fee for the concerned period is definitely discriminatory and arbitrary.”the Court said.

The Court on Tuesday issued the following clarificatory directions with respect to levying of school fees:

  • Schools are permitted to collect their admission fee, henceforth, since the COVID-19 lockdown has now been lifted. Earlier the date to pay the admission fee had been deferred by the Government to a month after the pandemic conditions improve. “To remove all confusions, the schools should be allowed to recover their admission fee now that the lock-down stands lifted on 08.06.2020 to a great degree”, the High Court said.
  • All schools, irrespective whether they offered online classes during the lockdown period or not, are entitled to collect the tuition fee.
  • Schools will continue to endeavour and impart online/ distance learning so that education is not adversely impacted due to the present or future lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19.
  • The school management of each schools shall work out their actual expenditure incurred under the annual charges for the period the school remained closed. Schools shall recover only such genuine expenditure incurred by them, including actual transport charges and actual building charges, but shall not recover any charge for this period for any activity or facility towards which no expenditure was incurred. The annual charges for the remaining period shall be recovered as already fixed by the school;
  • The schools shall restrain themselves from increasing the fee for the year 2020-21 and adopt the same fee structure as of 2019- 20.

Responding to grievances raised by parents on the levying of schools fees during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Court also issued the following directions:

  • Any parent not able to pay the school fee may file their application with proof about their financial status to be looked into by the school- authority.
  • After looking into it sympathetically, the school give concession or exempt the entire fee, as the case may be.
  • In case the parent is still aggrieved, in any manner, with an adverse decision by the school on his application, he may approach the Regulatory Body, so constituted under Section 7 of the Punjab Regulation of fee of Un-aided Educational Institutions Act, 2016.
  • No parent shall misuse the concession by laying a false claim.
  • Section 7 of the Punjab Regulation of Fee of Un-aided Educational Institutions Act, 2016 is already in place for looking into the complaints of the parents or guardians with regard to charging of any excessive fee or to do any other activity with the motive to give financial benefit or profit.
  • The parents are at liberty to take recourse to the same and, therefore, no specific direction is required to be given by this Court separately.
  • In case any school is facing a financial crunch for not having charged the increased fee for the year 2020-21, it may move a representation to the District Education Officer along with its proof of the same.
  • The DSE shall look into it and pass appropriate orders within three weeks of the receipt of such an application. However, this may be exercised only in a very hard case where the school is facing financial crunch and has no reserved resources to meet the expenses.

The Court was dealing with a batch of pleas, including by Associations of unaided private schools and parents of school students, filed in the wake of a May 14 notification by the Director, School Education.

The May 14 notification directed, inter alia, that

  • Schools shall not charge any fee for the period of lockdown/curfew, excluding the period of summer break.
  • However, those schools who have provided or are providing online education during the period of lockdown, may charge ‘tuition fee’ only, i.e. fee other than building charges, transportation charges, charges for meals, etc.
  • Private schools are advised not the impose any increase in school fees in 2020-21 over those charged in 2019-20.; and
  • School management should not resort to removal of any teacher or reduction in the monthly salary or total emoluments of teaching/non-teaching staff.

Today, the Court held that it was arbitrary to bar schools that are not conducting online classes from collecting tuition fee, given that there are various expenses being incurred by schools even when classes are not conducted. The judgment notes,

“It is not disputed that even if schools do not provide online education, the schools are still required to meet the expenses, i.e. Full salary of the teachers and non-teaching staff as well as building, electricity expenses etc.. The schools that are not giving online classes are not exempted from paying the salary of its teaching and non-teaching staff.”

“Hence, there is no rational in laying down such a classification especially when the obligations and basic expenses of all private un-aided schools remain the same irrespective of whether they are conducting online classes or not. In these circumstances, there cannot be a separate direction for the schools who are not offering online classes.”Punjab and Haryana High Court

Addressing pleas by parents against the collection of fees, the Court also added that schools may now have to incur additional expenditure in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This would go towards sanitisation measures, steps to maintain social distancing norms once schools reopen, investment in technology to provide online education etc.

In light of this, the necessity to charge complete fees from the parents of the students, that too in a timely manner, becomes vital”, the Court said.

Justice Kaur acknowledged that the grievances of the parents that they should not be made to pay for services which have not been rendered “may be a reasonable complaint.”

However, she added that “the parents have forgotten” that school staff and teachers have to be continuously paid the salary during this lockdown period, apart from the expenses to maintain school infrastructure for when they reopen.

Furthermore, the Judge also pointed out that the parent petitioners had failed to show that they were actually strained financially to pay the fee sought by the schools.

Even before this Court, there is no mention of the financial status of the concerned parents, no details of the income and assets is forthcoming. Moreover, the direction not to increase the fee for the 2020-21 in itself is a big relief and a heavy concession“, the Court observed.

The Court added that with respect to parents who are genuinely not in a position to pay the total fee, the May 14 notification has already advised school managements to “sympathetically consider the cases of students whose parents livelihoods may have been adversely impacted due to the lockdown, for fee waiver/concession and that no child may be denied access to education (online or regular) on non-payment of fee.

In the interest of balancing the interests of schools and parents, the Court, however, emphasised that in collecting annual charges by schools, only the actual expenditure incurred must be collected by the schools. “It and shall not recover any charges for this period for any co-curricular activity towards which no expenditure was incurred”, the Court said.

Published by Sneha Vishwakarma

Advocate, Bombay High court.

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