The SC did well to protect the autonomy of the private schools. But, by asking them to cut fees for services not utilised, it has thrown private schools into uncharted waters.
The Supreme Court directing private schools in Rajasthan to reduce fees by 15% since certain facilities that were available for use to students before the pandemic can no longer be utilised will open the floodgates for similar demands elsewhere; indeed, a demand to reduce fees by 50% is already being raised in Maharashtra following this. To be sure, the apex court has struck down a Rajasthan government order to private schools affiliated to CBSE and the state board to reduce tuition fees by as much as 30-40% because the two boards had trimmed the syllabus for the academic year 2020-21. The Rajasthan governent had further prohibited the schools from charging under fee-heads such as laboratory, sports & games, extra-curricular activities, etc, and a raft other school-services that a student would have ordinarily availed of but can’t utilise in the current scenario. The SC did well to protect the autonomy of the private schools. But, by asking them to cut fees for services not utilised, it has thrown private schools into uncharted waters.
While the apex court noted that, with schools closed for over a year now, running and overhead costs of maintenance would have come down, schools have had to train teachers for online teaching, generate online teaching material, buy software subscriptions to prop the IT infrastructure needed for conducting classes online. Many have also maintained support staff, including blue-collar workers, whose functions are only possible in the brick&mortar setting. Moreover, the courts and the states need to keep in mind that the question is not merely of present costs but of sustaining delivery over the long term. Private schools, especially budget private schools, are bridging gaps left by the poor state of public education. In Rajasthan, for instance, unaided private schools comprise nearly a third of all schools and account for close to 50% of the students enrolled in schools in the state, as per the Centre for Civil Society (CCS). And, in 2018, nearly 95% of the private schools in Rajasthan were charging a lower amount than the government’s per-pupil expenditure (PPE) in its own schools—the government’s monthly PPE was 4.3 times the median monthly private school fee in the state. Against this backdrop, any kind of clamping down on fees could render it unfeasible for many schools to continue operations, harming students in the process. Besides, many schools across the country have voluntarily cut fees; the decision on reductions—further or first-time—should be left to the schools.
It is hard to read the trend of growing private school enrolment, especially budget private school enrolment, as anything other than poor households putting a premium on the quality of education. Against such a backdrop, if states were to focus on setting up more schools and easing access to digital/online learning among the poor households, whom fee-reduction moves benefit, households most impacted by out-of-pocket expenditure on education could have an alternative and dispense with the need to control or cap fees.