India is going through its worst economic crisis in a century. Over 12 crore Indians have lost their jobs. According to a survey, nearly 84% of households have suffered a loss in monthly income.
For a family with a single earning member, the average expenditure on private schooling (for two children), constitutes 20% of household income (NSSO 2014). At a time when parents are reeling from salary cuts or job loss, the pressure to pay hiked school fees has made things worse.
Parents Exploited By Private Schools During COVID-19 Crisis
To offer relief to parents, notifications regarding private school fee payments have been issued by 13 states which include Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Some of the key features of these guidelines include:
- Private schools are allowed to collect only tuition fees.
- No hike in fees allowed.
- No advance fees to be collected.
In addition, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has also issued a notification (F. No. NCPCR/2020-21/SF/EDU) advising states to devise solutions such that the best interests of the child are met and to ensure that no child is harassed by the school for non-payment of fees.
Despite these notifications, reports have emerged of private schools across India hiking their fees for the next academic year. There are also stories of schools barring students from attending online classes due to non-payment of fees.
In Haryana, there are reports of schools cutting students' names off the rolls for not paying fees. In Hyderabad, schools have not just increased school fees but have levied a penalty of INR 100 per day on non-payment. Even with schools closed and notifications restricting the collection of any additional fees, beyond tuition fees, reports have emerged of parents being asked to pay up to INR 10,000 for quarterly bus charges alone.
Failure Of Regulation
In a survey of over 38,000 parents, 83% said that state governments had failed to regulate fees of private schools.
With little support from the government in enforcing the regulation, parents have been forced to take matters into their own hands. There have been protests in Jaipur, Mumbai, Ludhiana and various other cities against fee hikes and against schools demanding advance fees.
Parents have also started an online petition to the Prime Minister, requesting for a law to regulate school fees. The petition on Change.org had over 250,000 signatures as on June 25.
However, none of this is new. Cases of arbitrary fee hikes and overcharging have been going on for a while.
Back in 2009, Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh and other parent groups petitioned the high court to review the issue of fee hikes by private schools. A panel formed by the High Court found that 621 schools had hiked fees unjustifiably and were ordered to pay back the fees to parents along with 9% interest. It is estimated that these private schools owed parents over INR 350 crores, in lieu of fees unduly collected.
On paper, 15 states have legislation which defines a process for regulating the fee hike. However, in only four states parents have a role to play in fee regulation.
For instance, in Maharashtra, fee hikes have to be approved by the Parent-Teacher Association. Even once approved by the PTA, if (at least) 25% of parents oppose the hike, they can approach the Fee Revision Committee. There is a need for parents to have a greater voice in fixing fees and regulating fee hikes.
However, issues with fees are just the tip of the iceberg. Private schools openly hold screening processes such as interviews and admissions, which is forbidden by the Right to Education Act.
It is also common-place for parents in private schools to be coerced into buying supplies such as textbooks and uniforms from a specified vendor despite the fact that private school regulations in multiple states make it a punishable offence.
What Can Be Done?
The first step would be better enforcement of existing regulations at the state level. This would involve putting in place effective grievance redress mechanisms to allow parents to voice their concerns and grievances with private schools.
In addition, there is a need to increase parental voice in private school decision-making.
Currently, only four states (Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Uttar Pradesh) have regulations that make it compulsory for private schools to form Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs).
All states across India should put in place regulations to make it compulsory for all private schools to form PTAs. Care should be taken that these PTAs are representative and have a genuine voice in school decision-making, including but not restricted to decisions around fee hikes.
Lastly, there is an urgent need for the development and enforcement of a comprehensive, regulatory framework for private schools that covers all aspects of private school functioning.
The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to be felt over the next few years, particularly in terms of job cuts and a reduction in income across the board. This increases the urgency to regulate private schools so that they become institutions of learning rather than centres of exploitation and loot.
Oxfam India is running a campaign #RightsOverProfits to put a stop to overcharging and profiteering by private schools. It is a burden on people, especially when nearly 12 crore people in India have lost their jobs to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Raise your voice for what is right. Sign in the petition here.