Panel discussion on school fees: Is there middle ground?

The Karnataka government's directive to reduce fees in private schools led to a face-off between parents and school managements. Citizen Matters' panel discussion brought out the pain points.

Managements and teachers of private unaided schools across the state are protesting the state government’s decision to cut school fee by 30%. Parents of children studying in these schools wouldn’t, however, agree to any change in the government’s decision. While this deadlock continues, Citizen Matters held a online panel discussion with different stakeholders on March 5, to look at possible solutions.

The panel comprised Chaitra Rudresh who represented the parents’ group VOP (Voice of Parents), Sanjeev Narrain of RBANM’s Educational Charities, retired Additional Chief Secretary M Madan Gopal, and Kiran Prasad, core committee member of KAMS (Associated Managements of Primary and Secondary Schools in Karnataka). The panel discussed the current fee cut issue as well as the way forward for unaided schools.

Percentage of cut’s the issue: KAMS

Chaitra of VOP said that schools were refusing to implement the government order on fee cut. “Schools are saying they have not received the order and that they don’t want to implement it. Now they have gone to court.”

She clarified that parents were willing to pay fees, but it had to be “a legitimate amount based on the schools’ actual expenses this year.” Before the government order, when parents had tried to approach schools, they were treated poorly and not given appointments for meetings, she said.

Kiran of KAMS said the managements were not opposing the fee cut per se, but the percentage of fee cut and the arbitrary manner in which the 30% figure was arrived at.

“In October, school management associations and parents’ associations attended a meeting called by the education department. It was only a preliminary meeting to discuss the concession that could be offered to parents. Some schools said there should be no concession, some were okay with a 30% cut, and some others with a 20-25% cut. This was only a discussion, but the government came out with a decision to impose blanket 30% cut.” KAMS had agreed to a 20-25% fee cut then, said Kiran.

In addition to ordering the fee cut suddenly, government also set up a ‘Fee Dispute Committee’ which comprised three government officers, one parent and a school representative. Such a composition would not allow for a fair discussion when schools have to defend their fee structure, Kiran said.

However, Chaitra said that payment of even 70% of the fee was a burden on parents this year. “For online classes this year, parents have spent almost double of what they spend in a regular school year. They’ve had to arrange uninterrupted internet and power supply, gadgets like smartphones or laptops for online classes. How can managements still ask them to pay 100% fee?” she asked, while pointing out that many parents had lost their jobs.

Kiran said that he was representing only the budget/affordable school category, whose annual fee ranges between Rs 10,000 and Rs 1 lakh, with average fee coming to Rs 35,000-40,000.

“Only around half the parents have admitted children this year, and from them also we have received only a part of the fees. The 10th standard batch left school, but the new batch of kindergarten children did not come in. How is the school supposed to manage the show for the entire year with this money?”

Read more: What makes Bengaluru schools hike their fees?

Madan Gopal, who had served as Commissioner of Public Instruction and Education Secretary in Karnataka, said it was difficult to categorise schools as per their financial status since schools don’t release their balance sheets in the public domain.

“They don’t want people to know their receipts and expenditure. So, in the absence of this data, we have to take a call. Schools have not run libraries, swimming pools, laboratories, etc., this whole year. So the government said don’t collect the fees for those. So, the 30% fee cut is absolutely justified.”

He added that schools that disagree with the order should put up their balance sheets in the public domain. “Let there be an independent committee of auditors to look into these balance sheets, then let them give a recommendation to the government on the fee cut.”

(Government had previously passed orders mandating schools to put up their fee structure, audit reports, teaching resources, etc., on its SATS (Student Achievement Tracking System) website, but very few schools have complied.)

‘Fee committee’ suggested

Chaitra, Madan and Sanjeev pointed out that unaided schools come under a Trust or an educational society, which should not be a profit-making entity as per law.

Chaitra said that parents’ long-term goal is to have a fee committee that will fix fee amounts and also keep a check on schools that hike fees arbitrarily. “This model currently exists in Tamil Nadu. So I request the government to look into this. Currently there is a cap on fee increment, but schools don’t follow it,” she said.

Madan said parents were unwilling to file written complaints even as they complain verbally about schools levying huge capitation fees. He said the idea of a fee fixation committee could work, but only if there is a law to ensure that schools collect fees only by cheque. “Currently many unaided institutions are collecting fee as cash. Even if there’s a fee fixation committee, 60% fee may be collected as cash and the rest by cheque,” he said.

The business of schools

Madan and Sanjeev emphasised that education is a public good, and should not be treated as a marketable commodity. Sanjeev of RBANM’s Trust said that private schools had mushroomed because the government had washed its hands off the education sector.

“A majority of the so-called private schools are garage schools. They run in one room, without a playground or other facilities, unregulated. Parents can’t afford to send their kids to private schools, but do so hoping kids will get the education that they won’t otherwise get in a public school. And the private schools run as very profitable businesses.” Sanjeev said that RBANM, which runs both aided and unaided institutions, has supported parents who couldn’t pay fees this year.

Former Additional Chief Secretary M Madan Gopal said the government could set an example by taking over private schools that violate laws.

Madan said that the government should take over educational institutions that violate law by making profits. “If the fee collected is used for any commercial purpose or for acquiring any immobile assets, that’s a total violation. And the government has provision to take over such trusts and societies – take over some of them and set an example for other managements.”

He added that citizens should demand higher government investment in education as well, so that the public education system is strengthened.

Countering Madan, Kiran said that only 5% of private schools play truant and that action should be taken against them. But requiring schools to put balance sheets in the public domain is a tough ask, he said.

“That way, every citizen will have to make their IT returns accessible – how do I know a parent has got a pay cut? Many companies are under-declaring, why shouldn’t this become public? If you are applying the rule, let us clean up the entire country, why are you looking at one particular sector?” he asked.

Should govt support private schools?

While the government is imposing the fee cut on private schools, it has not given them any concession, Kiran pointed out. “Schools got no concession on property tax this year. The moratorium for EMI payment was not extended. Everyday I get calls from school managements that finance companies are seizing their vehicles or that the school site would get auctioned.”

While legacy schools with decades of history might have built up a corpus, many schools came up in the last 10-15 years, he said. “Building a corpus in 10-15 years is a herculean task because the school owner would have taken a loan to buy the site, for the capex cost, working capital expenses, etc. And we have to service all of this as part of a loan for the next 10-15 years.”

Read more: School fee issue: More questions than answers

Madan and Sanjeev agreed that the government should have supported private schools and given concessions this year. However, Sanjeev pointed out that the model that Kiran talked about is a ‘business model’.

“School managements taking loans, buying property, paying interests, etc., is a for-profit business model, but education is not a business. That’s where the root of the problem is. For anyone to set up a school, they should have resources, a funding corpus with donors – it should be a community-based project,” Sanjeev said.

As an alternative to the current scenario, Sanjeev suggested that the government support all private schools that meet certain criteria, and regulate these schools simultaneously.

“Government should not levy property tax on these schools. Subsidise other utilities also for them, lease them the plot for a notional amount, pay teachers’ salaries, etc., since the school is providing a public service. Then the school owner wouldn’t have to invest borrowed money, pay teachers, etc. But government should also ensure that the fee in these schools is regulated, a certain infrastructure is in place, and that the management doesn’t make profits. So the state has to get its act together,” he said.

The panelists also discussed pay cuts and job losses among school teachers. Kiran said that teachers have faced up to 50-75% salary cut. “We had asked the government to work on a medical insurance policy for teachers, give them vaccination, provide them food kits during lockdown, etc., but the government didn’t respond.

Managements have been trying to support teachers, even by raising loans in some cases, he said. However, Madan pointed out that state government had brought laws on minimum wages for teachers, recruitment process, etc., 10 years ago, but that many managements have not been following these.

Watch the full discussion below:

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