When schools decided to move classes online in April 2020 in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, Parthiv Gupta had no inkling that things would worsen over the next few weeks.
Gupta, who is at a mid-level position at an advertising firm in Indore, had to take a 50 percent pay cut from May onwards. Even as he was trying to calculate how to manage his finances, his son’s school sought the full-year fee of Rs 2 lakh within a week.
Since there was a delay in payment, Gupta’s son was locked out of the class more than four times. In fact, once the teacher even sought clarification from the 11-year-old about when his parents would pay the fee.
Gupta, finally, borrowed some money from his relatives and settled the issue. He doesn’t want to name the school for fear of retaliation.
The story is the same across India. On one side, parents are protesting fee hikes and demanding waivers, on the other, schools are not offering special discounts, saying classes are still being held and teachers have to be given salaries.
The Union HRD ministry is yet to throw some clarity on the list of inclusions and exclusions in fee for the academic year 2020 -21. MHRD has only asked schools to be considerate and avoid fee hikes this academic year.
S Kapoor, the father of a student at Mumbai’s Oberoi International School, said that there should be a complete refund since no physical classes are held. Kapoor has paid upwards of Rs 3 lakh for this year.
“It is almost two months since the school is shut. We did get some token refund, but a proper calculation should be done and future fees adjusted,” he said.
Oberoi International School spokesperson said that the school management has deferred and staggered the schedule for the payment of tuition fees for the academic year 2020-21.
The spokesperson added that the changed schedule will have fees payable in four installments instead of the earlier two.
"We are also mindful of fees collected in the last academic year for services not rendered, and have passed on savings in lunch fees, bus fees and fees of after-school activities to the parents," said the school.
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On an average, the yearly pay for a secondary school teacher would range between Rs 3.5 lakh and Rs 6 lakh. At international schools, it could even go upto Rs 35 lakh.
The parents’ side of the story
Parents of students at VIBGYOR Group of Schools want the institution to revoke the 8-10 percent fee hike and restructure it owing to salary cuts and job losses due to the pandemic.
The VIBGYOR Group spokesperson told Moneycontrol that the hike decision was taken in February 2020, when there was no pandemic.
Maninder Singh, the parent of a VIBGYOR school student in Mumbai, admitted that. Then, he argues: “This is the not the regular school hours but a shortened version. If we had agreed to the fee hike earlier, that was not for online classes. Some consideration must be given by the school.”
The Group spokesperson added: “The original timeline for payment was early April. We have subsequently revised the date several times to allow parents greater flexibility. Currently, it is August 1, 2020.”
Further, the institution has rolled out the EduBridge Scholarship Programme (a form of fee waiver) in May 2020, which provides financial assistance to salaried class parents who have been affected by pay cuts or loss of employment, he explained.
As per the spokesperson, most eligible applicants (even non-salaried parents) have been approved for this waiver and have received adjustments amounting to two-quarter fee payments, on an average (maximum of three-quarter fee waiver). The school said that it is not forcing any student to pay fees.
In another instance, Ryan International School Navi in Mumbai removed a child from online classes.
Ryan International Group spokesperson of told Moneycontrol that the institution learnt about one student who could not attend one specific class, but added that this was due to a local issue at the school and was resolved immediately.
“We have partnered with GrayQuest to provide an EMI option to parents where the entire interest cost is being borne by the school. We have activated this pilot phase with a limited set of parents now. We will extend it to the rest soon,” said the school spokesperson.
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In some cases, parents have started protests on the street, leading to police intervention.
On July 21, parents of St Andrews School in Secunderabad, clashed with the police after they attempted to stop the protest against an alleged fee hike. The police reached the spot after a complaint from the school.
The protesting parents claimed that the school management denied online class access to their children for non-payment of fees and demanded re-admission.
The school could not be reached by Moneycontrol despite repeated attempts.
State governments’ views
Several state governments like Delhi, Gujarat, Telangana, Maharashtra and West Bengal have told schools to not hike fees for the 2020-21 academic sessions. Schools have also been prohibited from removing students from online classes.
These states have also asked schools to not arbitrarily charge for expenses like library and transport and have warned of penal action.
These directives haven’t gone well across several schools. The Gujarat school education department said in a July 16 resolution that private schools can neither charge any fee nor hike tuition fee till the time physical classes don’t resume.
Self-financed private schools in the state were in a quandary and almost 12,000 schools stopped online classes.
“The government resolution is not acceptable. Aren’t we conducting online classes? Who will pay for the costs? So we have decided that all self-funded schools will stop all online classes from July 23 till the GR is withdrawn,” said the principal of a Surat-based school.
The sudden decision by the schools has left students in the lurch since the academic lessons would get hit.
Legal decision on fee payment matter
There was a perception that schools are legally prohibited from debarring students from online classes. However, the order given by Delhi High Court in a case pertaining to Queen Mary’s School, Northend, Delhi, showed that this may not be the case.
This case pertained to the school filing a case against a Delhi government circular. The Aam Aadmi Party government had, in an April 2020 circular, said that even if parents are not able to pay fees due to the COVID-19 financial crisis, no student can be denied the ID and password for getting online access.
The school, in its plea, said that taking unfair advantage of the above clause, 40 percent students are defaulting payment of tuition fee, resulting in a grave financial crisis to the school.
Justice Jayant Nath, in the July 8 order, said that where parents are defaulting tuition fee payment for more than two months, the school is ‘free to issue an appropriate notice’ to seek reasons for the delay.
In case, parents are able to convince the school about their financial inability, no action should be taken, the order said. But if the parents are unable to ‘satisfy’ the school about their financial difficulties, the school can communicate the same to the parents and decline students the ID and password.
The Delhi HC will hear the matter next in August 2020. If parents have any grievance against such an order passed by the school, they can approach the Delhi government, Justice Nath said in the order.
Cost reduction for schools due to the pandemic
While there is a belief that schools are only incurring one-fourth of the actual costs for online classes, that alone cannot be a justification for non-payment of fees.
“There seems to be a perception that schools are taking all the money and keeping it in their coffers. This is incorrect. We are incurring high costs, especially since digital infrastructure costs money,” said Kolkata-based school principal Abhijit Dwivedi.
While school infrastructure costs like electricity, administrative supply like pen/paper/stationery are saved, regular education costs of classes and conducting exams are still there, he said.
“Typically, schools incur Rs 2 crore- Rs 3 crore per annum for expenses like salaries and infrastructure. Even if electricity, water and office supplies are subtracted, we are not saving much in 2020. This is because schools across India have been forced to hire technical support for online lessons and also offer specialised training for teachers. It is a myth that we are overcharging parents during lockdown,” he added.
Queen Mary’s School, Northend, Delhi, had, in its petition, argued that the school is struggling to pay the salaries of the staff and the teachers due to non-payment of fees.
The spokesperson of Ryan International Group of Institutions said that while there are some reductions in fuel and maintenance costs, this has been more than offset because of the additional technology costs like licence costs, equipment and bandwidth.