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Education, at what price?

mumbai Updated: Sep 30, 2010 00:24 IST
Bhavya Dore

This year, Shefali Prasad began the year at a new school, Rajhans Vidyalaya, in Andheri (W). She would have been at Vibgyor High School in Goregaon, but an ongoing tussle between parents, of whom her mother was one, and the school, led to her parents withdrawing her from Vibgyor.

“There was no value for money in the education they offered,” said her mother Sanjita. Rustom Kerawala, a trustee of the school, declined to comment.

Parents of Vibgyor students first took the school to court in 2008 when the management raised the fees from Rs 55,000 to Rs 82,000. “But we felt it wasn’t worth more than Rs 25,000,” said Prasad. The Vibgyor case is one of the most publicised, but not the only case of fee hikes raising the hackles of parents and pitting them head-on against school managements. (See box below for list of disputes.)

In its order on September 1, the Bombay High Court ruled that the government could not regulate school fees through administrative orders, but would have to bring in an act to be able to do this. Other states have such an act, has been the chorus from parents and activists, so why can’t ours?

“Even though the act was challenged in Tamil Nadu, the state won in the Supreme Court,” said Arundhati Chavan, chairperson of the Parent-Teacher Association United Forum, who is in the process of a comparative cross-state study of the fee issue and the law. “A government resolution can be challenged but it is more difficult to do so with an act.”

Parents and activists are now diverting their energies towards ensuring that such an act becomes a reality. Various Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) from across the state have begun approaching local MLAs about bringing up such a bill in the next assembly session, in winter.

Fee hikes have been a continuing controversy in city schools, one that has reached a fever pitch in the past year. The issue has dragged on, with the government flip-flopping on the matter. It first issued an order freezing all hikes, then revoked this, then allowed schools to increase fees, and in its latest GR hailed as “parent friendly” asked schools to be transparent about their accounts and allowed them to earn no surplus on expenses. But the court ruling undid all that. (See chronology).

But the issue is also bringing parents together in a momentous way. Earlier this week, on Monday and Tuesday, parents and NGOs protested by boycotting schools in Kharghar, several of who even faced police detention. Political parties have also thrown their heft behind the protest.

“Schools in Navi Mumbai have hiked the fees the most, so we started with our protest here,” said M.S. Deshmukh, president of the Students’ Welfare Association, a non-profit group. “It’s a protest against the government’s failure to act. Parents are at the mercy of managements; we want an act in place.”

Panvel is the next target for a school boycott. Curiously though, no parents have complained about schools hiking their fees since the September 1 court order that effectively gives schools the licence to do so.

School managements point out that it is precisely this failure to raise fees as a knee-jerk reaction to the judgement, that suggests they do so within reason.

“It’s a kind of media-generated fear that makes parents panicky,” said Rohan Bhat, chairperson of the Children’s Academy group of schools. “Schools hike their fees when necessary and in consultation with parents.”

Managements are also quick to point out that it’s a few bad apples that earn private educational institutions as a whole a bad name. “There are schools run by politicians that might be involved in making money but there are also schools run by philanthropic trusts,” said Jiten Mody, chairperson of Kapol Vidyanidhi International School in Kandivli. “Such schools must put back money earned into the school’s development – it’s a service, not a business.”