Supreme Court says States cannot impinge on autonomy of private unaided schools

SC verdict in plea against Rajasthan govt. directive to reduce fee in view of pandemic

The Supreme Court on Monday held that States cannot impinge on the autonomy of private unaided schools to fix and collect ‘just’ and ‘permissible’ school fees from parents, especially in the name of the pandemic.

“It is one thing to say the State may regulate the fee structure of private unaided schools to ensure that the school management does not indulge in profiteering and commercialisation, but in the guise of exercise of that power, it cannot transcend the line of regulation and impinge upon the autonomy of the school to fix and collect ‘just’ and ‘permissible’ school fees from its students,” a Bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari said in a 128-page judgment.

The judgment, which would help schools retain their autonomy in deciding their fee structure, came on the basis of a series of appeals filed by private unaided schools in Rajasthan against government notifications to defer collection of fees, including reduction limited to 70% of tuition fees by schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education and 60% from the schools affiliated to the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education, in view of the reduction of syllabus by the respective Boards due to the aftermath of the pandemic (lockdown) from March 2020.

The managements contended that none of the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 or the Rajasthan Epidemic Diseases Act, 2020 or the Rajasthan Schools (Regulation of Fee) Act, authorised the State to reduce the quantum of fees to be collected by the private schools.

The State countered it was only taking care of the interests of the parents under the 2005 Act.

The court however agreed with the school managements that States do not have any authority under the 2005 Act to direct changes in the fee structure because of COVID-19.

“The determination of school fee structure [which includes reduction of fixed fee for the relevant period] is the exclusive prerogative of the school management running a private unaided school, it is not open to the Legislature to make a law touching upon that aspect except to provide statutory mechanism to regulate fees for ensuring that it does not result in profiteering and commercialisation by the school management,” the judgment noted.

Justice Khanwilkar, who authored the verdict for the Bench, noted that it was a different matter, if as a policy, the State government takes the responsibility to subsidise the fees of students of private unaided schools, but the State cannot arrogate power to itself much less to issue directions [to managements to collect reduced fee for the academic year concerned]”.

The judgment concerns around 36,000 private unaided schools, including 220 minority private unaided schools, in Rajasthan.


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