KARACHI: The Sindh High Court (SHC) ruled on Monday that private schools would not increase tuition fee beyond the 5% permissible under the law.
A two-judge bench, comprising justices Munib Akhtar and Arshan Hussain Khan, also ordered the education department to strictly act in accordance with the law and submit quarterly reports to the court in respect of the registered private schools' audit as well as enforcement of the 5% rule.
The ruling came on a set of petitions filed by the parents of more than 400 students against the 15 to 20% increases in the fee, with the management of four private schools - The Generations School, Foundation Public School, Beaconhouse School System and Head Start School - defending the fee hike.
Earlier, the court had on October 8, 2016 nullified arbitrary and exorbitant fee hikes by some private educational institutes in the city and restrained them from raising it again beyond 5%.
In the latest case, the parents had argued that the fee increase was in violation of the Sindh Private Educational Institutions (Regulation and Control) Ordinances of 2003 and 2015, as under Section 6 of the law, the fee structure must be fixed with prior approval of the government.
Parents protest against fee hike by private schools
They alleged that private educational institutions were unusually enhancing the school fees as and when they deemed convenient and the government's regulatory mechanism, the education department, had not come forward to check. They alleged that the education department had thereby failed to perform their legal and constitutional obligations.
On the hand, the counsels for the schools vehemently challenged the legislation in which schools were barred from escalating their fee from 5% within an academic year.
The schools' management defended the fee hike, arguing that the cost of running and operating private schools largely depended on the facilities provided and expertise of teachers, with increasing cost of utilities and taxes coupled with the fact that private schools were being treated as industrial and commercial entities and taxed accordingly.
Parents demand end to fee hike for private schools
On the contrary, the petitioners alleged that the private schools were charging astronomical admission fees, random demands of money for school projects, sale of books, bags, uniforms and others items either sold at higher prices by the schools themselves or through certain specific outlets seemingly having some sort of alliance with the schools' management.
The court order said, "With regard ultra vires of sub-rule 7(3) as stated in the foregoing, the grievance of the schools is not on the mechanism of such an increase, rather it is on the quantum of such an increase, thus the question is about the determination of this percentile which requires taking into consideration many factors, such as cost of doing business, minimum salaries payable, taxes, cost of utilities etc, requiring consideration of facts and taking of evidence, which is beyond the scope of the writ jurisdiction as being agitated by the private schools in the present petitions."
As such no illegality has shown that the sub-rule is inherently violative of Article 25 of the Constitution, thus such petitions of the schools are dismissed, the order read.
Regarding the arbitrary increases in fees by private schools, the judges ruled. "It is evident from the [on]going discussion that the current mechanism provided for in the form of the said Ordinance and rules though looks glossy, however, is the loggerhead position of parents against the schools and vice versa is a clear depiction of the fact that private schools are not following the said mechanism and there is no compulsion on these to do so from the department."
The judges noted that it is painful to note that no statement has been provided by the education department as to its receipt of each year's audited accounts report from private schools and its enforcement of the restricted 5% increase of the tuition fees.
They ordered that the department to strictly act in accordance with the law and ensure compliance of the rules and regulations and submit quarterly reports to this court in respect of the audit and 5% rule.
The bench allowed petitions filed by the parents and students and said that private schools will only increase tuition fees no more than 5% per annum from the date of their registration for three years and in case there has been no re-registration after the said period of three years, fees will not be increased unless the school re-registers itself.
It ruled that no further enhancement will be permitted until the re-registration of the respondent schools which had increased their tuition fees over 5% per annum for the last three years from the date of their respective registration/re-registration.
The SHC bench paid tribute to senior lawyer and noted human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, who had assisted the court in litigation before she passed away on February 11. "She was an indomitable spirit and an indefatigable defender and champion of the rule of law," wrote the judges. "Her absence will be long felt in the public arena and in courts all over the country, including this court."