By Prof Mathew C Ninan
Jun 19: Schools are closed now. Children must be protected from the corona pandemic at any cost. All of us hope to see children back in schools at the earliest. After all what’s a School without children? But the schools need to survive to educate children, post-corona. Our teachers also need to survive till then and thereafter. We should have this larger picture in our mind when talking about schools, during this interregnum.
Private schools again are in the eye of the storm, for collecting fees from the parents. In fact the Government has allowed schools to collect fees from the ‘well-to-do’ parents, exerting no compulsion on any parent. The fee thus collected is to be utilised to pay the salaries of their teachers. Who defines the ‘well-to-do’ parents? How many will pay if they are given a choice not to pay? How will schools manage when their incomes plummet in such a scenario? There are a few questions that beg for an answer.
The Prime Minister announced that salaries should not be stopped and lay-offs should not happen. They are laudable considerations, no doubt. But the State Govt has made things difficult by giving the option to parents. It went a step further and said parents who are aggrieved can complain to the authorities. This is almost an invitation not to pay and if necessary harass the schools.
Now how will schools pay salaries to their teaching and non-teaching staff, and meet all their maintenance costs? A school needs money to keep it going, whether it’s open or closed. There are many bills, taxes and statutory obligations to take care of. They have their ongoing infrastructural projects and their costs. How will the schools manage them? Who will understand the plight of the hapless schools? The government proposed that tuition fees should not be raised for the ensuing academic year. The private schools promptly responded by freezing the proposed raise and reverted to the last year’s fees. This is a reasonable move.
The government also has asked schools not to insist on lump sum payments on quarterly, half-yearly and yearly basis, and not charge any extra fees for online teaching. These are all reasonable and acceptable.
We do empathize with the plight of parents who are economically vulnerable in a situation of this kind. Schools could be asked to give indigent parents concessions or scholarships, or leniency in the payment schedule. Govt may well insist that no student’s name shall be removed from the rolls of a school for non-payment of fees, and parents should be given a grace period of six or ten months to pay in instalments. That would be fair enough.
There will be parents who can afford to pay their children’s school fees. They consider it their primary obligation and duty. They know that the schools have their obligations not only to pay the staff, but also to meet all their overheads. Sadly, such parents may not be a large proportion.
Yet another consequence of the govt order will be that when the school reopens after a while, the fee arrears of parents who don’t pay now will accumulate making it a burden for them to pay. Parents are likely to clamour for concessions and exemptions and the like. The govt may again kow-tow to them, and play the saviour at the expense of the Schools. It will be all right if the government makes good this loss of fee income. Will the government do it?
Private schools are not shown in a good light in situations of this kind. A prejudice is created in the minds of the public about private schools. This is very unfair. Private schools play a significant role in the field of education. There might be a few here and there which are run on profit-motive. That does not mean that all the schools are exploiters. Let’s not paint all of them with the same brush.
Another attitude needs to be examined. People who often make a noise about fees and private schools are those with a socialist mind-set in which education must come free. They want all the benefits of the private school on the government school budget. They want the best of both the worlds. This is the hypocrisy behind the criticism of the private schools at every turn. They forget that quality comes with a price. Private schools are self-financing institutions and they subsist on the fees they charge from the parents. Sans fees, they will be bankrupt.
Education is the responsibility of the State, as per our Constitution. RTE (Right to Free and Compulsory Education) Act is anchored on this rationale. However, the State alone is incapable of fulfilling this responsibility, for reasons best known. That this yawning gap is filled by the private schools has to be acknowledged, by the public and the government. The govt has to show this magnanimity first.
If the Government treats private schools with due respect as fellow-travellers in achieving the objectives of good quality school education, the public perception also will change. Private schools do play a significant role in nation-building. This is a well-established and incontrovertible fact. Therefore, a symbiotic relationship between the two is desirable in the interest of quality education.
Prof Mathew C Ninan is the director of Little Rock Institute for Educational Leadership, Udupi