The Supreme Court of Pakistan recently delivered a detailed verdict on the lingering issue of fee hike in private schools. It struck down the increase in fee charged by private schools since 2017, and limited the annual revision in fee to only five-percent.
The SC bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa, in a detailed order states that private schools in the country had “excessively increased fee since 2017 in violation of the law”. The court urges private schools to either refund the increased amount or adjust it in future fees. “The regulators shall closely monitor the fee being charged by private schools to ensure strict compliance with the law and the rules/regulations. Complaint cells shall be set up to deal with complaints arising out of increase in fee in violation of the law/rules/regulations,” states the SC verdict.
“A welcome judgment, indeed,” says a parent Sajjad Ali. “We are happy. But, the key issue is its implementation.” Also, he doubts, the government will be a strong regulator.
The federal government has warned private schools against the violation of the SC order. “Private schools’ management should not exceed their limits and dare not flout the Supreme Court’s order,” said Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood. “Strict action will be taken against private schools if they increase the monthly tuition fee in contradiction of SC order.”
He added that the federal government would encourage parents to register complaints against fee violations. He also added that the provincial governments would be urged to take action against private schools that increase tuition fee above the prescribed five percent mark.
A subcommittee of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Federal Education and Professional Training has also urged the government to implement the SC ruling in accordance with the baseline fee from January 2017.
Defending a reasonable fee hike, Jaweria Sethi says, “Like any other commercial entity, the expenses of private schools also increase. Regular hikes in salaries, rent, exchange rates and inflation all add to expenses schools incur.” Sethi heads Edopia, a reputed private school in Islambad.
“Fee increases are necessary to keep our business sustainable. The ability of a school to sustain depends on a mix of other factors too, including student-teacher ratio and rent of the school building,” she adds. To her, any unjustifiable school fee increase must be questioned. “Regulation is important. It safeguards the rights of parents. Annual audits are important too. But sometimes regulatory authorities operate with blanket rules and policies.” She adds that there is too much emphasis on “fee” and not enough on the “quality” of education.
The SC judgment reads there is sufficient empirical evidence in the Auditor General’s report that points towards profiteering of big chains of private schools. The court also rules that it is cognizant of the hard work that many of the school owners have done. “But it cannot be without a regulator,” it adds.
In 2013, the federal government passed a law to set up the Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority (PEIRA) in the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). It was mandated to determine fees charged by private schools. This ‘toothless’ authority, however, has been unable to enforce the Private Educational Institutions (Registration and Fee Determination) Rules, 2016 — to register, regulate and determine fee of private educational institutions in its jurisdiction.
The Registration and Fee Determination Rules 2016 were challenged by some private schools, claiming that the government or a regulator cannot determine their fee structure. In June 2016, Islamabad High Court decided in favour of private schools. PIERA moved the SC against the judgment and the top court directed IHC to reconsider this decision. “The case is scheduled to be heard by IHC in October,” a PIERA official says.
Private schools pleaded before the court that the framing of rules to determine fee was against Article 18 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom to do business.
In the latest judgment, the PIERA official says, “the SC had clearly mentioned that this freedom is not unregulated. We are hopeful after this judgment we have everything. What we need now is political will.”