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The Court was dealing with pleas filed by unaided private educational institutions against a GO contended to have "virtually" halted institutions from collecting fees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
The Madras High Court today allowed private educational institutions to collect 40% of tutition fees from students by August 31 as an advance fee, clarifying that this fee is to be calculated based on the tuition fee collected in the previous academic year i.e. 2019-2020 (Arockia Madha Matriculation HSS and ors v. The Chief Secy and anr).
The interim order was passed on a batch of petitions filed by unaided-private educational institutions against a State Government Order passed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. The GO was challenged for having virtually halted the collection of fees for the 2020-’21 academic session.
In light of the concerns raised by the petitioners and the need to balance the same with the interests of parents and students, the Court has issued the following directions:
40% of the tuition fee as an advance fee should be paid before 31 August, with the tuition fee amount determined according to fee payments of the preceding academic year.
35% of this year’s fees can be collected once schools resume their regular functioning, within two months of reopening,
Outstanding fee amounts from the previous academic sessions (if any), to be paid before September 30.
Acknowledging the uncertainty prevailing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice N Anand Venkatesh observed today that, “This deadly virus is not going to leave us by fixing any date as an outer limit and it is not known for how many more months we are going to face the present situation.”
In the meanwhile, the judge added that, "The education of the students cannot be put on a hold endlessly and they have to be engaged in studies.”
While noting the enormous economic impact that the pandemic has had on earnings and livelihoods, the Court stated that it could not decide on all of the issues raised in the pleas.
Resultantly, it was necessary to prioritize the issues which require immediate attention, Justice Venkatesh noted.
The Court observed that unaided schools depend on fees collected from students during the academic session to remunerate their staff and begin functioning. However, they were unable to collect the same because of the Government Order.
On the other side is the burden that tuition fees impose on parents with straitened means during the pandemic period, it was noted.
The petitioners had submitted that reserves and contingency funds were being used to pay staff salaries. Justice Venkatesan observed that the process could not continue indefinitely.
Each instalment was to comprise 25% of the tuition fee, as per the State proposal. However, this was opposed by the petitioners, who argued for a higher percentage to be collected in the first instalment.
Responding to their concerns, the Court increased the amount payable in the first instalment to 40% and directed for the remaining amount to be paid within two months after schools reopen physically.
Inter alia, the Court further directed that:
Students who have paid the entire fee amount can not claim a refund;
The Fee Committee already constituted is to initiate the process of determining the fee payable to each private unaided institution in the State of Tamil Nadu, beginning in August;
Teaching and Non-Teaching staff may not seek increments in salary until the situation eases/ after further Court Orders
Further, directions were issued to the Government to make academic supplies available to students from households facing financial difficulties.
This direction is issued purely in the interest of the students who should not be deprived of education due to their inability to purchase text books and note books, the Court said.
Before parting with the matter, the Court also clarified that the directions issued to the Fee Committee would not come in the way of institutions who have challenged the Committee’s jurisdiction and have pleas pending before the High Court or the Supreme Court.
The batch of pleas has been posted for further hearings on October 5, 2020.