Chennai's parents have seldom mobilised this way. Anti-management posters, slogans or road rokos are quite uncharacteristic of them. In fact, parent-teacher associations in many private schools here are known to take a rather pro-management position. But of late, they seem to have no qualms about voicing their dissent.

When I spoke to some of them to understand what has really sparked this sort of collective anger, they unequivocally said it was the feeling of being cheated. Not that private schools were charging any less earlier; but now since parents know how much fees these schools are allowed to collect, they resist any instance of an institution demanding more.

The regulation of fees charged by private schools began in 2010. After recurring complaints that certain private schools were charging exorbitant amounts, the state government constituted a committee headed by retired high court judge Justice K. Govindarajan to review the fees collected by the nearly 11,000 private schools in Tamil Nadu.

After what seemed like a hurried affair, the committee in May 2010, stipulated the new fee, calculated based on the expenses incurred by a school and the facilities they offered. Many schools felt the committee was being unfair to them, and went on appeal, seeking a revision of the fee structure.

Meanwhile, Justice K. Raviraja Pandian took charge as the committee's chairman in October 2010. The panel soon heard the appeals made by nearly 7,000 schools, and allowed certain revisions. Some schools were still unhappy and went to court. In August 2011, the committee got yet another new chairman, Justice S.R. Singharavelu, and conflict continues. A protest a day does not seem strange anymore.

When I happened to tell some of my teacher-friends outside Tamil Nadu about the fee regulation process here, they were quite surprised. In India, there haven't been too many attempts to restrict the fees charged by private schools. Private schools, over the years, have somehow earned the reputation of providers of good quality English-medium education. But as parents here know, ‘good quality, English-medium education' comes with a heavy price tag.  

What could have been a useful exercise to prevent schools from overcharging lost credibility along the way — thanks to unreasonably low fees fixed by the committee for some schools, and also because the committee had a new head every few months.

The much-hyped exercise was reduced to a joke as schools found newer ways to distribute the fee amount to different heads. The fee receipt of a class II student going to a matriculation school in Anna Nagar shows Rs. 8,100 as the first-term fee. Appended to it is another printed form stating that Rs. 3,000 would have to be paid towards the smart classroom facility. Most schools claim that much of their expenditure goes towards teachers' salaries, but they never hesitate to invest heavily in technology that can, at best, only supplement a teacher's contribution in the classroom. Teachers, on the other hand, say they are poorly paid. Parents, meanwhile, say education is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

The fee committee is in its last leg of hearing schools, and is expected to announce the new fee structure soon.

It should, at least this time, put an end to the chaos and revive its credibility by not only prescribing fee amounts that are commensurate to facilities schools provide, but also by taking up frequent reviews that ensure a fee structure that is fair to both private schools and parents who chose them with high hopes.

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012