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Nirma varsity demand for higher fees 'illegal', violates Article 14: Letter to Gujarat HC

Counterview Desk
Students of Gujarat’s top private institute, Nirma University, situated in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in a letter to the Chief Justice the state High Court, have complained that the authorities are demanding “full fees” from students, without taking into account the “disproportionate impact” the lockdown has on the livelihood of students and families.
The students have complained that the varsity authorities have ignored the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) circular suggesting that higher educational institutions should address the grievances regarding fee payment in a ‘considerate manner’ in the present time of crisis “keeping in view the present Covid-19 pandemic.”
Worse, the letter, forwarded as an email alert without signatures of consenting students for unknown reasons, said, “To mock the misery of the concerned stakeholders, the university has outrightly conveyed on July 22, 2020 that ‘cost per student would go up’ in online learning methodology and that fee be paid on time to ‘avoid any inconvenience’. It also conveyed that, ‘in this regard no further communication shall be entertained’.”
It pleaded with the court to take suo-moto cognisance in the matter, asking the university to waive off a part of the fees being charged and refund the proportionate fee of those students who have already paid, insisting, the court should consider the varsity decision “arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional.”

Text: 

The students of Nirma University beg to submit that by circular dated 01-07-2020 [Annexure A], the institute is demanding full fees from all students. The notification has been issued without keeping into due consideration the practicalities. The in-question decision has been clearly passed without application of mind and giving due regard to the disproportionate impact the lockdown had on the livelihood of families of the students.
The relationship between a student and a college has two unique aspects. First, colleges do not provide a traditional service for profit as defined under commercial laws but serve a public good. Second, students do not have the same bargaining power as the college and thus the college has certain leverage over students. To this end, Covid-19 has highlighted such gaps in our education regulatory system and how it has negatively impacted the rights of students.
Here it must be noted that a fair balance would provide that if there is any reduction of cost, there should also be a proportionate reduction in the fees. If the benefit of reduction is not shifted to the students, it would lead to colleges earning beyond the standard set by the law and thus, would be considered illegal.
Hon’ble Supreme Court, in its 5-Judge Bench decision in Modern Dental College v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2016 7 SCC 353) has reiterated that a University cannot charge a fee that is beyond the purpose of fulfilling the object of education. In simpler terms, a university is not allowed to profit from running an educational institution. The Hon'ble Supreme Court has regularly reiterated that education is not a business but a charity.
Having such a moral outlook towards education has further allowed the Supreme Court to limit the scope of fees of colleges only to the extent of cost of running an institution and a reasonable surplus. Any income beyond this standard would be considered as profiteering which has been explicitly held to be illegal. In light thereof, it is fairly difficult to believe that the university is expecting to incur more cost than would have in any other normal academic year.
It is also saddening to note that the university has not found it just to reasonably explain its stance on the issue of fees or to make an attempt to justify the unreasonable non-relaxation provided to the student community. UGC has already released a circular suggesting higher educational institutions to address the grievances regarding fee payment in a ‘considerate manner’ in the present time of crisis keeping in view the present Covid-19 Pandemic. [Annexure B]
To demand full fees, which obviously includes numerous charges not being utilized in the online teaching, is arbitrary
The institute was functional only for one and a half months previous semester, for the rest of the time, the institute was closed and thus remained completely unused by students and for most of the time by faculties. But the university has unjustifiably failed to provide any reasonable explanation towards the refund or adjustment of ‘balance amount’ for the previous semester till date.
To mock the misery of the concerned stakeholders, the university has outrightly conveyed on 22.07.2020 [Annexure C] that ‘cost per student would go up’ in online learning methodology and that fee be paid on time to ‘avoid any inconvenience’. It also conveyed that, ‘in this regard no further communication shall be entertained’.
If the interests of students are to be fairly kept in mind in order to strike the sought-after balance, such a decision without taking into due consideration the realities and circumstances of students, is extremely regrettable and reflects a myopic approach to deal with the impending issues at hand. It is illogical, irrational and manifestly arbitrary to say that online teaching will incur more cost.
Violation of the right to equality is determined not by looking at the intent of the State action, but by its effect. The effect of a lockdown – with the shutting of establishments and physical workspaces, and bans on transportation – is disproportionately felt by numerous families of Nirma University students whose job description made ‘work from home’ impossible. This disproportionate impact, in fact, is directly linked to socio-economic class - a relevant ground under equality law.
Consequently, where the nationwide lockdown had disproportionate impacts upon the livelihood of student families, prima facie attracting Article 14; there exists a positive obligation upon the University to appropriately mitigate the disproportionate impact that has been caused by the state’s decision to order and enforce a lockdown.
The need for such positive obligations is also enhanced by the consequent and continuous abrogation of the right to meaningful existence under Article 21. Furthermore, to demand full fees as previously demanded, which obviously includes numerous charges not being utilized in the online teaching is sheer arbitrary. Therefore, the move is manifestly arbitrary, illegal and thus unconstitutional being hit by Article 14 of the Constitution.
Hon’ble Supreme Court in EP Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1974) 4 SCC 3 had held that equality under Article 14 of our Constitution had a substantive content which, simply put, was the antithesis of arbitrariness which pervades the entire constitutional scheme and is a golden thread which runs through the whole of the fabric of the Constitution.
Further, as per Rule 34A of Academic Regulations Published vide Notification no. NU-442, dated 27.1.2004 the fees of the university has to be decided by the Director General in consultation with the Board of Governors [Annexure D]. But as per the official website of Nirma University the last meeting of the board was conducted on 28-09-2019 [Annexure E].
This proves that the university is unwilling to change its fee structure even in these uncertain times. Furthermore, the prevalent situation indubitably warrants from the university to arrange and provide for special considerations in these unprecedented times. Appropriate relaxations are a bare minimum threshold that the University should have ideally met without any external calling.
The Institutes’ Student Grievance Redressal Committee on behalf of the students had submitted the fee related grievances to the Dean and Director of the Institute, but the same was not resolved by the concerned authorities. Apart from this the students also submitted a signed petition to the university.
If the University insists on charging the regular exorbitant amount of fees from all students, it will be failing in its duty to protect the students as a consequence of its unilateral actions which ultimately violates their right to access education.  
In view of the aforesaid, it is most humbly prayed:
  • that this Hon’ble Court be pleased to take suo-moto cognisance in the matter and may be pleased to stay the notification dated 01.07.2020;
  • that this Hon’ble Court may ask the university to waive off a part of the fees being charged and accordingly refund the proportionate fee of those students who have already paid; 
  • that this Hon’ble Court may ask the university to provide for an in detail bifurcation of fees; 
  • that this Hon’ble Court may be pleased to declare the notification arbitrary, illegal & unconstitutional; 
  • this Hon’ble Court may be pleased to pass any other Order as it deems fit so as to do complete, equal and fair justice to the students. 
We sincerely hope that this Hon’ble Court will be pleased to issue appropriate directions in order to avoid unfair, unjust and unequal treatment to the students.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I am a student of nirma university. The university is obliged to tell us about the expenses incurred in our teaching and also should justify with proper proofs for the complete fee demand. On the other hand the university reasons that the fee taken would be used to licence an online teaching software instead of leveraging free open source softwares. The university has spammed all the pleas and request by the students without taking into consideration the pandemic effects. It is running on a sole purpose of earning profits and doesn't comply to the betterment of the students or the parents as a whole.
Anonymous said…
Yes all private universities and schools must tell us how they spend our money. Many of their people don't get adequate salary. This education mafia syndicates need to be checked. Through the GB mechanism in name of autonomy they bypass all labour laws and social safety nets for employees. Harash sub ordinate staff. We must have an accountablity committee in such institutions with third party supervision.

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