Nirma University in Gujarat has demanded full fees from the students. The students are seeking directions from the High Court under Article 14. The alleged demand for full fees amid COVID-19 is arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional.
Brief Facts of the Case
The spread of COVID-19 has put a halt on all physical activities of various institutions. However, educational institutions have provided for online classes amid the lockdown.
Nirma University issued a notification on 01.07.2020 detailing the current academic year. It stated that the learning process would begin from 06.07.2020 and payment of full fees by 05.08.2020. The ‘full fees’ would include all the charges levied during normal functioning.
On 27.05.2020, the University Grants Commission issued a circular. It suggested that all educational institutions should have a ‘considerate’ approach in matters of fee payment. The universities must recognize and address the financial hardships of students.
Thus, the students wrote to the Gujarat High Court seeking appropriate directions.
Contentions in the Petition
The petitioners have challenged the university notification dated 01.07.2020. It gave no due regard to the impact of the lockdown on the livelihoods of the stakeholders. If there is any reduction in costs, the benefit must be shifted to the students via fee reduction. Any non- compliance would lead to surplus earning for the university. If the institution indulges in profit-making, it shall go against the law.
The plea also defined the two aspects of the student-university relationship. First, the universities do not provide services for profit under commercial laws. Second, the students have little bargaining power giving certain leverage to the universities. Hence, this highlights the gaps in the education regulatory system. These gaps create negative impacts on the students and their families.
The plea places reliance on the apex court judgment in Modern Dental College v. State of Madhya Pradesh. The 5- judge bench asserted-
“a University cannot charge a fee that is beyond the purpose of fulfilling the object of education.”
Hence, education is not a business but a public good. Moreover, the Court has limited the scope of fees to the extent of operations and a reasonable surplus. Any income beyond this standard would be illegal in explicit terms.
Further, the plea states that the university has not considered any refund/ adjustment of the fees collected in the previous semester. Besides, the university claims an increase in costs during the online academic year. It will be illogical and irrational to the high price of the online methodology. In fact, it is the myopic approach of the university while dealing with the exigency.
The plea also provides for violations of fundamental rights. The lockdown has affected everyone in many ways. There are students’ families whose livelihoods were dependent on physical workspaces and transportation. They are affected in different ways than other students. The disproportionate impact shall relate to the ‘socio-economic class’- a relevant ground of equality before the law. It shall prima facie attract provisions of Article 14 of the Constitution. If university charges regular exorbitant fees during uncertain times, it will also violate the students’ right to access education as under Article 21.
Prayer for Relief
The students are seeking suo moto cognizance considering the gravity of the situation. The university notification must be stayed as it violates the fundamental right of the students. The Court may direct a proportionate reduction of fees. The university must also provide a detailed fee structure accounting for prevalent expenses. The Court may also pass any other order to avoid the unjust treatment to the students.
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