Parents concerned as private schools evade regulatory oversight


–PSPA says private schools recovering lost revenue through ‘other charges’

–Salamat Foundation chief says court orders being followed in letter and spirit

LAHORE: Parents who have their children enrolled in private schools have hailed the judiciary’s proactive role in regulating tuition fee but have expressed concerns over school authorities’ evasion of regulatory oversight.

While many parents seem content with the five per cent lid imposed on the annual increase of tuition fees, there is considerable outcry over the lack of implementation of the Supreme Court’s (SC) orders.

Speaking to Pakistan Today, Sajjad Ahmed, a representative of Private Schools Parents Association (PSPA), said that while regulatory bodies such as Private Education Institute Authority (PIERA) and the District Regulatory Authority (DRA) were trying their best to ensure schools’ compliance with the apex court’s orders, some schools had either refused to share their financial details or had been charging extravagant “other charges”.

He said that private schools were doing this in order to make up for the loss of revenue they were facing as a result of the court’s ruling. He said that Roots International School had increased its ‘other fees’ by nearly 23 per cent since 2017 and DHA-E System in Islamabad, which was not even registered with PIERA, had refused to share its financial details with the authorities.

Ahmad expressed concerns over the way private schools were evading regulatory oversight despite the judiciary’s attempts to curb the “private school mafia”.

“Schools are more or less being run like profit-making enterprises and they look upon the SC’s intervention as encroachment on their freedom to do business, therefore, they are trying to exploit lacunas (within the ruling) which would allow them to make more money,” he said, adding that some schools had now divided the payment of the yearly fees over a three-term period, which allowed them to evade the oversight of regulatory authorities.

He added that he, along with other concerned parents, was filling a miscellaneous application against “the wrongdoings and violation of court orders committed by certain private schools”.

When contacted, Salamat Foundation Chairman Omar Salamat said that these claims were widely exaggerated. He said that the state agencies’ review of the audit reports filed by his institution and other private schools had revealed that private educational institutions were not largely profiteering entities.

He said that despite rising inflation and prohibition on downsizing, which led to financial constraints for the schools, they were still following the SC verdict in letter and spirit.

It is worth mentioning here that the impression of the SC’s interference in privately-owned businesses was also addressed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Asif Saeed Khosa, who during the hearing on May 9 had asserted that the SC was “not averse to the idea of doing business”.

“You can make good fortune and if you are making good money, so be it,” the CJP remarked.

Akram Ullah, a concerned parent who took part in the protest against school fee hike in Islamabad in 2018, told Pakistan Today that middle-class families have little option in deciding what kind of education and grooming they want for their children.

“Owing to societal pressure and shortage of schools offering quality education we are forced to send our sons and daughters to schools where foreign culture is openly espoused and encouraged. Children are made to celebrate Halloween and prom nights which drives a greater wedge between them and their families’ values,” he said.

“Unreasonable amount of money is charged by school administration in the name of carnivals and field trips, which have absolutely nothing to do with a child’s education,” he added.

These views were also echoed by the apex court bench during the October 16, 2018 hearing, wherein, Justice Sardar Latif Khosa had observed that class distinction was being encouraged between students of private and public schools.

Private schools have been on a collision course with the judiciary ever since the apex court upheld the Sindh High Court’s (SHC) decision of regulating annual increase in tuition fee.

On January 17, 2017, SHC ruled that private schools would only be allowed to increase tuition fee by five per cent and up to eight per cent annually with approval from regulatory bodies.

On October 16, 2018, an SC bench headed by Justice (r) Mian Saqib Nisar, who was the chief justice at the time, ordered at least 20 upscale private schools to furnish their audit reports.

However, audit reports provided by schools such as the Lahore Grammar School (LGS), Beaconhouse School System (BSS) and Bay View High School among others were found to have serious irregularities.

According to the report nearly Rs5.2 billion was on school budgets over the past five years. The report stated that Rs62 million was spent on salaries of directors and top officials while more than Rs500 million was spent on salaries of staff members alone.

The figures presented in the audit reports alarmed the three-member bench which was reviewing the case and led the former CJP to order the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to launch an inquiry into the finances of LGS whose accounts were subsequently seized by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).

On June 12, SC while upholding SHC’s decision also struck down its December 13, 2018 ruling which had ordered a 20 per cent fee reduction.

On September 13, a three-member SC bench headed by CJP Khosa declared that the school fee prevailing in 2017 as the base fee. The 65-page verdict also forbade schools to recover under any circumstances the amounts that were reduced in accordance with the SC’s December 13, 2018 ruling.

The verdict called for “school fees to be recalculated using the fee prevailing in 2017 as the base fee in accordance with the provisions of laws of Punjab and Sindh, respectively (adding annual increases permitted by the laws/rules/regulation) till 2019 and onwards. The process of recalculation shall be supervised by the regulators and only the fee charged by them shall be treated as the chargeable fee”.