Chandigarh, April 21, 2022: While denying the relief sought in a writ petition by the undergraduate students of the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law seeking a reduction in tuition fee by 15%, complete waiver of amenities fee, campus development fund, moot Court fees and library fee as also a reduction to the extent of 75% in hostel rent payable during the session 2020-21, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that Courts do not possess the necessary expertise to interfere in the micro-financial planning of educational institutions and same is to be done by experts in the field.
Further, the Bench of Justice Sudhir Mittal held, “Simply because the reduction is not in keeping with the expectation of the students, it cannot be called unreasonable. Sufficient reasons [by University] such as the fee being composite in nature, non-availability of State grants and expenditure incurred on conducting online classes, have been given in support of the decision.”
The University was directed to “sympathetically” consider individual cases for waiver of late fee charges on the basis of the material produced before it. Further, the State of Punjab was also directed to objectively consider the release of arrears pertaining to the year 2019-20.
In this writ petition, the Court was dealing with the issue of whether the lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant curtailment of educational facilities entitle the petitioners to a reduction in the fee chargeable for the academic session 2020-21? Related to this question was the issue of the capacity of the High Court to issue directions to an educational institution regarding the manner of reduction of fees.
The petition was filed by the undergraduate students of the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (University). After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University was operating virtually and the student claimed that the classes were “irregular and erratic”. As the hostel premises were vacated and academic activities were curtailed, a representation allegedly signed by 726 students out of a total of 850 students of the University was submitted to the Vice-Chancellor and others, requesting for reduction/waiver of fees under various heads.
It was requested that part of the fee charged for the session February-2020 to May-2020 which remained unutilized be adjusted against the fee chargeable for the session August-2020 to December-2020 and that the fee chargeable for this session be also reduced as all facilities could not be availed by the students. A rebate on late fees was also sought. An identical representation was also made to the Dean of Students Welfare of the University. The matter eventually reached The matter was, accordingly, placed before the Finance Committee which decided not to go with the annual increase of Rs.5,000/- in tuition fee, for the academic year 2020-21 would be waived and that mess charges would not be taken till the mess started functioning.
A notice was issued to the students to deposit the fee for the next semester in accordance with the prescribed schedule. Unhappy with the decision, another representation was submitted followed by a complaint made before the National Human Rights Commission. A legal notice was also issued, but having failed to get the desired relief, the present writ petition was filed.
The case of the university was that the University is a creation of the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law Act, 2006 (Act) and is bound to function in accordance with its provisions. It was contended that the fee structure was approved by the relevant statutory bodies and the students were well aware of the same. It was also added that the fee charged under one head can always be utilized for another purpose.
On the charge of the hostel fee, it was added that all students were required to reside in the hostel in accordance with the provisions of the Act and while going home, they locked up their respective rooms, and possession thus remained with them and they are bound to pay the rent thereof. Rebate in late fees cannot be granted as the same is being charged to ensure that students pay their fees in time., argued the University.
The Counsel for the petitioners while referring to the Minutes of Meeting of the Finance Committee held in June 2020 (wherein the impugned decision was taken) argued that a sum of Rs.214.67 lacs was leftover from the budget for the year 2019-20 and instead of reappropriating the same, it can be utilized for giving necessary relief to the student.
Reference also made to another item thereof, whereby, a decision was taken to reduce the rent charged to 25% till the mess/canteen/shops reopened as the contractors thereof were not earning anything due to lockdown. It was argued from this that if contractors were given the benefit of a 75% waiver of rent, the students could also be given the benefit of a 75% waiver of hostel charges.
It was also contended that since the State was providing maintenance grants, thus, charging campus development funds from the students was unfair. Reference was made to the reductions made by the National Law Schools of Jodhpur and Gujarat, to the tune of Rs.24,500/- and Rs.63,630/- from the fee payable during the session 2020-21.
The submission thus was that (a) hostel fee be reduced by 75%, (b) tuition fee be reduced by 15% and (c) full waiver be granted of fee chargeable towards amenities fee, campus development fund, moot Courts and library facilities.
Before examining the merits of this case, the Court examined the question of whether the High Court possessed the necessary capacity to determine the actual utilization of fees charged under a specific head and whether it can decide that fees chargeable under different heads should be waived as expenditure under that head would not take place?
In this respect, the Court noted that petitioners did not place on record any data to establish that the fee under a particular head has remained unutilized and that the argument was raised on the basis of assumptions. On the other hand, the Court added that the University argued that although the fees were charged under different heads, it was a composite fee and was deposited in one and the same account.
The Court further noted that if there was a shortfall under a particular head, for example, library fees, the same could be offset through fees collected under other heads and that the figures in this regard clearly showed that a sum of Rs. 48,00,000/- was expended for providing software for use of students as against a collection of only Rs.16,00,000/- (approximately) and obviously, the shortfall was to be made good through fees collected under other heads.
Thus, the Court was of the view that it was not possible to determine with any amount of exactitude, the amount remaining unutilized on account of lockdown ad for the same reason, the Court held that it was not possible to determine the waiver of fee to be granted.
Further, on the competency of the court to decide such matters, it was concluded that the Court is not equipped to determine issues like the present one with any mathematical exactitude and normally, such disputes are to be decided by the relevant Regulatory Authority on the basis of the material produced before it. It was also held, in this regard that Courts do not possess the necessary expertise to interfere in the micro-financial planning of educational institutions and that the same is done by experts in the field and Courts can interfere only if, a decision is shown to be completely unreasonable and perverse.
Also, Justice Mittal asserted that simply because the reduction is not in keeping with the expectation of the students, it cannot be called unreasonable and that sufficient reasons such as the fee being composite in nature, non-availability of State grants and expenditure incurred on conducting online classes, was given by the University in support of the decision.
Thus, while answering the above-raised question in the negative, the Court held that no directions can be issued to the University to reappropriate the entire amount for giving the benefit in annual fee chargeable from the students.
Further, on the issue of the vacation of the hostels on account of the COVID situation, the Court opined that since important documents and personal belongings of the students were lying in the rooms thus the University would be entitled to charge rent. Further, the Court added that no parity could be drawn with the contractors running mess/canteens/shops etc. as on account of the closure of the University, their businesses suffered which was not the case with the students.
Regarding the unutilized fee for the semester, it was held that the same being part of the composite fee, could be utilized for other purposes such as for off-setting the expenditure for the library, being higher than the fee collected.
Thus, the writ petition was dismissed with the observation that the University shall “sympathetically” consider individual cases for waiver of late fee charges on the basis of the material produced before it. Further, the State of Punjab was also directed to objectively consider the release of arrears pertaining to the year 2019-20.