New age education: students as consumers

Written by admin on April 19th, 2011

Legal File-New age education: students as consumers


There is a controversy raging about whether teaching and education can be treated as just another paid-up service. The law does bring education into the Consumer Protection Act, but ethics and values have to be borne in mind when we decide if schools must be hauled to court for the slightest deficiency in service.

The Supreme Court of India has always been of the opinion that imparting education is a noble profession and should not be commercialised. This decision has been underlined many times through several judgments. While deciding the case of University of Delhi-AIR 1993 SC 1873, Justice Gajentagadkar said:


“Education in its true aspect is more a mission and a vocation rather than a profession or trade or business…”

The said views were further re-iterated by the apex court while deciding the matter in Unnikrishnan, JP versus State of Andhra Pradesh & others (1993) ISCC 645:

“The cost of education may vary from institution to institution. Facility provided, equipment, infrastructure, standard and quality of education may vary from institution to institution. The old system of education in India was different from the modern system. The students had not to pay. It was thought that education is so sacred that no man ought to sell it. Knowledge should be given freely and without any price. The teachers used to take in students without charge and not only so, most of them gave their students food and clothes. To support these teachers, the wealthy families made gifts to them and they in turn had maintained their students.”

Facilities provided by schools, and the teacher-student-parent relationship has come into sharp focus lately with incidents in Delhi where two students from two

different schools lost their lives due to alleged negligence by school authorities in treating their illness and getting them medical help in time.

Shanno Khan, an 11-year old student of a government-run school in Delhi was made to stand in the sun by her teacher for more than an hour after she failed to recite English alphabets. She slipped into coma and later died.

Postmortem report said that Shanno did not suffer from any external injuries on her body. Therefore corporal punishment by the teacher could not be confirmed. The child may have died due to respiratory failure, which could also be because of epileptic seizure. Action was demanded against the teacher as the physical punishment she gave to the student could have prompted the collapse.

In the second case, Akriti Bhatia, a class twelve student of the upmarket Modern School in Delhi died as she was being taken to the hospital from her school after she complained of breathlessness. Akriti had a history of asthma and was administered oxygen in the school. There were protests from Akriti’s family and fellow-students who demanded resignation of the school principal.

Both cases have some contrasts and some similarities. If Shanno came from a poor family and studied in a government-aided school, Akriti’s case got a lot of media attention and support for the family because she was the student of a posh school. Both cases allege negligence by the school authorities. There have been several other cases before where students have suffered physical harm or have died either because of negligence or punishment from teachers. Parents have been awarded compensation when a child has drowned in the school swimming pool because the pool was unattended by a trainer. The courts held it was deficiency in service as schools charged handsome fee for the students’ academic education, sports fee, swimming training fee etc.

While it is only natural that a school swimming pool should not be left unattended, the other cases raise a few questions about how much medical aid a school can keep ready everyday for thousands of students. Every school must have medical first aid facility and in Akriti’s case, the school also had nebulizers for asthmatics but it is sometimes hard to tell exactly how serious a medical situation is. In government-aided schools where students sometimes do not even have chairs and tables, is it really possible to have extensive medical aid for students? And what is the parents’ responsibility when their child has a special medical condition? All these questions need to be answered before we make it an open and shut case and pin the blame squarely on the school or the teachers.

One reason why parents and students tend to take schools and colleges to court for deficiency in service is that education today comes at a very high financial cost. There are schools which offer air-conditioned coaches to their students for travel and mid-day meals from five-star hotels. This gives education a tinge of ‘glamour’ and the schools are seen as a place for luxury or leisurely activity, rather than how schools have always been—a place for imbibing values. When parents pay lakhs of rupees as their children’s fee every year, surely they feel it is their right to demand the highest quality of service. While Shanno’s economically-disadvantaged parents have accepted their daughter’s death as their fate, Akriti’s parents have whipped up media interest in the case by demanding the Principal’s dismissal. The question in the latter case is, exactly how much service should education institutions be supposed to provide, given the fact that they charge exorbitant fees for the students’ education. Are the parents at fault for not going over the list of promised services with a fine comb? Can parents really exert such pressure on the school so as to keep the school management on the toes all the while? A teacher meting out corporal punishment to students is completely unacceptable. In earlier years, if a teacher was stern with his/her students, the students and parents just had to bear it. Now, teachers have to face the consequences of their actions in the court of law.

The commercialisation of school education has a major role to play in the perception that schools are no more than commercial shops. The respect associated with the job of a teacher has declined over the years. From the guru-shishya parampara of yore where parents handed over their children’s lives to the gurus, trusting them implicitly; the situation has deteriorated to teachers being ridiculed and hauled to court for their misdemeanours.

A teacher does need a certain space and freedom to be able to impart education and instil values in her/his students. If the teacher is always going to have the fear of parents’ associations, school management, media and funding lobbies at the back of her mind, she would hardly be able to give her students quality education. It is true that education, in the twenty-first century, is a paid service, but teaching is at the same time a profession where the teacher has to exercise her own discretion and make her own decisions about what’s best for the students.

Our social circumstances have changed and as far as the law is concerned, there have been landmark judgments pronounced by eminent judges like Justice Krishnan Iyer, Justice Matthew, Justice Chanderachud, Justice Bhagwati and Justice Desai who have explained the theory of dynamic living law as an instrument of judicial creativity and social reform.


Dr Premlata

The author is member, Consumer Court, Delhi

Students are consumers: says the law


There was a time when educational institutions put forth the argument that since students are part of their institutions, they cannot be termed as consumers. This they did to wriggle out of the Consumer Protection Act and Consumer Fora net. After several rounds of arguments and counter arguments, the courts finally settled the issue by saying:

“A student is a consumer when he pays a fee and other charges for services received at an education institution. Therefore education institutions are indeed service providers under the circumstances.”

Coming to the question of the relationship between the institute and the student, education institutes have their own terms and conditions, their own system and style of management, of which a student is never a part. Students are bound by their rules and not the part of the management or decision-making. There is no contract between the school and the students of a service provider and a service buyer. Therefore students are consumers under the Consumer Protection Act 1986.”

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