Random musings…
The ones that got written down.

school fees during lock-down and the rationale… (or the absence of one thereof)

a few years ago, almost 12 now that I think back, I walked into the ITC Grand Maratha for a coffee, my first french press… I walked out lighter by 1500 bucks. I knew what I was walking in for and I did not complain about the price because I paid more for the ambience, the music, the hand towels in the washrooms and the beautiful lilies, gladioli and assorted orchids in the decorations… I did vaguely rationalize that it was obnoxious to charge me that much because I could always have walked into a Starbucks and walked out with three bags of espresso ground single source coffee and enjoyed it at leisure with my beautiful view of the sea in my own balcony for a full one month twice a day… but then again I paid for the ambience not for the coffee alone… there was a justification

Today, almost twelve years hence, I feel similarly conflicted… not exactly ripped off but certainly at a stage where I feel this is not exactly right. School fees demands during the lock-down from the kids’ school have been that persistent buzz in the inner ear. We had decided to pay up pretty long back, knowing full well that the politicians and filthy rich trustees did not start a school to listen to the rational advise of parents. They got there by being heartless, ruthlessly political and frankly we as parents do not have any voice whatsoever. So yeah we had decided to pay. In fact I even spoke to the accounts department asking for the annual fees figure. So much for being obnoxious they never really raise an invoice, you call up and find out or there is an amount printed and pasted on some obscure wall somewhere in school, get your numbers from there.

Then came the protest that a few parents were trying to muster up to make a stand against the giants. In all fairness I’ve been there, tried my hand at trying to tame the bullies and understood it’s a lost battle from the get go because schools are relentless, you have zero, less than zero chance of succeeding against these modern day Goliaths. I have seen one of the parents pass away recently due to Covid-19 and all his life he tried to win this battle of introducing rationality in school fees and associated expenses. There is no winning with the astute establishments that schools have become. And yet, parents are gullible creatures they live in hope. How rude would it be to go ahead, jump the queue and pay up when the poor hopeful folks were busy fighting the school. We decided to wait it out, hold on to the cheque books a little longer, let the parents all try their level best, stand shoulder to shoulder with them and pay only when they disband and give in.

Past almost 7 months schools have been closed. Of these roughly 40 days was summer vacation and the rest has been a veritable hodge podge of online classes. The school, like almost all schools, argues that teachers have to be paid and we are conducting classes for your children, online. For the elder one that’s two hours of MS Teams and for the younger one around 1 hour, a day. With all due respect, your services have been deficient. Whatever reason you give the bottom line is, deficient services. You may argue that the salary bill still needs to be paid and that schools are not here to do charity… do consider the fact that parents are also not here to do charity. Why should we foot your salary bills? It’s like ITC Grand Maratha calling me up and saying “sir I know you did not have coffee at our establishment these past twelve years but then we need to pay the florist, the waiters, the barista and so many more people… we know you passed by a few months back and since the aroma of our coffee was in the air around our premises why don’t you send us 1500 bucks for the notional coffee that you had”… Same as schools proffering the argument that “we know regular school is off but we’ve had to scale up our teachers on the online platform and now they are taking 2 hours of classes for the elder kids and one hour for the younger ones… they can do more hours but Government has restricted us to these numbers… so please pay up the full fees”… School is not just about teachers explaining a few facts or students appearing for some exams. School is about the ambience the camaraderie and the emotive elegance of being with people who are collecting at school for the same purpose, learning, learning not just about a subject but also about life and living with our fellow human beings as well. That is not there anymore. In essence school is reduced to the aroma of coffee outside a Starbucks… and parents have to pay for that.

Had the school maintained its dignity and behaved like a school all these years parents would not have been feeling so, so ripped off. Schools have turned into purely profit mongering institutions for the past few years. So much so that where school fees at one point used to be 2% of your monthly income it is today close to 10%. And this is not even considering the frequent extras that you need to pay. The turning of a school into a business has been a model that has been adopted across the country most swiftly. All of a sudden every school is an International school. Appear the part before actually attaining nirvana… much like appear to be religious before actually understanding religion… essentially fake it till you make it baby is the new age mantra. In such a scenario expecting respect for the institution is like expecting to keep a straight face when presented the bill at a hospital… or not flinching when reading 11500 against raan biryani on the menu at ITC Grand Maratha (the whole goat would be for lesser but then at ITC I am paying for the ambience).

As for parents, there really is no option. You decide to take your child out of the school and put her into a school that is not similarly money minded… well good luck with finding a school today that is not going to come across as a grubby pawed sleazy maniac trying to feel you up on a crowded train… you decide to home school, that could work but then that’s pretty much all you would end up doing over the forseeable future… you decide to skip school and set them up a business instead great that could work after all almost all great businesses have been created by school drop outs (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Dhirubhai Ambani) and 1% of businesses do succeed in the real world so yeah hope floats… essentially education is the basic requirement, where will you go? What will you do if not send them to some or the other school?

All that talk about government will bring in a legislation to scrap school fees for this year is hot air. The government is comprised of political parties, these political parties are made up of dyed in the wool politicians, these politicians are on the trustee boards or directly own most of these high end schools that there are and they are not going to allow any such move. At best they will allow deferment which is the same as telling parents “go take a hike” (putting it mildly because some parents and principals who read this might be offended by the eff word). Politicians are more concerned about their bottom line the citizen can take a hike. So relying on that ever materializing will at best be an exercise in delusional thinking you might end up being clubbed in the charsi gang by Doorknob.

A very nice ploy that the schools have resorted to is to ask people who are asking for a reduction in fees to present the income tax details of the past two years and the PAN card details of both parents so that the school can decide whether to give any relief or not. I strongly feel this is the sort of under handed stuff that one needs to learn to survive in this world. My tenants at a 3BHK house that I lease out did not pay rent for five months, I did not ask them for any of these income proofs I just asked them what was comfortable for them and ended up reducing the rent by 40%.. they still did not pay for two months and eventually I had to adjust the reduced rent in the deposit amount when they reluctantly vacated after the agreement expired (no not poor people just milking the tragedy)… similarly I assessed my own land lord at the place where I stay on rent and figured his business of real estate is suffering badly, I did not ask him for two years of tax returns statement and income proofs to decide, I just continued to pay the same rent that I had been paying all along without even asking him for a concession. But the school, oh boy, the school is amazing they have politics in their veins not blood. They straightaway knew how demeaning it would be to ask self respecting people for the income proofs and how utterly embarrassing it would be for people to ask for a fee reduction because they were not earning enough. So do this first and eliminate the self respecting folks first. Utterly and completely underhanded skullduggery. They know which way to tug at the most vulnerable part of a parent and tug they do… mercilessly and without any concern.

The point is not that most of the parents fighting for a fee reduction cannot pay the usual school fees, why should they is the point. School services like those of a restaurant, a gym, Uber the neighborhood Halwasia halwai have been shut down and are deficient. End of story. You are a business not a temple where people will continue to pay obeisance. My own business is down 60% and yet I am not flinching because my objective is to ensure I pay my dues to the best of my abilities and I can be generous as well to the best of my abilities. I have more than enough if people ask me politely. But when someone starts trying to twist a knife in my back, tries to act all “what after all is your alternative Mr. Khan” then I will be at least difficult with you. I had written to the school a couple of months back asking for a reasonable reduction in fees maybe to the tune of 25% so that parents feel that the school was being fair. The school came back with “we are conducting online classes”. Ok then! carry on trying to get me to pay. Online classes is not worth the bill you’ve given me, no sir not even close. So now let’s play “who blinks first”.

When all this is over and children start going back to regular school even then it might not be ok to return to the sort of extortionist mentality that schools have developed over the years. However that point in time is at least an year away. The best bet for parents and schools is to find a middle ground. Reduce fees by at least 25% across the board and allow parents who are genuinely affected to negotiate further. Failing this I feel schools are being extremely greedy and opportunistic. I for one will not support paying up just because the school asked for it. Might as well do the charity at PM Cares or some other avenue and make sure that the money reaches people who need help rather than schools that are just lining their pockets in the middle of an adversity. Some opportunistic parents might choose to disagree and would even have jumped the queue to pay up and get into the good books of the school. But for me and for my kids education begins at home. We do not let a bully win without a fight.

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